The results of a recently reported study provides ammunition in the quest to deter young drivers from texting while driving. The study concluded that the use of graphic terms in order evoke the fear of death can produce positive results.
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Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called texting while driving "a national epidemic." Car and Driver magazine has documented the dangerous nature of texting while driving. The magazine tested how long it takes a driver to brake a vehicle when sober, when a driver is legally drunk with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent, when a driver is reading an e-mail and when a driver is sending a text. The results speak for themselves:
- unimpaired - .54 seconds to brake;
- legally drunk - add 4 feet;
- reading an e-mail - add 36 feet; and
- sending a text - add 70 feet.
In their study, Washington State University marketing professors Ioannis Kareklas and Darrel Muehling, reporting their findings in the Journal of Consumer Affairs. examined the attitudes of drivers toward texting, as well as various ways that texting while driving could be discouraged through public service announcements.
The study found that many drivers believe that it is dangerous to text and drive. At the same time, many drivers are convinced that they can still send text messages in a safe manner. The researchers suggested that drivers can be discouraged from texting while driving through graphic public service announcements that evoke their fear of death.
The study pointed out that distracted driving is the suspected cause of thousands of fatalities and hundreds of thousands of injuries each year. Kareklas and Muehling cited a National Safety Council estimate that distracted cell phone use accounts for more than a quarter of all traffic accidents, with as many as 200,000 stemming specifically from texting while driving. "There is also evidence suggesting that texting while driving may be addictive," said Kareklas. "This presents additional difficulties for social marketers attempting to move the needle on this issue and creates an even greater need for PSAs to dissuade drivers from the behavior."
Kareklas and Muehling focused on younger drivers as it is believed that they are more likely to text and drive than older drivers. A study using a nationally representative sample of 357 drivers between the ages of 18 and 49, found the respondents generally held a negative attitude toward texting while driving.
Despite this negative attitude, one-fourth of the respondents admitted that they would probably do it in the following month. The respondents tended to rationalize their behavior regarding texting while driving. "I only glance long enough to read a word or two, look at the road, glance again, and so on," said one respondent. "This isn't that dangerous."
"I use one hand to text and one hand to drive," said another, "so I maintain control of the car."
Texting while driving is currently illegal in the cities of Phoenix and Tucson due to the enactment of ordinances. The Arizona Legislature has debated statewide bans in previous years without enacting them. More than 40 other states have banned texting and driving or enacted other restrictions. But, research by the Highway Data Loss Institute found this may increase the danger of texting as drivers move their phones down and out of sight to avoid being caught.
Kareklas and Muehling reviewed previous research on the effect of promotional campaigns against texting and driving and saw that few measured their effectiveness in changing driver attitudes and intentions. Based on the findings of their initial investigation, the researchers focused on emotional appeals as opposed to appeals based simply on information, which are more prone to make people defensive.
Previous studies suggested emotional appeals reach people on a personal level get more attention and are more memorable. But, if they are considered to be too emotional, it was likely that the appeals may be dismissed as manipulative. The researchers wanted ads that were designed to evoke an awareness of one's inevitable death. The hope was that drivers would connect texting and driving with their mortality leading to the conclusion that it would be best to stop.
A second study, had undergraduate students identify five symbols of death. The result was that the skull-and-crossbones symbol was much more common than crosses or coffins and tombstones. Another group of students overwhelmingly said the image reminded them of death.
The researchers then had a new national sample of online participants view four different PSAs. All had a picture of a texting driver, the headline, "Texting While Driving: A Dangerous Combination" and ad copy saying, "Please don't text and drive."
One sample added text suggesting that texting and driving kills 3,000 people a year. Another sample added a skull and crossbones. And, a third ad had both the extra text and image.
Kareklas and Muehling found that young people exposed to the PSAs with the skull and crossbones imagery "reported significantly lower attitudes and intentions to text and drive." The findings, the researchers concluded, "suggest that the use of promotional campaigns featuring relatively strong emotional references to death/dying may be an effective persuasive technique."
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