This video was broadcast in London last month. It is graphic and it depicts what can happen when you are distracted while driving.
American safety advocates, concerned about the dangers of texting while driving, have enjoyed a boost from an unlikely source: the chief constable of Gwent, a small county in southeast Wales.
The Gwent Police Department produced a film on the subject to be shown in Welsh schools this fall. And with zero promotion by the police, a gory, explicit four-minute excerpt from the film went viral and has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube and other sites.
In the video, a young driver texts as she drives two friends along a two-lane road. Distracted, she lets the car drift into oncoming traffic, slams into a car and watches another car crash into her vehicle, killing her friends.
It is the stuff of American worst-case driver-education films, but the Welsh video goes further, with close-ups of a girl’s head slamming against a car window, and the blank stare of a baby in one of the cars.
Some American organizations are making their own ads to publicize the growing awareness that texting and driving is dangerous, but most avoid such violent imagery. Though the Welsh video has clearly struck a chord, some safety advocates maintain that blood and gore is not the best way to stop drivers from doing something that is legal in most states.
The Welsh ad, and the ones that American groups are making, are giving new life to a longstanding debate in public health circles, where campaigns have tried threats, emotional pleas or implied social pressure to urge people — often unsuccessfully — to quit smoking, be vaccinated, stop using drugs or wear seat belts.
In Gwent, the police department wanted to update its previous safety film, on joyriding. “We asked young people what was the thing that they thought was now the most dangerous for their age group, and they said mobile phones and, in particular, texting,” said Mick Giannasi, chief constable of Gwent police.
Using a hand-held phone while driving is illegal in Wales and the rest of Britain.
With a small budget, about $20,000, the department put together a 30-minute film that included the crash scene.
“Young people were telling us, ‘It needs to be more shocking, it needs to be more violent, it needs to be more truthful,’ ” said Peter Watkins-Hughes, the film’s director.
Its popularity has startled the filmmakers, who posted the excerpt on YouTube only to show a colleague. But they said they were thrilled that the ad was getting attention.
“The reality is, if we want our message, which is a lifesaving message, to cut through, we have to adopt certain strategies,” Mr. Watkins-Hughes said. “In this one, we’ve gone for grim reality.”
And while it has drawn attention, others doubt whether it will change anything.
“When you look at something like cellphone use or texting, most people already know these behaviors are not safe, but they do them anyway,” said Anne T. McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group financed by auto insurers. “But the challenge in highway safety is that we do unsafe things day after day and don’t end up in a crash, and so I think, over time, people go back to their everyday behaviors.”
Many experts argue that violent, threatening ads need additional elements to be effective.
“The guilt model does work fairly well in young people,” he said.
But a violent ad must also instruct people on how to change their behavior, otherwise, “to erase the fear quickly, you say, ‘That’s not me,’ ” Professor Tay said. And just because an ad is popular does not mean that viewers will change their driving behavior, he said. One reason that violent ads may not work as well is that teenagers are already well aware that some activities are dangerous, said W. Kip Viscusi, who has studied risk for decades and is a professor at Vanderbilt University.
That is why he is skeptical about the effectiveness of the ad.
“It goes back to, ‘What are you trying to accomplish with the warning — are you trying to inform people, or are you treating them like lower beings that have to be shocked into the way you want them to behave?’ ” he said.
“I don’t think you need to show the car crash,” he added. “You show what happens in terms of what the driver’s looking at, how they’re missing a lot of what’s going on on the road when they’re focusing on their BlackBerry or iPhone.”
He said the popularity of the video excerpt was most likely due to its graphic nature. “The shock aspect ultimately may obscure the texting risk message,” he said.
The current texting-while-driving campaigns in the United States take emotional or funny approaches, and avoid the violence of the film from Wales. In a message from the National Safety Council that began running online in June, promoted by billboards nationwide, a crash is described, but for emotional effect.
“Our youngest son, Joe, who was 12 years old at the time, was trapped in the car,” David Teater, who is now an executive at the National Safety Council, says in the video. “He never regained consciousness. And we found out that a young lady had run a red light while she was distracted on a cellphone.”
The Advertising Council, which coordinates the industry’s pro bono efforts, takes a lighter tack. It has been running a spot since early this year that approaches the subject with humor, showing the comic actor Fred Willard threatening a teenage driver that he will “haunt you silly” if he does not pay attention and stop texting.
It is part of a larger campaign about teenagers and reckless driving, and humor simply works better with that group, said Peggy Conlon, the Ad Council’s chief executive. That was a lesson the council learned after running the famous, and much-mocked, antidrug campaign “Just say no.”
“Adults thought it was really wonderful, but kids kind of felt like they were being scolded,” said Ms. Conlon, who said the group now avoids finger-wagging ads with teenagers.
Still, many advocates say they believe that campaigns are not a substitute for more direct action. Several are calling for help from the cellphone industry.
Cheryl Healton, chief executive of the American Legacy Foundation, a group that specializes in antismoking efforts, suggested that cellphones could show a prompt on their phones, reminding people not to text and drive.
Kelly K. Browning, executive director of the advocacy group Impact Teen Drivers in California, has suggested an idea, Star 65 to Stay Alive, to AT&T, in which the company could set up a code of *65 to disable incoming calls and texts, and send automatic response messages like, “I’m driving right now. I’ll get back to you when I’m off the road.”
“Really, technology is the best way we can address it,” Mr. Teater, the National Safety Council executive, said. “It’s going to be hard for people to just say no. They’re going to need help.”
Public safety advocates say that another element is necessary to decrease on-the-road texting: laws.
“What we have found again and again in different areas of highway safety is that education alone may have a short-term effect, but in the long run, people need to believe there are going to be legal consequences attached to their behavior,” Ms. McCartt of the insurance institute said, citing seat belt and drunken-driving programs. “What really gets people to change their behaviors is strong laws, strongly enforced.”