Newswise — When off-the-rack messages about the dangers of drinking and driving were falling flat, officials in some rural Wisconsin communities gambled on a more unconventional tack advocated by a retired University of Wisconsin-Madison business professor.
The result: a potential 17 percent reduction in drunken driving crashes in the three communities that tried "social marketing" of safe-ride programs - including limousine rides -- to bar patrons.
Michael Rothschild, an expert in social marketing and emeritus professor in the School of Business, says the approach uses commercial marketing techniques to change social and public health behavior. Social marketing aims to get a target market to stop "buying" an undesirable behavior, in favor of a new, more acceptable one.
"If we say, 'Don't drink and drive,' and they see no benefit or way to change, they will continue to drink and drive," Rothschild says. "We needed to offer them an alternative, a better deal. They really do care and are scared of drinking and driving. They do it because drinking is a big part of what small-town life is about, and because there generally is no other way to get home at the end of the evening."
Rothschild led an effort to develop a ride program that would meet the needs of a target group - primarily single men aged 21 to 34 - and give them added reasons to use the service.
Attitudes of the patrons were probed in 11 focus groups that met in the back rooms of taverns. Seven other focus groups gathered the opinions of expert observers of these patrons - including police and sheriffs, bar owners and employees, judges and emergency medical technicians.
Research in Polk County showed that bar patrons would not ride in just any vehicle, Rothschild says.
"The patrons told us that their cars were very important to them. They said, 'You need to give us a ride in a vehicle as good as what we have.' And, they wanted to be able to drink and smoke in the car," he says.
Program organizers in Polk County bought some used limousines, and their program took off. Meanwhile, Dodgeville organizers began with old vans, but weren't getting many riders. When they saw what happened in Polk County, they went out and bought a used limo, an old Cadillac and a used Lincoln Town Car, and their ridership also started to increase.
Rothschild says that bar patrons often misjudge their ability to drive after a night of drinking, and don't want to deal with arranging rides and picking up their car from a tavern parking lot the next day. "They told us that if we want them to ride home with us, we'll need to first give them a ride to the tavern, so they won't have a car with them," Rothschild says.
For $5 to $15 a night, bar patrons can use the service, called the Road Crew, and never climb behind the wheel of their own cars.
"All of a sudden, blue-collar guys are getting a limo ride to go and drink," Rothschild says of the program, which was funded through grants from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and Miller Brewing.
"If they take a ride with us, they can drink as they did before as long as they're not interested in the driving part," he says, noting that the Tavern League of Wisconsin also partnered on the project.
The program - originally run in Polk County, the Dodgeville area and Tomah - is continuing to operate in Polk County and Dodgeville, where ride fees make it almost self-sustaining.
Martha Florey, assistant to the director of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Safety, said social marketing has shown measurable effects.
"We're in the business of behavior change," Florey says. "This project showed that social marketing can work. It's more than just slogans. It can provide an attractive alternative to undesirable behavior."
During a test period from June 2002 to June 2003, a total of 19,757 rides were given to potential drunk drivers in the three communities, and they are estimated to have prevented 15 alcohol-related crashes from occurring - a 17 percent reduction.
Rothschild says he compiled data showing that there was not a change in alcohol consumption because of the program, only a change in driving behavior. In addition, the program has been shown to be cost effective. While it costs a community an average of $56,000 for each alcohol related crash, it only cost $15,300 per crash that was avoided.
Rothschild feels that the results in Wisconsin could easily be transferred to other states in areas that lack late-night public transportation to get patrons home safely from taverns.
"Messages alone aren't working. They tell people how to behave, but don't help them accomplish that behavior," he says.
For more information on the program and for tools communities can use to implement similar programs, visit http://www.dot.wisconsin.gov/library/publications/topic/safety.htm and scroll down to "the Road Crew."