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Designated Driver Program Arose From Tragic Crash That Killed WBZ-TV Reporter In 1985

BOSTON (CBS) -- We all know the term "designated driver, it's part of our culture, and the concept has saved countless lives. But did you know the American version began right here 30 years ago? And by "right here" we mean Massachusetts and WBZ-TV.

It was born out of a tragedy that had a profound impact on the WBZ family.

Early one Sunday morning in November of 1985, there was a horrible crash. Cars crumpled and twisted. The crash, caused by a drunk driver, left WBZ-TV reporter Dennis Kauff barely clinging to life. His wife, Paula Childs, who had also reported for Channel 4, was injured as well.

A few days later Kauff died.

Dennis Kauff
Dennis Kauff (WBZ-TV)

"There wouldn't have been a designated driver campaign were it not for the tragic death at the hands of a drunk driver. The death of Dennis Kauff," said Dr. Jay Winsten.

After learning about Kauff's death, Winsten, who was at Harvard's Center for Health Communication, had an idea. What if he could convince local media and even Hollywood to use their programming clout to reduce drunk driving? "I said, this is a target of opportunity," remembered Winsten.

Dr. Jay Winsten
Dr. Jay Winsten (WBZ-TV)

He started working with WBZ on the designated driver concept. WBZ created public service announcements, and recruited celebrities to join the campaign, while editorials spelled at the high stakes, encouraging people to pick a driver who wouldn't drink alcohol when they went out on the town.

"The concept caught on within Massachusetts. And that was the proof of concept for us," said Winsten, who took the campaign nationally in 1988.

Designated Driver
WBZ-TV Designated Driver PSA (WBZ graphic)

Soon, prime-time television worked the message into shows. The message has appeared in comics, and was enshrined in the dictionary. The concept became part of the culture. "We came along with the designated driver concept, and four years later, a majority of Americans told pollsters that they had served as a designated driver or had been driven home by one. And fatalities dropped by a whopping 25 percent," Winsten said.

Moved by the death of Dennis Kauff, another of our colleagues, John Henning, was also instrumental in the early stages of the designated driver program.

Thirty years later, Dr. Winsten is still at work at Harvard. His next goal is to use media to reduce distracted driving.

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