Randall L. Stephenson, the chairman and chief executive of AT&T , spoke Wednesday morning at a conference in New York to hundreds of major investors, including Fortune 500 executives. The topic was the state of the telecom businesses, but he began with a request on a different topic: Please don’t text and drive.
He’s been saying it a lot lately, at investor conferences, the annual shareholder meeting in April, town halls and civic club meetings, and in conversations with chief executives of other major companies.
AT&T is not the first or only carrier to raise awareness on this issue, but the message is starting at the top and it’s personal.
Mr. Stephenson said in an interview that a few years ago someone close to him caused an accident while texting. As he has become more vocal about texting and driving, he said people were coming up to him and writing him with their own stories of tragedy, including admissions that they caused accidents.
The smartphone, he says, “is a product we sell and it’s being used inappropriately.” For him, that means the company he runs has to get involved in a public awareness campaign. “We have got to drive behavior.”
Safety advocates say for the moment that they are particularly impressed by AT&T’s persistent and broad efforts to draw attention to the problem of texting while driving.
They say history shows that public service campaigns have had limited success on issues like drunken driving or seat belt use unless they are paired with strong laws, something Mr. Stephenson opposes.
“AT&T in particular has invested quite a bit in messaging and I’m hopeful it will make consumers aware,” said Bill Windsor, the chief safety officer at Nationwide Insurance. “It certainly can’t hurt,” he added, “But law enforcement is the other step that’s needed to curb behavior.”
David D. Teater, senior director of the National Safety Council, whose son was killed by a driver talking on her phone, said he was pleased to see telecommunications companies, including AT&T, no longer lobbying against laws aimed at curbing driver distraction caused by electronic devices.
“We’d love their support on the legislative side,” he said of AT&T’s position. “But the fact they’re not opposing us is good.”
Mr. Stephenson said he would prefer market-driven solutions to legislative ones. He hopes that changing the culture can work. Verizon Wireless supports state and federal legislation to ban texting by drivers and has been credited by safety advocates for raising awareness years ago.
Currently, 39 states ban texting while driving. Research shows that the activity sharply increases the risk of a crash, even beyond the risk posed by someone driving with a .08 blood alcohol level, the legal limit in many states. Yet researchers say that there is no indication drivers are less inclined to text and drive, and there is some indication that the behavior is increasing.
To that end, Mr. Stephenson also appeared on Wednesday at an event in Washington with Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, who has called distracted driving an epidemic. They called on people to take a lifelong pledge not to text and drive.
On Sept. 30, AT&T will offer a free, revised version of its DriveMode app for Android and BlackBerry phones that will automatically disable texting when the phone is traveling more than 25 miles an hour. There is no app, though, for the popular iPhones.
The motivation is to bypass a driver’s urge to answer the chime of the incoming text or e-mail. Mr. Stephenson said the technology might eventually block phone calls to drivers. There are several such apps like DriveMode on the market, from Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint , but they have thus far had limited adoption, said Mr. Windsor, from Nationwide Insurance.
The app is part of a broader campaign called “It Can Wait,” that began in 2010. It has included gripping and graphic videos and commercials, like a recent one with a testimonial from a young man who suffered brain damage in an accident caused by a texting driver. The tagline is, “Last Text.”
The company won’t say exactly how many millions it is spending on the campaign.
“I told people that what we’re going to do is make people a bit uncomfortable and maybe be a bit impolite,” Mr. Stephenson said.
He added that he had to curb his own behavior, too. “When I went public, I told my wife: ‘You know what this means? I can no longer touch this iPhone or BlackBerry in the car.’ ” He puts his devices in a cup holder and silences them. “It was a habit I had to break.”