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Crossing the Street is Anything But Pedestrian

Date: May 25, 2004

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Years after a catchy rhyme — "Cross at the green, not in between" — helped pedestrian safety efforts in the nation's most-walked city, municipal officials are hoping another couplet will assist in reducing the toll accidents take.

"Cars hurt, stay alert" is the theme of a public service campaign from the New York City Department of Transportation, which got under way this month with posters appearing on bus-stop shelters. The goal is to remind New Yorkers of the perils of crossing the street, in the middle of the block or elsewhere, as well as the dangers of thoroughfares like Queens Boulevard, where accidents involving pedestrians have generated front-page headlines.

As recently as 1990, 366 pedestrians were killed in accidents in the five boroughs, a toll that has decreased significantly of late, to 194 in 2001, 193 in 2002 and 168 last year. Still, the transportation department is seeking to lower the toll further.

The story behind the campaign is illustrative of the twists and turns much pro bono advertising takes on the way to being presented to its intended audiences. The idea originated during the administration of one mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and is coming out during the term of his successor, Michael R. Bloomberg. And it was developed by one agency, Bozell in New York, and brought out by another, Lowe & Partners.

"This has been cooking for a few years," says David Woloch, a transportation department deputy commissioner, since Iris Weinshall became commissioner of the department in 2000 and determined the issue of pedestrian safety needs "to be thought about more broadly."

"New York is a walking city and we want the pedestrian to be king," Mr. Woloch says. "But people are in a hurry, with places to go and things to do, and they need to be keeping their eyes open."

"The idea we want to get across is that you can still be a New Yorker and be aware of your surroundings," he adds.

To accomplish that, "we kept coming back to the word 'alert,' which is the key word here," Mr. Woloch says. "You can't point a finger in a New Yorker's face and say, 'Stop jaywalking.' So we're asking them to keep their heads up, look around, be conscious of what's around them."

The posters all have the same setting, a stretch of sidewalk leading into the street on which a pedestrian's shoes, feet or legs are visible. For verisimilitude, the streets have manhole covers, cracks, bumps, dried clumps of gum and other touches that practically shout "NYC."

Provocative statements and questions are stenciled on each sidewalk: "Pedestrians don't have bumpers," "Cars are made of steel. You're not," "Your best safety feature: a brain" and "Do you come with an airbag?" In the lower right corner of each poster is the "Cars hurt, stay alert" theme, designed to appear as if it is emblazoned on a walk-don't walk sign.

"We have probably 200 lines" for posters, says Justin Harrington, executive vice president and group account director at Lowe, because "we've had plenty of time to think about it." His reference is to the gestation of the campaign, which he and his team have worked on since they were at Bozell. (The Interpublic Group of Companies, which owns both agencies, merged Bozell into Lowe a year ago.)

"On a pro bono account, you usually get people who are passionate" about solving the problem that is the subject of the campaign, Mr. Harrington says, but here "none of us were passionate about this until after we got the statistics, which were very much an eye-opener for us."

Mr. Harrington can now rattle off the pedestrian data like a public safety engineer: "Thirteen thousand pedestrians are hit every year in New York City, a staggering number. People think most of the problem is caused by buses, trucks, cab drivers, but 70 percent is passenger cars. The typical incident involves a late 40's male hit by another late 40's male. The worst problem is after work Fridays and the most dangerous time is 4 to 8 p.m."

The team showed Mayor Bloomberg "a five-minute video we shot on our own," Mr. Harrington says, depicting "a total disregard for traffic-safety laws" with scenes like "baby carriages being pushed across streets by fast-moving mothers."

"And after we stopped them, the pedestrians said 'I can make it' and 'It's part of what we do around here,'" he adds, "and when we asked them who doesn't jaywalk, they said, 'Out-of-towners.'"

The posters are useful, Mr. Harrington says, because "they get it into people's heads it's a bad decision to make at the point where they're making the bad decision." The hope is later this year to supplement the posters with signs on the sides of buses and on taxicab tops.

No discussion of ads to promote traffic safety in New York would be complete without mention of what is probably the most famous of all: the 1960's radio and television commercial that was part of the "Cross at the green, not in between" campaign, which featured a jingle by a longtime songwriter, Vic Mizzy, titled "In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle."

New Yorkers of a certain age can still rattle it off from start to finish, from "Don't cross the street in the middle, in the middle, in the middle, in the middle, in the middle of the block" to "And wait, and wait, until you see the light turn green."

"We had a number of team members who were New York City kids and remembered the jingle," Mr. Harrington says, and with the "Cars hurt, stay alert" theme "we tried to echo the sing-songy style in a positive but get-in-the-back-of-your-head way."

Mr. Woloch says the jingle was "before my time," but he has become familiar with it because "I'm now a parent, and They Might Be Giants has it on their children's album."

As for whether "Cars hurt, stay alert" will someday be set to music, Mr. Woloch says: "We're not quite at the jingle stage; we don't have a mascot and we don't have a song. If you come up with one, let me know."

 

 

 

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