NHTSA Launches National Ad Campaign to Combat Texting and Driving

More Than 3,000 Americans Killed Annually by Distracted Driving

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On Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will roll out the first federally funded ad campaign to combat distracted driving.

NHTSA's agency, The Tombras Group, will launch an $8.5 million, integrated ad campaign starting next week to urge drivers to stop texting while driving. The theme: "U Drive. U Text. U Pay."

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The first TV spot in the campaign shows three young people laughing while driving together. The young female driver takes her eyes off the road to answer a text message -- and blows through a stop sign. Suddenly, a speeding truck plows into the car from the side. In slow motion, we see glass shattering, the driver and passengers heads snapping back and forth and even a shoe flying out of the window from the impact.

Later, we see a police officer investigating the deadly accident: "Nobody likes to be stopped by the police. But if I'd seen her texting and driving, and given her a ticket, it just might have saved her life," says the cop.

Another version shows the same crash but omits the cop at the end. We see the car lying in a tangled heap as the message flashes on the screen: "If You're Texting, You're Not Driving," with the hashtag #JustDrive.

The grisly ad is reminiscent of similar campaigns from around the world, but not quite as heart-breaking as the "It Can Wait" effort last year funded by the major mobile carriers in the U.S. That one included a documentary directed by Werner Herzog. Featured in the film -- and in 30-second ads -- was Xzavier, a child struck and paralyzed by a distracted driver; Reggie Shaw, who hit and killed two scientists in Utah in 2006; Debbie Drewniak, who was put into a coma when a driver veered off the road while texting, and Chandler Gerber, who killed three children when he drove into a horse-drawn carriage carrying an Amish family.

At any given moment, approximately 660,000 U.S. drivers are using their cell phones while driving, according to NHTSA. The results are deadly: 3,328 were killed in distracted-driving crashes in 2012. Nearly 80% of teens and young adults admit to reading text messages behind the wheel. Texting has become so ingrained with younger people, research shows they feel obligated to send and read text messages, even while driving.

That's why Tombras is going out of its way to target adults 18-34 with the campaign. Besides the usual TV and radio ads, the shop will use BuzzFeed and YouTube to reach millennials. There's a dedicated website at Distraction.gov as well as a push on Twitter tied to Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

"Our biggest challenge is reaching such a large audience of young-adult drivers in a limited time period," said Alice Mathews, managing director of Tombras' Washington office, in a statement. "TV is still a vital component of the campaign, but we have to take a multi-platform approach to reach Millennials where they consume the most media."

Tombras has been NHTSA's agency for 11 years, creating prevention campaigns such as "Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over" to combat drunk driving and "Click it or Ticket" to encourage seat belt use. Tombras worked with other NHTSA subcontractor shops on the campaign, including: Crisp Communications, Culture ONE World and HUGE.

For the NHTSA, the prevention campaign could also help change the subject from the General Motors ignition-switch recall. Along with GM and its CEO Mary Barra, NHTSA has been under fire in Congress and the media for failing to catch the faulty ignition switches that have been inked to a dozen deaths over the last decade.

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