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Sitcoms seen as vehicle to influence public's driving behavior

Although he says that "the mission is harder now," a man at the core of a seminal media campaign more than two decades ago doesn't see why a repeat performance, altered to better accommodate 21st century changes in the viewing audience and its habits, can't work once again.

The man at center stage in what is hoped to be a successful shaping of a new social norm nationally is Jay Winsten. The subject is the creation of a new public perception regarding distracted driving, driven through television entertainment programming.

Winsten's goal: to cut back on car accidents and the personal devastation visited many thousands of times each year on individuals and families by motorists' acts of wholly inattentive driving. Distracted driving is a national -- and growing -- crisis that Winsten says results from "a combination of visual and cognitive distraction." That distraction kills several thousand people nationally each year, and injures nearly 400,000 others. Ohio, like all other states, is hardly exempt from the tragedies that occur from drivers being preoccupied with mobile devices and other activities while in motion.

Winsten is a Harvard dean and communications pioneer who worked closely with television producers and actors in the 1980s and 1990s to impart safe-driving messages on popular TV programs such as The Cosby Show and Cheers. Fictionalized characters engaged topics in plots that centered on driving while intoxicated and the wisdom of using a designated driver. The results were deemed highly successful in changing the public's perceptions.

Winsten says that there is no reason why a repeat performance can't obtain similar results in molding mass thinking about distracted driving. He has a lot of residual good will in Hollywood, and he plans to make use of it.

So don't be surprised to see upcoming television episodes on popular programs both overtly and more subtly imparting messages that distracted driving is hazardous, not smart and simply uncool.

Source: Harvard Gazette, "HSPH's Winsten aims to shift drivers' focus toward safety," Alvin Powell, May 20, 2013

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