A Profound Impact
Over the past three years a new approach to fighting drunk driving has played out online and on Rhode Island’s airwaves. The Ripple Effect and Beyond the Crash - a series of commercials that takes a deeper look into those affected by drunk driving crashes - are deliberately uncomfortable to watch, with stories about how the tragedies have left an indelible mark on those involved. This month Jim Hummel speaks with the crew that created and produced the commercials, as well as the director of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, which is financing the campaign, about the effect of the public service announcements.
In a parking lot full of mangled cars behind state police headquarters in Scituate, Dante Bellini’s vision is playing out on film.
On this chilly evening in late April - hours of preparation and shooting will eventually morph into the latest commercial in a series of public service announcements called The Ripple Effect. The campaign has a focused and ambitious mission: eliminating drunk driving in Rhode Island.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen one of the Ripple Effect spots, or its predecessor Beyond the Crash, since they debuted on television and online nearly three years ago. In fact, the commercials have gotten more than 5 million views and picked up two regional Emmy Awards along the way.
What you may not know is they are funded by federal highway safety funds, in what was a major shift in philosophy to combat drunk and distracted driving by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. More on that later.
Bellini, a senior vice president with the Providence public relations and marketing firm The RDW Group, has had a had a close relationship with law enforcement and Mothers Against Drunk Driving for years. He said he couldn’t find a public service campaign anywhere else that focused on the after-effects of drunk driving. He was particularly affected by speaking with veteran state police troopers about their handling of fatal accidents.
Belllini: “Every one of them, regardless of how long they’d been on the job could vividly recall a specific incident, a specific scene. And it stayed with them - and it stayed with them, and it stays with them forever.”
After the DOT awarded a contract to RDW in 2016, Bellini assembled a team to put together the public service announcements. He has produced hundreds of commercials over a four-decade career, but wanted this series to have more of a cinematic feel. So he brought on veteran Rhode Island filmmaker Eric Latek - along with Dave Zapatka, a videographer who began in local television and has worked extensively at the network level. Longtime still photographer Richard Kizirian rounded out the team.
Bellini told the crew he had watched drunk driving campaigns in other parts of the country and wanted something dramatically different.
Bellini: “None of them left you feeling anything. None of them left you emotionally drained, in some respects, and that’s where I wanted to go with this. I wanted this campaign ultimately to be hyper-local, and hyper-emotional. We live in a state where everyone knows someone.”
By design, the commercials are uncomfortable to watch. Families whose lives have been affected by a drunk driver, first responders, medical personnel and state police troopers talk about the profound - and indelible - mark these moments in time have left on their lives.
And The Ripple Effect runs deep.
Bellini: “When you lose your daughter, when you lose your son, you lose your wife or husband or a loved one that it not only affects that inner, nuclear family, it affects so many people. It affects, 50, 60, 70, 80 people immediately.”
Rhode Islanders are likely to recognize many of the people who participated in the interviews because their family members were involved in high-profile crashes From Meg and John Decubellis, whose 13-year-old daughter Katie was killed in a car accident 20 years ago, to Lee and Greg Bourke, whose son Ryan was killed by a wrong way drunk driver. Bourke had just finished a shift as a patrolman with Jamestown Police Department and was off-duty when he was killed.
Bellini said he was particularly affected by Meg Decubellis talking about having to identify the body of her daughter in the same hospital where she had given birth to Katie 13 years earlier.
Bellini: “There wasn’t one interview where the three of us weren’t crying during the interview. The power of the truth of those things wee inescapable.”
Latek and Bellini immediately hit it off and the filmmaker has often been able to transform Bellini’s concepts to film. But shooting the video and interviews takes a toll, even for someone who has two decades of experience.
Latek: “I’ve had to deal with difficult content, but this is at another level. After documenting people for so many years I still had to learn settle my emotions, when I’m filming and editing. It’s heart wrenching. It not only affects me at that moment, but to this day. I talk about it often with people I’m close to. It humbles you in a certain way, it grounds you. Just in life’s moments, when you think something is of importance that’s really not.“
Latek said he was particularly impacted by pictures he saw when shooting a segment with a state police reconstruction team. One photo was the boot of a woman who had been killed. When Latek went back with a trooper to film the car - he saw the other boot tucked in the wreckage.
Latek: “As she goes to the right of the driver’s side, I kind of move into the right and the door is crushed and this car is dilapidated and there is the other Ugg boot in the back seat. To this day it still haunts me.”
That scene was part of the inspiration for the current campaign featuring an 8-year-old girl, played by Bellini’s niece Cara Iafrate, at the lot state police call The Bone Yard. Unlike previous commercials, this one is more abstract, with no interviews.
Bellini: “And the idea was for this little girl, this sprit, looking for what essentially is and ultimately is her lost shoe. We wanted it to hit you in the face, that this is what your lose. We literally wanted you to catch your breath. We didn’t want any interference with the narration. To just reach into your chest, to squeeze your heart and say Holy Moly, that’s powerful. Our thinking is that she lost her life in a crash and the car we used actually there were four people who actually lost their lives, two of whom were children. The reality is that she’s gone and she’s not coming back.
Alviti: “Impaired driving deaths account for over 40 percent of the deaths in accidents, of the fatalities in accidents. And they’re the most easily remedied. Preventable, entirely preventable just by making the right decision.”
When he took over as DOT Director in 2015 Peter Alviti wanted to change the department’s approach to drunk driving. Just as the state needed a dramatic plan to fix Rhode Island’s roads and bridges, he wanted to include a drunk driving strategy in what would eventually be unveiled as RhodeWorks.
Alviti: “It was also apparent that the typical talking head of somebody in authority telling you not to drive drunk, or don’t drink and drive, was something that was beginning to get lost as kind of background noise. People heard it but it didn’t necessarily register.”
The department reallocated state and federal highway safety funds and has dedicated more than $3 million between producing and airing the commercials. He said Bellini’s execution of the concept has been just what the state was looking for.
Hummel: “And when they pitched that to you the first time, what did you think?”
Alviti: “It was immediate. We knew that this was very relatable, the message was much clearer than someone just telling you not to drink and drive. And that visually it was a masterpiece.”
That has carried through to the current commercial.
Alviti: “It’s visceral, especially with a child. We all have an affinity of wanting to protect our children and so seeing this young girl wandering through this kind of ghostly presence of hulks of steel of past accidents. The imagery pretty much took me to where Dante and his group at RDW wanted us to be.”
White: “Dante had told me the Ripple Effect wanted to do a next phase with victim families - and the second he asked I said absolutely.”
Becky White was Becky Bowman 20 years ago when at the age of 13 she lost her mother, Marsha, and her best friend Katie DeCubellis in what has become a well-known story of a drunk driver going the wrong way on the highway.
White began talking publicly about the crash a year later, at the age of 14. The first talk was at Chariho High School.
White: “When high school students hear from me…the loss of a mother or the loss of a best friend is something that is much more relatable to them. So I knew I had a story that needed to be told. And as painful as it is to tell the story - I’m completely wiped whenever I do share it - it’s almost therapeutic for me.
White said the Ripple Effect commercial was more intimate - shot in her home - and it let her go deeper than she has during her public talks.
5:38 The one PSA with myself crying that has been on TV was a little odd for me to see. It came on during the Super Bowl and I remember my husband and I looking at each other like wow, I’m on TV balling my eyes out - but I was just sharing what I truly felt and what the crash has done to me and my family.
DOT is planning on a third phase of the series, loosely titled A Call to Action: how friends and family can proactively stop their loved ones from getting in the car impaired. Bellini, who recently retired from RDW, said he’d like to continue with the Ripple Effect campaign and will bid on the contract when the next phase is advertised. It will take the same approach as the first two phases.
Alviti: “I was not looking for anything that was pedestrian, I didn’t want anything that was just forgettable. Why spend all this money on media buying, right, if it’s going to be forgettable? If people aren’t talking about it, sharing it, commenting about it or having a conversation.”
Bellini has received emails, texts and phone calls from people who said watching the campaign has sparked conversations in their own families.
Bellini: “We’ve heard, both anecdotally and directly that, that is happening. You know the old cliché: if you save one life it’s worth it? Well, we want to save a lot of lives.
In Scituate, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.