Stories Save Lives

“Designated Driver

Jay Winsten is an associate dean at The Harvard School of Public Health. He was the driving force behind the Harvard Alcohol Project, which introduced and popularized the social concept of the “designated driver” in the United States. In the late 1980s, Winsten, learned about the “designated driver” norm that was prevalent in Scandinavian countries. At the time the norm did not exist in the United States; nobody knew what a designated driver was. But within three years after Winsten launched the “Designated Driver” campaign, 90% of Americans were familiar with the term. Thirty-seven percent of those polled said they had acted as a designated driver, and 54% of frequent drinkers indicated that they had been driven home by a designated driver. How did Winsten do that? What was the secret for his phenomenal success? 

Winsten did not start by writing a reasoned treatise on the perils of drunk driving. Nor did he debate with senators in an attempt to enact new laws. Rather, he used stories. Winsten seeded the new idea by collaborating with Hollywood producers, actors, and writers from more than 160 prime-time TV programs to insert designated-driver moments naturally into plots. He always requested “just five seconds” of dialogue featuring the designated-driver idea.

Segments featuring the designated driver appeared on shows like Mr. Belvedere, The Cosby Show, and Who’s the Boss. A designated-driver poster also appeared on Cheers. In one episode of the 1990s hit series LA Law, the show’s star asked the bartender to call his designated driver.

The Cheers set with the designated driver poster

The Cheers set with the designated driver poster

Winsten’s strategy paid off. The behavior contagion among Americans to designate drivers has been credited for saving tens of thousands of lives due to alcohol-related traffic fatalities. And it was accomplished through story.

Power of Storytelling

Winsten’s success is consistent with Kendall Haven’s research on the power of story across fifteen fields including the cognitive sciences, neurological sciences, and developmental psychology. Haven concluded that everyone learns from stories.1 Not a single piece of evidence contradicted the premise that stories are universally effective and efficient for teaching and learning. While it is true that some adults do learn best by abstract propositions presented in lectures and outlines, all of us learn through story.

Stories that weave truth in the midst of character, challenge, and purpose helps everybody learn, even the most educated.

1Haven, K. (2007). Story Proof: The Science Behind the Starting Power of Story. Westport, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited.

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