`THE designated driver is the life of the party.'' That message seems to be making an impact on Martha's Vineyard, a summer resort island off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. It's a light-hearted slogan for a serious subject: drunken driving.
Storefronts all over the island display bright, festive, posters sporting the slogan, bars and restaurants post table-top cards with the message, and the words flutter behind airplanes providing aerial advertisements over popular beaches. Carly Simon, Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, and Art Buchwald - summer residents of the island - recorded public-service radio announcements in support of the project. The spots have been played on the island's radio station all summer.
This barrage of advertising is part of the Harvard Alcohol Project's National Designated Driver Campaign, developed by the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Mass.
``The Martha's Vineyard project is our first attempt to learn how to mobilize a local community around drunk-driving prevention,'' says Jay A. Winsten, director of the Harvard Alcohol Project, which was founded in 1987.
The program is based on the premise that the designated driver concept can be marketed to the American public in the same way as Budweiser, Dr. Winsten says.
The idea of designating a driver to abstain from drinking alcohol and provide safe transportation was invented in Scandinavia several decades ago, according to Winsten.
Martha's Vineyard was chosen as a laboratory to test the marketability of the designated-driver concept. Although the island's year-round resident population is only 14,000, it swells to 70,000 people each summer. That includes large numbers of teenagers and young adults, among whom drunken driving is the leading cause of death.
With 22,000 deaths per year due to drunken driving, designating a sober driver has great potential to save lives.
The all-island Martha's Vineyard initiative is expected to provide a model for community-based campaigns throughout the United States promoting the idea of designating a driver. ``Out of our experience on the Vineyard,'' Winsten says, ``we'll be writing a practical, hands-on guidebook to advise communities elsewhere in the country on how to replicate the Vineyard's experience.''
Using advertising, marketing, and public relations strategies, the project has launched a sophisticated public-awareness campaign. In addition, local business leaders have banded together to promote the concept.
Peter Martell, the owner of two popular nightclubs on the island, the Hot Tin Roof and the Lampost, offers free soft drinks to designated drivers. ``I hatched the idea that we could stamp the hand of a person who has decided to be the designated driver of a group,'' Mr. Martell says. For the rest of the evening, that person receives free soft drinks.
Liability laws in some states hold nightclub or bar owners partly responsible if patrons leave their establishments drunk and drive dangerously. ``It's a buck a soda, big deal,'' Martell says. ``That's cheap insurance.''
In response to stiffer penalties for drunken driving, Martell has seen a change in his customer's drinking habits over the past five years. People are drinking less in general and switching from hard liquor to beer, he says. ``We're serving a lot more beer than we ever did and this is the reason for it,'' Martell says.
Although club and bar owners can help promote the use of a designated driver, customer participation is the bottom line, according to Martell. He is pleased with the project and plans to continue asking groups to designate a driver. ``The mechanics of it work very well and the customers are slowly getting educated to it. ... It gives somebody a legitimate option.''
Law enforcement on Martha's Vineyard has always been strict in regard to drunken driving. But recent roadblocks on the island suggest that the designated driver campaign is having an effect. A state police department roadblock last month provided evidence of the campaign's impact.
During a Saturday night roadblock, officials stopped more than 200 cars. Of those, 12 drivers told the troopers that they were the designated driver for the night. The drivers of these cars were obviously sober, while the passengers had clearly been drinking, according to Lt. Robert M. McCarthy of the Massachusetts State Police Department.
Drunken-driving arrests have declined on the island this summer, according to George Searle, chief of the Edgartown Police Department.
Although it's difficult to substantiate progress in a public-relations campaign of this sort, Martha's Vineyard is buzzing with discussion of the issue.
The next step is the formation of a task force of community leaders that will be put in place this fall, according to Winsten. This group will help draft the guidebook and address the issue of preventing drunken driving on a long-term basis. The task force will build on the summer's campaign in an effort to institutionalize a commitment to the designated-driver idea, Winsten says.
The goal is to solidify a new social concept in the United States. ``We need a social norm that goes beyond the risk of arrest and conviction for drunk driving,'' Winsten says. The appeal of the designated driver idea is multifaceted, he says. ``It gets past the negative dictum `Don't drink and drive.' It offers a positive solution - a step to take. It's not perceived as anti-alcohol. On the other hand, it tends to lend social legitimacy to the nondrinking role ....''
The impact of the designated driver idea is gradually becoming apparent, even among young people. Michael Sibley, a 19-year-old student at Wesleyan College in Middletown, Conn., summers on Martha's Vineyard with his family. He speaks of a definite social evolution in favor of responsible drinking: ``If my friends have been drinking, usually we'll steal their keys from them and drive them home. It's sort of expected. If one of my friends were drunk, I would be sort of looked down upon as a friend if I let him drive.''
THROUGH the work of the National Designated Driver Campaign, this social evolution is showing up regularly on prime-time television programming. Winsten has lobbied TV producers in Los Angeles and requested that they weave changing attitudes about drinking and driving into scripts. ``We weren't asking them to portray a social norm the opposite of reality,'' he says, ``but rather to reflect changes that had begun and in so doing to add momentum to those changes.''
The response from the producers proved better than expected. Over the past two TV seasons, 80 prime-time episodes included at least a few lines of dialogue about the changing view of drinking and driving. In many cases, entire scenes or episodes have been based on the issue. Programs giving air time to the idea include: ``L.A. Law,'' ``Cheers,'' and ``Knot's Landing.''
Meanwhile, Gallup polls have been tracking public response. In September 1988, 62 percent of respondents said they regularly selected a designated driver when out drinking. By June 1989, 72 percent said they designated a driver.
``I don't take the numbers literally, but I take the trend as significant,'' Winsten says. ``The numbers are probably strongly biased by the respondent's desire to give the socially acceptable answer.... But even if that's true, the trend would reflect a major shift in the public perception of what the socially acceptable answer to the question is, and that's the very important first stage in a much longer-term process of changing social norms.''