Young drivers rolling eyes at gridlock of anti-DUI ads

August 27, 1996|By Karen Avenoso | Karen Avenoso,BOSTON GLOBE

They have heard about "designated drivers." They've been pressed to "just say no." They have seen the "Don't Drink and Drive" signs dozens of times.

As teen-agers have grown weary of all the famous anti-alcohol slogans, it's become tougher for educators to reach them.

In part, the campaigners against drinking and driving are a victim of their own success: Since the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, in 1980 -- and the designated driver campaign that was started by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and picked up by Hollywood -- the number of 15- to 20-year-olds killed in alcohol-related crashes has dropped by about 60 percent.

But with slipping statistics has come a sense that the drinking-and-driving problem is no longer pressing. Nationwide, membership has decreased in organizations like MADD.

And students' attentions have turned to other public health crises, such as smoking and AIDS.

To jar people out of complacency, activists say they have had to use stronger, savvier tactics and to expand their overall message. Increasingly, educators are addressing the range of problems -- such as violence, rape and suicide -- that can be a consequence of alcohol abuse.

The slogan "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" is being rephrased as "Friends don't let friends drink."

Activists have also tried to expand their message by linking alcohol to other dangerous behaviors beside reckless driving.

"We lose the big picture when we only focus on car accidents," said Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Drinking can lead to date rape, violence and all kinds of other risky escapades."

Despite these risks, the main push in the campaign against underage drinking remains focused on automobiles. And advocates are trying on strategies that are generally more aggressive than those from the movement's early days.

"Giving out bumper stickers and putting up signs just doesn't work anymore," said William Cullinane, executive director of the national office of Students Against Drunk Driving, or SADD.

At the national MADD office in Irving, Texas, officials tried to shake people out of their apathy by launching a major public relations campaign around a set of disturbing national statistics: In 1995, the number of people killed by drunken drivers increased for the first time in 10 years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But that same year, as the overall number of fatalities rose by 4 percent, it dropped almost 6 percent for 15- to 20-year-olds. The continuation of a steady decline means that many teen-agers have never known someone killed in an alcohol-related car crash. As a result, many SADD chapters are trying forms of "shock-therapy" to make the problem seem more real to jaded teen-agers.

In many schools, Cullinane said, a SADD member dresses up as the grim reaper, tapping someone on the shoulder once every 23 minutes (the rate at which drunk driving crashes take a life, according to SADD officials).

Less graphic but equally bold are the MTV-influenced campaigns produced by National MADD. A multimedia instructional video, soon to be shown in schools, stretches across three screens. A T-shirt, produced in response to Budweiser advertisements using an animated, child-friendly frog, has a crushed frog and the slogan: "Be wiser than your Buds. You might get smashed."

Activists are also trying harder to reach out to adults.

"Holding monitored drinking parties and reinforcing the designated driving message is really just denial on the part of parents," said Paul Jones, the creator of a Boston peer education campaign against drunk driving. "Kids shouldn't be drinking safely because they shouldn't be drinking at all."

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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