Fear and Consequences: The Changing Face of Efforts to Make Teens Safer on the Road

Apr 08

Is it possible to scare teenagers into becoming safer drivers? Plenty of well-meaning people thought so back in the 1950s, when high school drivers education programs began featuring films that showed the aftermath of violent car crashes, including shots of the victims. Characterized by noirish soundtracks and hardboiled narration, the films were created to present an unsentimental, unvarnished view of the terrible things that happened when drivers drove recklessly or without sufficient attention to the road.

Use of the films in high school classes has fluctuated over the past five decades, due at least in part to differing opinions about how well they work. Based on a Web search of recent research, experts tend to report that “scare tactics” don’t have a significant impact on convincing teens to drive more carefully. But there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence – including online responses to viral videos that utilize violence to send a message – that they do have some value.

One of those viral videos takes the realism and shock factor to a new level. Produced in the U.K. last year by Peter Watkins-Hughes in partnership with the Gwent police department, the 30 minute piece shows in graphic detail what happens in an accident caused by a teenaged girl who’s texting while driving. While the film was created for showing in drivers education classes, a four minute synopsized version posted on YouTube last year has been viewed millions of times (please note – the film is very graphic).  Skim through the more than 3,000 comments (and try to ignore the dumb and vulgar) and you’ll find plenty of people – teens and adults – saying the film has made an impact and will stop them from texting and driving. This obviously isn’t scientific evidence – but it’s hard to argue with so many people asserting that after seeing the video they’ll “never” text and drive again.

But the video’s violence is only one component of its story. The driver survives and is completely lucid during the aftermath as she realizes her friends have died, and she’s forced to listen to the daughter of a victim in one of the other cars desperately begging her deceased father to “wake up.” The video ends with the teen driver being airlifted – as the only injured person to have survived – from the scene, and in the last seconds she shuts her eyes, as if the reality of what she has caused is too terrible to comprehend.

What’s happening is a clear introduction of the consequences of the driver’s actions; a visceral play on survivor guilt and of the realization that a young life that has been irrevocably and sadly changed. Consequences also play a significant role in “Every 15 Minutes,” a highly regarded and much more elaborate program being utilized by schools around the country. Taking place over a two day period, the program likewise features a dramatic and realistic reenactment of an accident but also engages teens with role-playing exercises that force them to imagine dying in an alcohol-related car crash – and living with the guilt and sadness in surviving one caused by their own actions. The program also engages parents, who write obituaries for their own children, which are read to the other students. This component of the program is especially significant given the role that parents – who are also key audiences for Ogilvy’s work for LG and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Parents Are the Key– play in influencing teen behaviors around driving.

Take a look at this NBC Today show clip of “Every 15 Minutes” in action, and you’ll see the unmistakably intense reactions from the young people who are participating.

The Statistics and Facts on Every 15 Minute’s website provides evidence (a decade old but still compelling) that the program is working. Which offers plenty of reason to consider the use of fear in our efforts to show young people the possible consequences of unsafe behavior instead of simply talking about them. As noted by Debra Munk, Principal of the school featured in the Today Show piece, “We can preach all we want, but when they actually see it and feel it – and they truly feel it – that’s when it has an impact.”

Do you know of other compelling efforts to promote teen safety? If so, feel free to add to the discussion!

This entry was posted on Friday, April 8th, 2011 at 4:04 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “Fear and Consequences: The Changing Face of Efforts to Make Teens Safer on the Road”

  1. Adam says:

    Very interesting!