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PSAs like this helped curb drunk driving–can they do the same for driving while high?

The Ad Council’s latest slogan is, “If You Feel Different, You Drive Different.”

PSAs like this helped curb drunk driving–can they do the same for driving while high?

A man and woman sit on a couch amid a cloud of smoke. When she asks him to chop up a pineapple, the scene flashes forward to one reality: Him wrecking the kitchen. “Nope, I’m high,” he says. “How about I wash off the grapes?” In another, the woman tosses the same man the keys to go get food. He misses the catch, cuing a better idea: Why not just order in?

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The tagline of the Ad Council’s latest public service campaign about the dangers of stoned driving is, “If You Feel Different, You Drive Different.” It’s a serious message, but given the target audience, it’s also being delivered with a hit of humor.

The point is that–in addition to causing the munchies–ingesting cannabis slows your reaction time. “As more states across the country are legalizing marijuana, we know that marijuana-impaired driving is emerging as a road safety issue,” says Michelle Hillman, the Ad Council’s chief campaign development officer.

The effort began in response to concerns from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which has worked with the Ad Council to large success for decades. Since 2005, its anti-drunk driving campaign, “Buzzed Driving Is Drunk Driving” has contributed to a 20% decline in alcohol-impairment-related driving deaths. Yet unlike booze consumption, this campaign, which was created pro bono by Reprise Digital, is rolling out while still only a handful of states have legalized marijuana. So it may also be viewed as a cultural marker for just how acceptable marijuana use has become.

Based on the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Heatlh, about 22% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 had used within the last 30 days. That’s up from 17% in 2002. “The hope here is that this national campaign will help us change the cultural conversation around driving after marijuana use. We want people to realize that this is universally unacceptable behavior,” adds Hillman. “So we’re not making a judgment call about whether people engage or not. That’s not really for us to decide. But if you are going to engage with marijuana, we don’t want you to get behind the wheel.”

While the agency’s statistics don’t account for the impact of recent state legalizations, an outdated National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) roadside survey conducted in 2014 found that 13% of people who drive on weekend nights were under the influence of marijuana. That’s nearly a 50% increase since 2007. At the same time, plenty of research shows that the drug negatively impacts motor skills and the ability to multitask–both crucial for effectively piloting a motor vehicle.

Proving that this results in more significantly more crashes is tough because of a confounding variable. Per the NHTSA website:

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NHTSA’s Drug and Alcohol Crash Risk Study found that marijuana users are more likely to be involved in crashes. However, the increased risk may be due in part because marijuana users are more likely to be young men, who are generally at a higher risk of crashes.

To that end, campaign is orchestrated to resonate with everyone, but especially young men and those edging toward middle age. Hillman says different tactics like fear or statistics-driven messages were tossed out, in part because some drivers actually believe they drive better under this particular influence. “We really needed to create something where [marijuana users] can see themselves in everyday scenarios and interactions,” Hillman says. “This isn’t about right or wrong, but really just making sure that if people are engaging with marijuana, that they’re not getting behind the wheel.”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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