Sensable Driving
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Sensable Driving

Inspired by a handful of high-profile deaths caused by distracted drivers using cell phones, legislators, regulators, safety advocates and even the general public were wondering aloud whether it was time to regulate – or even ban – their use in automobile

Paul Holmes

By summer 2000, executives at General Motors sensed trouble. Inspired by a handful of high-profile deaths caused by distracted drivers using cell phones, legislators, regulators, safety advocates and even the general public were wondering aloud whether it was time to regulate – or even ban – their use in automobiles.

GM was worried because its wholly owned subsidiary, OnStar, is an embedded, in-vehicle safety and security communications system that relies on cellular technology.  Wall Street believes it is one of GM’s most promising properties because OnStar supplies ongoing revenue from yearly subscriber fees on top of the profitable system hardware.  So an increasingly anti-cell phone climate threatened OnStar, since in some legislation it may have fit the legal definition of a cell phone.

Since 1995, 37 states have introduced bills that would restrict or ban cell phone use in moving automobiles.  Most withered and died with little notice until late in 1999, when 2-year-old Morgan Lee Pena died when her mother’s car was hit by a motorist talking on the phone while driving in suburban Philadelphia.  The toddler’s – and others’ – deaths would dramatically change how many Americans felt about combining cell phones with driving.

Discussion of any issue that involves fatalities is serious and sensitive. And from a public relations standpoint, it is challenging to craft a reasoned, rational message that can compete against photos of dead loved ones.

The challenge for Hass Associates, Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich., was threefold: deflect public and legislative “heat” away from GM and OnStar; position GM and OnStar as the solution to the driver distraction problem; and broaden the public policy debate on driver distraction from cell phones and other in-vehicle communications technologies to all forms of distraction, such as eating, tuning radios and CD players, talking to passengers, etc.

The Hass team brainstormed a multifaceted strategy that would be effective for the client, yet credible to a very cynical target audience: the media, legislators/regulators and the general public. Team members conducted exhaustive research on the driver distraction issue, covering decades of past research, major stakeholders in the debate and pending legislation across the nation. The team pored over media coverage of the issue and identified which were pro, con or neutral on the issue of cell phones and telematics.

The team’s work was compiled into an extensive briefing book that has brought GM executives up to speed on the driver distraction issue and given them the tools necessary to communicate a consistent message to the media.

Hass’ ultimate goal was to position GM as the industry leader in both identifying and conquering driver distraction. The lynchpin was OnStar, since its embedded design, one-button feature and voice recognition technology already eliminated much of the distraction associated with operating a hand-held cell phone.

The obvious tactic would have been to publicly portray OnStar as the safe alternative to hand-held cell phones, but GM did not want to alienate the hand-held cell phone industry for fears it would not provide cellular minutes for OnStar to resell.

What did help was that the automaker, not typically known for being proactive, had already drafted four safety-minded principles that would define the parameters by which telematics would be introduced into vehicles, and was the only automaker to do so.

The Hass team, working closely with GM’s safety communications strategy group, focused on a “safety first” public relations campaign that combined research, technology and education. Hass branded the campaign “SenseAble driving.”

Under “SenseAble driving,” launched in October 2000 by Chairman Jack Smith, GM would continue to conduct ongoing research in the field of driver distraction and explore ways that technology could help alleviate distraction-related driving errors, such as collision warning systems and driver workload managers.

However, the crown jewel in this strategy was an education program targeting all 185 million American drivers.

The Hass team decided that the most efficient, credible and cost-effective way to do this was to partner with state motor vehicle licensing departments, since these offices have guaranteed access to all drivers and give the program credibility and legitimacy. Typically, cash-strapped government agencies are receptive to education programs underwritten by corporations when done so correctly, and “SenseAble driving” was no exception.

The education campaign will include traditional materials such as posters, handouts, videos and public service announcements. There is a corresponding, freestanding web site,

To broaden the message even further, Hass is developing an interactive computer demonstration that will be available at auto shows, on CD-ROM and on the Internet. It will use the latest Shockwave programming to show drivers – and potential drivers – that trying to multitask while driving is risky business.

Michigan is the pilot state in this three-year project, and Secretary of State Candice S. Miller is thrilled to be participating. Enlisting her support has effectively ended any movement toward banning or restricting cell phones in cars in the state of Michigan. Other states are clamoring to get the program.

To build similar good will in Washington, GM and Hass are keeping the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration apprised of all program developments. “SenseAble driving” will be on the agendas of all major traffic safety summits in 2001, including an annual convention of state motor vehicle directors.

Barely two months into the campaign, the efforts of Hass Associates have already reached nearly 20 million people with the initial announcement. Coverage is ongoing and the firm is still fielding media inquiries. A second media push targeting alternative and feature publications is under way. Based on early appearances in the media, including a glowing report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, GM already has become the “go-to” automaker on this issue because of its aggressive posture.

In the public policy arena, Hass team members helped create an additional section in the Michigan driver’s manual, the “study guide” for license renewal tests. This section covers driver distraction, taking the issue beyond telematics use to eating, drinking, map reading, restraining pets, etc. The firm was even successful in placing new questions based on this material on the driver test.
Hass and GM will formally launch the education program early in 2001, and plan to release important research data that will put driver distraction back into the national spotlight and show GM clearly positioned as the leader in fighting it. 

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