Connecticut hits record seat belt rates 20 years after E.T. first guided drivers home

Norwich — Almost a decade before Flo graced commercial breaks, Progressive Corp. banked on an extraordinary character to sell insurance and inspire humans to get home safely.

With wide eyes, a subtle smile and a pointed finger, the figure, painted onto a Thames Street sign beside the Norwich Police Department, is strapped with a seat belt and hovering over the words "Buckle Up" — even though, in perhaps his most famous moment, he bounced around unbuckled in a basket on a telekinetic bike ride in the moonlight.

E.T., who shot back into space at the end of Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic film, apparently has stuck around in the Rose City for 20 years.

As part of a nationwide advertising blitz beginning with a 1999 Super Bowl ad in which E.T. jokes that earthlings "still rely on the wheel," Progressive provided communities across the country thousands of free E.T. "buckle up" road signs to place in highly visible areas.

How many E.T. signs still stand in the state remains a mystery.

Joe Cristalli, the principal safety program coordinator at the state Department of Transportation Highway Safety Office, said last week he'd have to research it, as almost no one currently in the office was even around in the late 1990s. After checking with the Engineering Department, Cristalli a couple days later confirmed "there are no signs that say 'Buckle Up' with E.T. on them on the state road inventory file." The state didn't have information on local road signs, he said.

Multiple members of the Norwich Police Department, including a sergeant on the force for a dozen years, said the sign had been there as long as they could remember.

Messages left with Norwich Public Works and the Engineering Department were not immediately responded to. Angelo Yeitz, former superintendent of streets and parks, said recently that he wasn't familiar with the backstory of the signs but was digging into it.

Jeff Sibel, a spokesman for Progressive, said last week that he was "searching for information regarding that campaign as I've been at Progressive for more than eight years and this is the first question I have ever received regarding it." He did not immediately respond to follow up messages a few days later.

'Buckle Up America'

Connecticut — which, for unexplained reasons, "was one of the first states to receive the signs, where city planners and engineers ordered nearly 4,000 of them," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association — is now climbing the ranks for seat belt usage rates.

State officials did not point to a direct link between the alien and rising seat belt usage. But the NHTSA noted in 2001 that the E.T.-themed ad campaign by Progressive, Amblin Entertainment and Universal Pictures, stemmed in part from 1997's "Buckle Up America" initiatives, which directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to prepare plans to increase awareness and get more Americans to strap on their seat belts.

The state this year reached an almost 94 percent seat belt usage rate, Cristalli said. The national average for seat belt rate usage is 89.6 percent, according to the DOT.Connecticut seat belt usage rates between 20099 and 2019

To ascertain seat belt usage rates, the state contracts with Trumbull-based Preusser Research Group, which conducts surveys and works with police departments to observe drivers before and after annual "Click It or Ticket" campaigns.

"It's one of the simplest things you can do to prevent a serious injury or a fatality in a vehicle," Cristalli said by phone. He added that, "there's a last tiny group of people you can't convince," but noted seat belt rates had risen in Connecticut each of the last five years. Besting national averages can boost federal funding for state programs on drunken driving prevention, distracted driving, and buckle up campaigns, Cristalli added.

On Monday, Derrell Lyles, an NHTSA spokesman, provided a report noting that since the federal government and states began employing annual Click It or Ticket campaigns, national seat belt usage rates had risen from 79 percent in 2003 to 87 percent in 2013.

In 2017, more than 10,000 unbuckled vehicle occupants died in crashes in the U.S., according to NHTSA. From 2013 to 2017, seat belts saved an estimated 69,000 lives, NHTSA said.

'Vintage Rare'

The "Buckle Up America" initiatives of the late 1990s included contributions and educational programs from state and federal agencies, the National Safety Council, automakers like Chrysler, General Motors and Honda, organized sports including NASCAR and Major League Baseball, and businesses like Fisher Price, AAA and a host of trucking companies, according to the NHTSA.

Progressive's E.T. campaign reached 90 percent of adult viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 an average of 12 times during the first quarter of 1999 — an estimated 1.2 billion impressions, the NHTSA said in a 2001 summary on the initiatives.

Progressive's general manager in Connecticut worked with the state's Highway Safety Office to provide 4,000 E.T. "buckle up" posters "where they will reach parents of preschool children," as well as E.T. "buckle up" coloring books and other items, the NHTSA said.

The NHTSA noted Progressive, Amblin/Universal and Learning Works partnered to develop "E.T.'s Car Safety Challenge," a child passenger safety curriculum, distributed to 1,677 elementary schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, the signs and other E.T. knickknacks from Progressive's campaign have found new homes online.

At Connecticut Museum Quest, which offers guides on travel, museums, food, hikes and various adventures in Connecticut, writer Stephen Wood said in 2011 that his 2007 post on the signs — which prompted reader submissions of sign photos from Connecticut and other states — "has become the 'go-to' place for those curious about these idiotic signs."

Signs can be found in East Hartford, Suffield, Guilford, Branford, Middletown, and Danbury, as well as Tavares, Fla., and Midlothian, Va., according to readers who shared photos with Wood.

Shoppers on eBay can buy black-and-gold "E.T. Be Progressive Buckle Up" pins for between $14 and $45.

One eBay seller offers a pair of "vintage rare" E.T. road signs, "an awesome conversation piece/display to go in your man cave or if you're an E.T. The Extraterrestrial collector looking for that one unusual piece to display, this should cover it. The signs are in overall decent shape for being 20 years old."

The asking price is $1,200 or best offer, plus $29 shipping.

Cristalli said campaigns like Progressive's E.T. effort don't happen these days, at least not in Connecticut.

"We usually don't co-brand with anybody," he said. "The best we can do is if we run some media, our ad agency will throw in some added value."

b.kail@theday.com

 

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