“GOBBLE GOBBLE, GO EASY ON THE THROTTLE!”
“SOME BUNNY LOVES YOU. DON’T TEXT & DRIVE,”
“LEAVE THE GETTING LIT TO THE TREE, DRIVE SOBER.”
If you spend any time at all traversing the highways of Rhode Island, you know of the cheeky, often holiday-themed signs that deliver messages asking drivers to make good choices when they get behind the wheel – whether that means putting your phone away or being extra cautious in a work zone.
While these may seem like nothing more than silly statements on signs normally used to announce lane closures and traffic predicaments, they are actually an important part of a 10-year plan to make the highways safer, a challenge undertaken by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Highway Safety Division shortly after Governor Gina Raimondo was elected in 2016.
The 10-year plan aimed to take a data-driven approach, which comprised about 200 different components related to implementing safety improvements primarily through better legislative measures and increased public outreach. Once they started looking at the numbers, Alviti said that DOT felt they had to begin approaching highway safety from a different angle.
“It became very apparent to us as we looked at the data that the real problems that exist with people dying on our highways were more cultural than they were structural,” said Peter Alviti, DOT director. “You look at the contributors of most accidents, and overwhelmingly it is driving under the influence and distracted driving. That opened a line of questioning that brought us in the direction that we should begin to devote more of our resources to cultural change.”
Cultural change, to Alviti, isn’t about convincing people that drinking and driving or driving while distracted is bad (because that is an obvious fact), but is more about empowering people who have the ability to prevent themselves or someone else from making an obviously bad decision from doing so.
“We’re trying to create a program that will conjure the discussion,” he said. “If we can pose the need to do something about it in a humorous or serious or even in some cases pointed way, then all that we’re looking to do is conjure up that discussion that people have about these issues so they can self-realize how foolish it is to get behind the wheel while impaired or to be distracted while you’re driving.”
With their new safety strategy in mind, DOT has launched two different media awareness campaigns – “Beyond the Crash” last year looked at automobile accidents from the perspective of first responders who must witness their devastating effects firsthand; and their new “Ripple Effect” campaign kicked into gear late last year around the holidays, which shows the domino effect of suffering that happens when somebody passes away from a drunk or distracted driver.
These campaigns are part of an overall goal of reducing the number of deaths attributable to distracted or drunk driving to zero. Alviti said that DOT has no illusions about how challenging that goal is, compared to the more overt solutions required by crumbling physical infrastructure.
“Of all the things we do here at DOT this has been, for me, the most difficult one; to create a plan that will be effective,” Alviti said. “The bridges and roads, they’re easy compared to cultural change. They’re concrete, they’re steel, they’re dollars that have a certain science or strategy around their use or implementation. Cultural change is so much harder.”
Alviti said that he believes the signs have accomplished the goal of generating conversation – both supportive and less so – among the millions of people who see them each month as they travel along the most populated corridors in the state.
“Positive or negative kinds of discussions that happen on social media or around the water coolers about what we’re doing is great, as far as we’re concerned,” he said. “In some cases we’ve offended people, and that conjures up a whole other discussion. But at least at the core of the discussion is the issue that we’re trying to address, right?”
The actual sayings on signs are imagined by DOT personnel, their corporate partners and even social media – a team effort. “We compile a list and sift through it and see which one catches the most interest,” Alviti said, adding that his personal favorite of late has been a road work awareness sign which pleads for people to be careful around “Bob,” who wears orange and wants to do his job safely.
Alviti said that measuring the success of the campaigns is another part of the challenge, as it is difficult to measure something abstract like whether or not a public outreach campaign is effectively landing for its target audience.
However he said that partnerships with the RI Department of Health has provided DOT with the help of epidemiologists, who are able to approach driving fatality data with a larger picture of cultural factors in mind.
Additionally, Alviti said that legislatively the department is looking into seeing if it would be possible to simplify accident reports to remove personal information but still enable the department to see if an accident was caused by a DUI or distracted driving sooner, so they can add the crash to their data collection efforts quicker.
“We’re working on both of those things here to try and give us better measurement tools so that we can tweak our 10-year plan continuously,” Alviti said.
Also coming quickly on the horizon is a change in state law going into effect on June 1, which will make it illegal to hold a cellphone while behind the wheel – regardless of if you are texting or simply making a phone call. Alviti said that measures like this are increasingly necessary for a time where distracted driving is so often the cause of tragic accidents.
“People are tempted by the phone, by the coffee next to them, by the iPad that might be on the front seat and get distracted from what they actually should be doing - which is just driving,” he said.
While the road to zero deaths from preventable causes will likely be paved with setbacks, difficulty and more tragic loss of life, Alviti is proud that they are taking a comprehensive approach to curbing needless deaths on the roads of Rhode Island. However, no amount of efforts from government agencies can supersede the independent responsibility of the citizens themselves.
“The bottom line message is when you make that singular decision, or if you are if you are next to someone or with someone or can in any way affect someone about to make that decision, then we’re all responsible,” he said. “We’re all responsible for helping someone or helping ourselves make the right moral decision before you get behind the wheel. The lives that it takes are our families, our sons, our daughters, and it’s needless. It’s so needless.”