As Super Bowl XLV neared, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) had more on its mind than which team would win the big game. In a state with more than 25 million residents, the potential for alcohol-related catastrophe was enormous — especially since in 2009, Texas saw 1,235 deaths, more than any other state that year, from crashes involving drivers with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 percent or higher.

“We’re the worst state for impaired driving crashes and fatalities,” said Tracie Mendez, TxDOT’s driver behavior program manager. The department banked on the convenience and ubiquity of mobile phones to help restaurant and bar employees feel safer about sending drunken customers home.

“We thought it would be a really good way to get the message out to our targets, males 18 to 34,” she said. “That group is particularly tech savvy.” 

TxDOT partnered with businesses to display posters with black-and-white quick-response (QR) codes, which have matrix-shaped surfaces that can be scanned with a smartphone. This wild patterning stores information vertically and horizontally, unlike typical bar codes, which are only horizontal. When Texans photographed the QR codes with their phones, they were directed to a mobile site called Choose Your Ride (TexasDWI.org) that gives multiple transportation options in a simple, clickable format.

“We wanted people to find a cab and not get behind the wheel,” Mendez said. “We thought that would be a stepping point for us using these QR codes.” The site is designed to be easy to use. Clicking an image shaped like a taxicab activates a pop-up menu where users can input a city name or ZIP code and receive the numbers and locations of nearby cab services. Other icons help users find local limo services, walking paths and bus routes. Users also can contact sober drivers via Twitter or Facebook. Another icon, shaped like a badge, displays the nearest jail, lawyer or bail bondsman.

Mendez refers to Choose Your Ride as a “shallow page,” which is a stand-alone page that doesn’t link to others but allows a user to activate in-page changes by clicking on text. Users who click on “First Conviction,” for example, will see text informing them that $2,000 is the maximum fine for a first driving-while-intoxicated offense.

Spreading the Code

TxDOT distributed hundreds of QR code posters throughout the state, with the help of its partners Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing, a longtime collaborator with Texas government, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. TxDOT printed the posters in-house and Sherry Matthews already had a state contract, so the government didn’t pay additional costs for poster creation. The marketing agency’s research helped select the project’s prime audience: younger males who drink heavily.

Kenna Williams, a Sherry Matthews senior associate, said the project was a natural fit because many people continue using their phones while they’re drinking. “We thought that was really important to reach them when they’re actually about to make the decision to get in the car or not,” she said.

Mendez estimated that the Choose Your Ride site received about 1,400 hits from the two weeks before the Super Bowl on Feb. 6 to one week after the game. Many posters remained up after that period, and businesses could decide when to take them down.

Mendez said restaurants, bars and convenience stores cooperated so they wouldn’t face possible repercussions for impaired customers. “They don’t want to get in trouble for anyone overdrinking, being overserved or anything of that sort,” Mendez said. But TxDOT employees and their partners didn’t exactly see themselves as the alcohol police. “We’re not telling anybody not to be drinking. We’re just telling people to designate a driver or don’t get behind the wheel.”

TxDOT used the same QR code strategy to combat drunken driving during a 2010 Labor Day campaign from Aug. 20 to Sept. 6. And in March, a 4-foot by 4-foot QR code was displayed during South by Southwest, a huge annual music and entertainment festival held in Austin. It was posted in a window facing Sixth Street in downtown Austin, and after people scanned the code, they accessed Happy Hour Fail, a TxDOT-produced video about the legal and financial impacts of drunken driving convictions. Nearly 100 people accessed the video through the code, Williams said.

Williams, Mendez and their colleagues monitored how much traffic the QR codes drove to their destination URLs through a tracking variable. Google, for example, has a tracking code that can be associated with QR code data, and then Google Analytics will show how many impressions a particular site saw thanks to the associated QR code.

Free QR code generators abound on the Web. Williams said the tracking abilities aren’t foolproof, but they’re still effective. “The analytics don’t match up completely, but through the software, we see how many people go to the site through the QR code generator,” she said. Williams didn’t specify which generator was used to create the codes used in TxDOT’s campaigns.

QR codes have popped up in the state’s other anti-drunken driving campaigns and will continue to do so in the future. For example, Mendez said TxDOT has partnered with ThinkStreet, another marketing agency, to use QR codes for a designated driver program for weekend drinkers.

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.