Dust storms are deadly / Pull over, turn off lights, wait / As earth becomes sky. — @tmichaels1

The above is just one of more than 400 original haiku poems Arizona DOT (ADOT) received after taking its “Pull Aside, Stay Alive” campaign to Twitter and asking followers to get creative in warning drivers to pull over during dust storms.

Although ADOT uses social media extensively to keep Arizona drivers informed and engaged, this was the department’s first campaign of its type.

A haiku is a short Japanese poem that consists of three lines—the first and last with five syllables, the second with seven. Twitter’s 140-character limit was perfect for these short poems. Twitter users employ “hashtags” — a word or phrase with the pound sign (#) placed in front of it — that let users find other people tweeting about the same subject. ADOT used this method to its advantage, which led to worldwide participation.

“We were all just pleased that so many people were talking about and raising the awareness of the dangers of driving into dust storms,” says Nicole Sherbert, assistant communication director for ADOT.

The hubbub about haboobs

On June 11, 2012, the transportation department, in partnership with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the National Weather Service, and the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, launched the “Pull Aside, Stay Alive” campaign. It’s designed to educate drivers of the danger of driving through haboobs, a particular type of dust storm found only in arid places such as Arizona and the Middle East.

Haboobs usually begin suddenly, and a wall of sand descends upon the landscape. They occur with little or no warning, and can reduce visibility to near-zero in mere seconds. The campaign message is simple — if you encounter a dust storm, after checking the traffic around you, pull to the side of the road, turn off all lights, and wait for the storm to pass before moving.

The ADOT communications team brainstormed on how to raise awareness in a brief amount of time. Thus, the haboob haiku was born.

On June 12 the team launched the poetry portion of the campaign via Twitter and their blog using the hashtag #HaboobHaiku. By the third day of the six-day social media blitz, Reuters picked up the story. News traveled fast, and more than 500 media stories were created by outlets such as CNN, The Weather Channel, Gawker, and the BBC. Even a newspaper in New Zealand ran a story on it.

By the end of the six days, the hashtag was used 1,817 times, says Sherbert. The department received hundreds of haikus from as far as Japan via Twitter, Facebook, email, phone calls, and even snail mail. The department then picked the top-10 haikus based on originality and effectiveness on spreading dust-storm awareness.

Don’t worry if you didn’t get to submit your haiku. There are talks to repeat the campaign next year. Start writing!

Web Extra

Read more #HaboobHaikus and learn more about Arizona DOT’s “Pull Aside, Stay Alive” campaign.