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Last week, the California Highway Patrol and California Office of Traffic Safety unveiled their newest Public Service Announcement Campaign encouraging drivers not to drive while distracted.    Using zombies as the protagonist, the ads attempt to link unsafe driving practices to the driving dead.

The ad-campaign is based around research showing that talking on a cell phone increases a driver's distraction by 35%.  Thus, drivers that are talking on the phone are reverting to a zombie-like state endangering all other road users.

The campaign has drawn a fair amount of media attention, websites such as LAist and news channels such as ABC 7 have written and broadcast the PSA's to their audiences.  In that way, the campaign has already had success, but I worry that the ads themselves miss the mark on several points.

Let's take "Mobile Zombie" first:

In this ad, the zombie driver is comically engaging in multiple acts of talking, texting and reading his i-pad or other such device. The driver almost never looks at the road and certainly isn't doing so as generic crash noises sound in the background and we fade to black.

There are several issues in this ad, but as with the other ads, I worry that it misses too many target audiences. I don't doubt that there are many drivers who do drive in this ridiculously unsafe manner, but most of these drivers consider themselves super drivers who don't cause crashes.

And those people that use a hands-free car phone setup, or are rocking out on the radio? The people who's actions cause them to be 35% more distracted than other drivers? They are left off the hook. Yes, shoving a sandwhich in your mouth while drinking a soda while talking on the (non-hands free) phone, as illustrated in Grubbin Zombie, but so is having a container of fries open on the seat next to you and nibbling on them even if you never take your eyes off the road. By focusing on the top 1% of unsafe drivers, the ads let the other 99% off the hook.

One of the most effective P.S.A. campaigns of all time did change driver behavior. In the 1980's, drunk driving and the crashes, deaths and carnage caused by drunk drivers was actually somewhat tolerated. I had a great-uncle that used to brag that he could "drive better drunk than most drivers can sober." Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups managed to change the conversation through a series of education campaigns and the simple "someone drinks, someone drives, someone dies" campaign. The message was simple, uncluttered, and to the point.

In recent years Departments Of Transportation, including LADOT, have stuck to simple themes with dramatic ads that attempt to change the subject of driver misbehavior by focusing on the victims of distracting driving. LADOT actually won an Emmy for their "Watch the Road" P.S.A. that introduces us to an eight year old girl playing soccer moments before she's smashed by an innatentive driver. While that ad spreads the blame between the girl and driver, it also makes clear that the adult behind the wheel is, well, is the adult. A second ad shows the driver, who "only took his eye off the road for a second," trying to emotionally put his life back together.

Ultimately, the end value of a P.S.A. campaign is reliant on a lot of factors, including the biases and sympathies of the person at television stations who makes the decisions which P.S.A.'s to air. But with a limited amount of space to air these advertisements, messages need to be sharp, to the point, and lasting. Do you think these announcements do any of those three things?

Can't get enough zombies? Don't worry, there's more. There are zombies putting on their makeup (and talking on the phone), zombies doing work (and talking on the phone), and zombies partying (and talking on their phone.)

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