The concept of the “designated driver” was originally developed in Scandinavia during the 1920s. Seeing that alcohol-related traffic fatalities were the leading cause of deaths among individuals ages 15-24, the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication imported it to the U.S. in 1988 with the creation of the Harvard Alcohol Project. The Project hoped to spread the idea of a person, uninhibited by alcohol, should take charge of the wheel. They wanted everyone in the country to know this was a viable and acceptable solution. Partnering with communications giants like ABC, CBS, NBC as well as many Hollywood studios, the Harvard group hoped to popularize the idea.
And popularized it they did.
Messages advocating the prevention of drunk driving while expounding on the virtues of the designated driver concept were soon written into scripts for many of the highly rated TV shows of the time, e.g. “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers,” and “L.A. Law.” By incorporating messaging into these popular programs, the designated driver concept quickly gained steam and acceptance. The aforementioned networks even aired public service announcements to further foster the use of the program. Additional exposure was gained when “ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” did a special report on the Project – The New York Times even featured it on the front page.
As time passed and more and more people became familiar with the idea of designated drivers, many famous people and groups advocated in favor of the campaign. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, to name a few, endorsed it. As did Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The National Highway Safety Administration did the same in 1993, along with the U.S. Center for Substance Abuse Prevention. So commonplace was the term in use that it appeared in the 1991 Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.
There were 23,626 alcohol-related fatalities reported in late 1988 when the designated driver campaign began; almost a decade later in 1994, the number of deaths had dropped 30% to 16,580 during the same period.
Today, one can consider the Harvard Alcohol Project a success. Designated driving is prevalent and a very much accepted – and effective – safe driving practice. Many people have been designated drivers and many still have been driven safely back to their homes themselves by responsible drivers.