So apparently AT&T, as part of its "It Can Wait" campaign to discourage against texting while driving—you've probably encountered some of their obnoxiously devastating (devastatingly obnoxious?) previous PSAs on TV, the radio, or the YouTube—has managed to enlist no less than Werner Herzog himself to direct a short documentary on the subject. Not only that but, in a show of solidarity, the other major wireless carriers—Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile—have also joined in and attached their names to this new film.
I am loath to categorize this post under my "Movies" section, since it's really just a 35-minute PSA, but it's either that or "Uncategorized."
As PSAs go, however, it's quite powerful, as indeed were all of AT&T's previous efforts. And if it's not too insensitive of me to say, I also found it at times oddly, inappropriately amusing in its blend of solemn tone and somber message with footage that far too honestly captures human beings at our most unimpressive. I don't mean the images of perpetrators overcome with guilt at the side of the road but rather the human interest story-esque introduction to a blacksmith, who, through no fault of his own, contributed to the deaths of two other men, when their vehicle was spun into his, after first colliding with a driver who was texting. I mean, really, was it necessary to visit this blameless man at his ranch, catch him with his horses and his cowboy hat, and have him proudly reflect upon his rustic lifestyle and values, before asking him to recount one of the worst moments of his life? I suppose there's a sub-narrative here about the technology's encroachment upon nobler, now dying ways of life (and also, yes, apparently the guy is never without the cowboy hat). Mostly, as with Grizzly Man, I think it evinces the documentarian's deep reverence for even our thoroughly human foolishness.
But, as a PSA, is it effective? I must say, I'm skeptical of the efficacy of any of the videos in this entire campaign. Yes, the message is right and good, and I'm quite over caring about any conspiracy theories concerning AT&T's less-than-noble motives behind it. I personally never text—neither send nor receive—while driving, nor do I ever answer my phone while at the wheel—not even while moving very slowly in the parking lot. But that just seems like common sense to me. I'm pretty sure, on an intellectual level, everybody recognizes that texting while driving is dangerous. These PSAs then try to drive that message home on an emotional level. The problem, however, is that I don't know how likely most young drivers are to identify with the perpetrators in the ads. They're not depicted as awful people, but at least some of them are confessed to have been habitual texters while driving. Other than that, we don't know a whole lot about them. One thing that is consistently emphasized is that they were "average Joe" types, the message being that it could just as easily happen to you or me, which, one supposes, is the right way to go. Or is it?
In truth, I think, when a person chooses to text while driving, it is not that they are unaware of the risk but rather that they think themselves better than the odds. It's especially easy to convince ourselves of that when these PSAs give no indication that the perpetrators featured are in any way "above average" as human beings, leaving us much room to label them "below average," never mind that we are catching them on their knees at their most admittedly small and pathetic, which can have the unintended effect of making them seem actually kind of dumb. Of course, the takeaway is supposed to be not that they texted while driving because they were dumb, but rather it was that they texted while driving that made them dumb, and doing so would make you dumb too. But what is the likelihood that a smartphone-owning driver—one irresponsible enough have considered texting while driving in the first place—will default to the latter conclusion over the former?
I'm not saying AT&T needs to look for a more impressive set of perpetrators to feature in its PSAs. I just think this message is one that is really hard to convincingly communicate through other people's stories. It would probably be far more effective to make every prospective driver take part in a practical exercise that could somehow show just how impaired their attentiveness becomes when they are answering texts while at the wheel. Perhaps you could run a simulation, where the student plays a driving video game, while, at the same time, a phone receives texts periodically, which the student must read aloud to a proctor. If the student didn't realize on their own how badly they were doing, their score would shortly prove how impossible it is to read the texts without severely impairing their ability to perform at the driving game. I don't know how feasible such a thing would be to set up, but it would probably make for a good lesson on the counterproductiveness of multitasking in general.
Then again, I also never smoke and have never wanted to. I've always thought it common sense that smoking is bad for you and everyone around you. But maybe that's really just the message that was drilled into me from an early age—at home, in school, on after-school TV, and even in arcade games. If they show these PSAs to kids—drill the message into them well before they ever get to drive OR text—it just might work.