Can Teens Be Scared Into Driving Safely?

Thousands of driver-ed students will watch ‘Red Asphalt V,’ the
latest in a long line of CHP horror films. But will it change
behavior?
By Tony Bizjak — Bee Staff Writer

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On a recent afternoon at the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Broadway
office, eager teens headed out one by one on their driving test with high
hopes of earning their California license.

Next door at the Sacramento Country Coroner’s Office, a tragic result
of that new freedom was being dramatized. A grim-faced actor gestured to
a row of bodies on gurneys in the cold storage room, their toes tagged
for identification.

“They never thought they’d end up here,” he said.

It was the filming of “Red Asphalt V,” the latest sequel in
California’s legendary series of driver education horror films.

For 40 years, “Red Asphalt” movies have used graphic images of real
highway crashes to warn teens they are but one mistake from being “Spam
in a can,” says Steve Kohler, who oversaw the California Highway
Patrol-produced film.

The new movie, scheduled for release this month to driving educators
in California and beyond, is expected to be viewed by tens of thousands
of teenagers.

But one important question remains: Will those future drivers get the
message?

California’s “Red Asphalt” films are part of what sociologists call
the popular “fear appeal” method of getting teens to behave. The genre
includes the legendary “Reefer Madness,” a 1930s movie in which addiction
to marijuana lands a student in an insane asylum. Lately, the appeals
have turned sophisticated, with public service commercials such as the
recent anti-smoking spot in which a woman suffering from cancer of the
larynx pauses to puff on a cigarette through a hole in her throat.

Fear appeal also is a key element in the state’s “Every 15 Minutes” –
a high school program whose title reflects the frequency of fatal car
crashes. “Every 15 Minutes” begins with a “fatal” accident staged at the
campus. The following day, schools hold a memorial service where parents
read aloud letters to their “deceased” children.

Despite fear appeal’s popularity, many academics say it doesn’t work
on most teens and could even cause some to be even less careful.

If there is too much gore, says Bruce Simons-Morton, who heads up
prevention research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development, the horror may drown out the message. Even those initially
frightened, he added, may forget the message after a few weeks of
uneventful driving.

Chayla Furlong, 19, of Auburn – who has both a car crash and speeding
tickets in her driving history – says she paid no attention to the “Red
Asphalt” film she saw in driver education class a few years ago.

“I remember it being more gory than it needed to be,” said the college
sophomore. “That was a little too much for me to handle. It made me tune
out.”

Kansas State University psychology professor Renee Slick, who is
studying teen driver safety messages, complains that safety programs are
flying blind. She recently tested teenagers, using sensor pads attached
to the skin to gauge physical response – including heart rate, muscle
tension and perspiration – and found that many boys have a strong
physiological reaction when viewing videos of crumpled cars.

But that may mean they are physically excited rather than frightened,
Slick warned. “We don’t know, and that’s scary. If sensation-seekers get
a high off of this, then we are just fueling this fire.”

From the beginning, the “Red Asphalt” movies were based more on
philosophy than scientific research. CHP officials acknowledge they
haven’t tested what effect the movies have had on teen driving habits,
though they say they hear from adults who remember the movie years
later.

“To measure the effects, that is tough,” said Kent Milton, who
produced past versions of the films for the CHP. Milton cautioned that
the movie should be just a part of a broader discussion of safe
driving.

The new film, produced last spring by the CHP in conjunction with a
film crew and a marketing research consultant, is funded by a $200,000
federal grant. The CHP hopes to recoup the extra cost of making copies of
the film by charging $15 per copy.

CHP officials update the movie every few years to keep up with trends,
including making sure the cars are up-to-date. Teens will ignore the
movie if it looks old-fashioned, they say. This time they also opted to
amp up the intensity after focus groups, teens and driver education
teachers agreed that the 1998 version was too wimpy, especially for teens
used to realistic special effects violence on television and in
movies.

David Morton, who teaches driver education at Laguna Creek High
School, stopped showing it to his classes because it didn’t seem to
capture teens’ attention.

“I’m not a ‘gore’ guy, but I want them to see reality,” Morton
said.

The new movie has plenty of reality. It shows footage of twisted
bodies thrown from cars and crushed inside smashed vehicles. There is a
quick camera pan to a brain lying in gravel, and another shot of a
severed forearm on the road.

Some researchers say there are recent indications that the fear appeal
approach does work – at least on certain teens – if presented in the
right context.

A limited study at California State University, Chico, suggests that
the “Every 15 Minutes” program has a lingering effect six months later on
the handful of students chosen to be “killed” in the simulated car
crash.

Michigan State University researcher Kim Witte, who has studied the
fear approach to health education, says teens reject the message if they
feel manipulated. That has happened, she said, in preaching about the
dangers of drugs, alcohol, smoking and unprotected sex.

But Witte believes the approach works if the gore isn’t too
off-putting and if the audience isn’t left feeling powerless. The trick
is to provide concrete and believable steps students can take to avoid
ending up a road crash victim.

“You can scare the bejeebers out of them as long as they understand
they can do something that effectively protects them,” Witte said.

Of course, with teens there is a broader question of whether any
cautionary education will change behavior. A federal brain wave study
recently found that the brain’s ability to recognize and put the brakes
on risky behavior doesn’t fully develop until a person is in his or her
mid-20s.

In addition, the research on programs such as the anti-drug DARE
program has shown that the scared-straight approach can quickly wear off.
Researchers say they suspect the same is true of driver safety programs
that seek to shock.

Many beginning teen drivers interviewed by The Bee said they could not
picture themselves getting into a bad crash.

Eric Thomson, 16, a junior at Rocklin High School, saw a video of car
crashes shown by the CHP at a new parent-teen night program called “start
smart.” When he and his father got to the parking lot afterward, Eric
refused to take the truck keys. “You can drive,” he told his dad,
half-joking. “I don’t ever want to drive again.”

A week or so later, Eric – who considers himself a cautious driver –
said he had stopped thinking about the video because “I don’t think it
could possibly happen to me.”

The complicating factor for researchers is that teenagers’ reactions
to fear appeals vary widely.

David Schumann of the University of Tennessee conducted a study in
1992 that found that fear might work with safety-conscious teens who are
not by nature what psychologists call “high sensation-seekers.” But it
could have the opposite effect on the teens who need it most: those with
risk-taking personalities.

Schumann theorizes that sensation seekers see themselves as
invulnerable or invincible, making them essentially immune to fear.

Then, there is the boomerang effect.

When speeding, drinking alcohol or smoking are presented as dangerous
by adults, “that makes it all the more appealing to some young people who
want to show they are brave or who want to flout authority,” said David
Hanson, a social psychologist at the State University of New York,
Potsdam.

CHP officials agree they need to do more than scare. That is reflected
in the new “Red Asphalt” movie, too. The film repeatedly cuts away from
the highway carnage to living rooms and bedrooms where family members
describe their grief over the loss of a teen. One father, standing in his
son’s room, said he had never cried before. Then, after his son’s death,
he found himself curled up crying on the bathroom floor.

Eric Thomson saw a similar mix of scaring and caring during “start
smart.”

A few months later, he dismissed the crash videos – not as graphic as
those in the new “Red Asphalt” film. He said they “sort of just looked
like a movie to me.”

But the testimonials from bereaved parents remained fresh in Eric’s
mind. He could imagine his parents’ reaction if he were in a bad crash,
which has made him more safety conscious. “I think I’d feel worse for
them than for me,” he said. “I don’t know what they would do.”

Eliciting those emotions is part of the state’s “Every 15 Minutes”
program. Through it, Jesuit High School last semester staged a simulated
drunken-driving crash on the football field, with student volunteers
posing as the killed and injured. One student lay “dead” on a car hood.
Firefighters, police, coroner’s officials and hospital employees
participated.

Jesuit had suffered a real tragedy in August 2004, when three students
were killed and another injured in a high-speed crash at Arden Way and
Fulton Avenue. At the “Every 15 Minutes” crash scene, while some students
joked about the “blood” makeup, others said the staged event served as a
serious reminder about the real accident.

The next day, at a “memorial service” in the school gym, the staged
nature of the event seemed to melt away as parents read last messages to
their teens.

“My dearest Scott, I love you so much,” a crying Theresa Arciniega
read. “My heart aches to hold you in my arms. There was so much more I
wanted to discover about you. I only know I wish it were me that (God)
took.”

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About the writer: The Bee’s Tony Bizjak can be reached at (916)
321-1059 or tbizjak@sacbee.com.

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