MELISSA BLOCK, host:
All this week we've been reporting on efforts to make the roads safer. Today, we're going to hear about distracted driving: People driving while talking or texting on a cell phone. It's a clear risk on the roads, but people still do it all the time.
As Nate DiMeo reports, safety advocates are trying to fashion a strong message. And they are drawing from the fight against drunk driving.
NATE DIMEO: Chuck Hurley was working at the National Safety Council in the late 1970s, which means he spent most of the Carter administration feeling like he was banging his head against the wall, trying to get people to get serious about drunk driving.
Mr. CHUCK HURLEY (CEO, Mothers Against Drunk Driving): It was literally a joke on late-night television. It was normal behavior. It's how people got home.
DIMEO: At least, he says, until people heard one victim story on the news and seemingly everywhere else over and over again.
(Soundbite of movie, �M.A.D.D.: Mothers Against Drunk Drivers�)
Ms. MARIETTE HARTLEY (Actor): (As Candy Lightner) God, I don't want to have died in vain.
Unidentified Man: Mariette Hartley stars in the powerful true story of Candy Lightner, the crusading parent who decided to stand up and fight by creating M.A.D.D.: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Mr. HURLEY: It really electrified the country both in terms of public policy, but also in terms of morality. It really became immoral to drink and drive.
DIMEO: Chuck Hurley is now M.A.D.D. CEO. He says with distracted driving the public policy changes are coming very quickly. Texting while driving, for instance, is already banned in 19 states. And that's just a few years after most people even sent their first text. But a change in attitudes might take something more. It might, you could say, take another Candy Lighter.
Ms. JENNIFER SMITH (President, Focus Driven: Advocates for Cell-Free Driving): My name is Jennifer Smith and I am the president of a non-profit organization called Focus Driven - sorry - Focus Driven: Advocates for Cell-Free Driving.
DIMEO: Jennifer Smith can be forgiven for flubbing the name of her non-profit. It is literally brand new. Just last fall, her mother Linda was killed by a driver on his cell phone. In her grief, she says, she looked for a group to join. Something that was like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She says when she didn't find one, she realized that she was the right person to start it.
Ms. SMITH: You know, my mom's story was the perfect example, you know, not to mince words, you know, but it was such a cut-and-dry case. He was on the phone for less than a minute. He was driving for less than a quarter of a mile and he just didn't see the light. This could've been anyone.
DIMEO: Smith says M.A.D.D. was successful because it kept telling stories that replaced statistics with real people. So Smith has been telling hers in interviews. She'll be on an upcoming Oprah alongside the young man who killed her mother and in front of lawmakers alongside the family members of other victims.
Ms. SMITH: We do have to make it illegal because that's going to be the big thing with people as well. It may be wrong, but it's still legal, so it can't be that wrong.
DIMEO: People love their cell phones and distracted driving is still late-night joke fodder.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")
Ms. TAYLOR SWIFT (Musician): (As character) Teens have gotten a lot of flak recently for DWT or Driving While Texting and it's true, driving while texting can be very dangerous.
DIMEO: This is 19-year-old pop star Taylor Swift spoofing public service announcements during a recent "Saturday Night Live."
Ms. SWIFT: That's why I founded Teens Raising Awareness About Awful Parent Driving.
DIMEO: This is the kind of thing that exasperates Priscilla Natkins of the Ad Council. She recently developed an actual public service campaign targeting teen drivers.
Ms. PRISCILLA NATKINS (Ad Council): If you have credible sources saying, you know what? It's not such a problem, it makes our challenge that much more considerable.
DIMEO: The Ad Council's campaign tries to tap into the power of peer pressure. So rather than telling kids to stop texting or get off the phone while driving, it asks them to remind their friends not to do it. She says she wants her new campaign to work as well as an earlier set of ads with a similar message.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man: When friends don't stop friends from drinking and driving�
(Soundbite of crash)
Unidentified Man: Friends die from drinking and driving.
DIMEO: She says that people will only really change their behavior if they're afraid of doing something bad to others. It may be personal guilt as much as legal guilt that ends up saving lives.
For NPR News, I'm Nate DiMeo.