By Doug Gross, CNN
(CNN) – Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, was watching the Olympics with his daughter when she saw it — an ad featuring a man in a wheelchair suffering from a severe brain injury and holding a sign with the text: “Where r.”
“This is the text message that caused the car accident that changed my life forever,” the man said.
According to Stephenson, the ad did its job.
“She said, ‘Dad … that’s heavy’,” he said. “I said, it’s supposed to be heavy. It got your attention and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The ad, from AT&T, is part of the mobile company’s “It Can Wait” campaign. First launched in 2009, the campaign aims to curb texting and driving, especially among young drivers. It will be ramping up between now and September 19, or what the campaign is calling “No Text on Board — Pledge Day.”
AT&T is asking all Americans to visit ItCanWait.com and take a pledge to not text behind the wheel on or before that day.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, texting while driving increased 50% in one year (2010), when 20% of all drivers admitted to texting or sending an e-mail while driving.
Teens report doing so at more than twice that rate, with 43% admitting to doing so in an AT&T survey.
People texting are 23 times more likely to get into an accident than other drivers, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
Several AT&T competitors, including Sprint and Verizon, have their own anti-texting-and-driving campaigns in one form or another, a fact Stephenson said he welcomes.
“If it’s just AT&T owning this issue, it doesn’t get the traction it needs,” he said. “This is a dead-serious issue and I don’t mean that as a pun. People are dying … we just need everyone to get after this and reverse this trend.”
But with the ads like the one Stephenson watched with his daughter, AT&T’s campaign has been most visible. Stephenson makes no apologies about the frank nature of the ads, another of which features a woman sharing the one-word text she’d sent to her sister, who was reading it behind the wheel when she flipped her car and died.
“I don’t think you’re going to move the needle without making people uncomfortable,” he said.
Others supporting the campaign include the National Safety Council, National Organizations for Youth Safety, wireless-industry trade association CTIA and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
As to the pledge, Stephenson acknowledges that such efforts can be spotty in terms of verifiable results. But anything that draws attention to the problem is a plus, he said.
“We’ve all made these pledges, and some stick and some don’t,” said Stephenson. “But just the act, the effort of going to a website and taking the pledge … now you’re aware.”