I saw the billboard for the first time when I was driving to my job interview a few weeks ago. I wasn’t sure I had read it right, but it sure sounded creepy. “Let’s get ice cream after you paralyze us.” What in the world was it about? I tried to put it out of my mind and focus on the job interview.
I drove past it three more times, first on my way to Chicago, then to Michigan, then just to the Quad Cities. Yes, it said what I thought it did, but I still couldn’t figure out what it was about. The words were apparently handwritten on a large piece of paper, held by someone sitting in the back seat of a car, and seen by the driver looking in the rearview mirror. (Which means that the person who wrote the sign had to write it backwards.)
Was it about using the cell phone while driving? Or worse, texting? I know those are big issues right now. But someone using the cell phone or texting wouldn’t be looking in the rearview mirror. And why the reference to ice cream? My first thought had been that the people in the back seat were the driver’s children, but children don’t generally use sarcasm that way.
Today I saw the billboard again, on my way to my new job. (Which means I will drive past it every day now.) I finally got a good enough look to see the text below the picture: “If your friends drive recklessly, say something.” OK, so it’s about reckless driving in general, not necessarily using a cell phone or texting.
But what I found myself wondering most, as I drove on down the highway, was how long I had looked away from the road in order to read that sign. It’s on the left side of a divided highway, so I had to look away from the road in front of me longer than if it were on the right, where it would be more or less in my line of sight as I drove.
It’s eye-catching enough that a driver is going to see it, going to react with surprise and look again to figure out what it’s really about. Why in the world would people who want to promote safe driving put up a billboard that distracts the driver so much from the road?
I Googled it tonight to find out who is behind it, and what other drivers’ reactions are. It’s part of the Speak Up Or Else campaign, aimed at 15- to 20-year-olds, and is designed to get passengers to speak up when the driver – one of their peers – is driving recklessly. The ad campaign in general may be good, and I hope it is effective, but I question the wisdom of that billboard – especially the placement of the one I now see every day.
The Ad Council, which is one of the organizations behind the campaign, also has a separate campaign against texting and driving. An overview of the campaign points out that “The average text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for nearly five seconds.” I am pretty sure it didn’t take me that long to read the billboard today, but that’s partly because I’m an experienced driver and I knew enough to let it go by without managing to read it clearly the first few times. If I were a teen driver, would I have waited until the fifth trip by to get the full message?
Innovative ad campaigns may be a good tool to combat reckless driving. But reckless billboards don’t help.