A Critique of Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over – Catherine Tobin
The Problem: Drinking and Driving
Driving after consuming alcohol is a large problem in the United States, despite the risk being common knowledge. This problem is by no means a new development, as it has seen serious consequences for decades and continues to take lives every day. Drinking alcohol raises a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC,) which, at the illegal level of .08%, causes poor muscle coordination including balance, vision, and reaction time, makes it harder to detect danger, and impairs judgment, self control, and reasoning. (1) These effects often have detrimental consequences when one attempts to drive, causing countless crashes resulting in fatalities and critical injuries. Sadly, a large problem with drinking and driving is its prevalence in the Unites States. According to the CDC, adults reported drinking and driving about 112 million times in 2010. (2) That same year, 10,228 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (31%) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States. (3)
Driving with a BAC at or above .08% is illegal and many people do get pulled over and face charges, but more often than not drinking and driving goes unnoticed until a tragedy occurs; law enforcement just couldn’t possible catch all drunk drivers. Because of the frequency and horrific aftermath of this problem, many organizations have launched public health campaigns in efforts to reduce the lives lost in drunk driving accidents. One of these campaigns is Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over, launched by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an organization whose mission is to “save lives, prevent injuries and reduce economic costs due to road traffic crashes, through education, research, safety standards and enforcement activity.”(4)
Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over
The Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign was created to reduce the prevalence of drunk driving. The campaign actively tries to convince the public not to drive after consuming alcohol. The main idea that is presented in the commercials and posters of the campaign is that when you drive drunk, law enforcement will catch you and you will be arrested. Several of the campaign videos follow a similar story of people – a group of friends, a couple, etc. – who are clearly intoxicated stumbling towards their parked car with unseen cops lurking in the background. The people get into their car or onto their motorcycle and begin to drive away, and then get caught by the police who had been invisible until they were pulling them over. Each video concludes with the same slogan: “They'll see you, before you see them. Cops are cracking down on drinking and driving. Drive sober or get pulled over.” (5-7)
This idea of the ‘invisible’ cop is a large aspect of the campaign. The website even has an entire section dedicated to the making of the invisible cops, complete with behind the scenes videos. The page says, “Using ‘invisible’ cops to make the point that they’ll see you before you see them seems like a cool idea.” The website also has interactive quizzes where visitors can test their knowledge about drunk driving rates and death rates. This program is comprehensive and had a lot of thought put into it. However, while the NHTSA undoubtedly has the public’s best interest in mind and has an important and relevant mission, this campaign has some major weaknesses that prevent it from being as effective as possible. (8)
The first weakness of the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign is the way the issue is framed. A frame is an approach to relaying a message in the way you want people to receive it. Siegel and Menashe define it as a way of packaging and positioning an issue so that it conveys a certain meaning. (9) When used effectively, framing can be a valuable tool in public health campaigns and advertising in general: “Framing not only defines the issue, but it also suggests the solution.” (9) The makers of the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over campaign framed the problem of drunk driving both as a crime problem and separately as a safety problem. Unfortunately, neither of these frames makes for a very convincing argument.
The crime frame is used on the website of this campaign and largely in the commercials and posters. The campaign was intentionally shaped in a way that communicated drunk driving as an action that merits punishment. It is a threatening approach that essentially just reminds viewers that drunk driving is illegal and, unintentionally, tells them to make sure they don’t get caught when they do it. It uses core values of abiding by the law and evading authoritative law enforcement. Symbols and images in this frame consist of angry police officers, breathalyzers, and handcuffs. Although ideally this should be effective, the truth is that people do not place a lot of value on following the law. (10) This is especially true for preventive laws that do not have an immediate, tangible effect, such as drinking and driving. This frame is ineffective because it incorrectly assumes that people will place importance on following the law and respond to the threat of punishment.
Independently, the safety frame used on the website relays the message that drunk driving is a safety problem: it kills and harms many people. The core values of this frame are the health and safety of the public, which realistically do not really resonate with people. Rationally, people should care a great deal about their health and the health of their friends and family. However, those values do not invoke strong reactions because of how disconnected people feel from the reality of harm or death. Health and safety are ideas that seem complex and out of our own control, and therefore do not receive much weight when threatened. Therefore, framing drunk driving as a safety problem is not going to invoke much reaction from viewers.
Provoking Psychological Reactance
Psychological reactance theory has been defined as “an aversive affective reaction in response to regulations or impositions that impinge on freedom and autonomy.” (11) Essentially, when one is told in a threatening way not to do something, they feel that their freedom is threatened and their response is to claim their freedom by carrying out the banned action. This is a strong reaction because of the extent to which people value their personal freedom. Jack W. Brehm explains, “If a person’s behavioral freedom is reduced or threatened with reduction, the person will become motivationally aroused…this would presumably be directed against any further loss of freedom, and…toward the reestablishment of whatever freedom had already been lost or threatened.” (12) People are more likely to have psychological reactance the more dominant and controlling the message is, the more threatening the messenger is, and the less justification is provided with the message (13)
This campaign effectively did everything possible to provoke psychological reactance. The entire focus of the advertisements is to threaten and scare viewers out of drinking and driving. The message is very dominant and authoritative; complete with angry police officers positioned as the adversary, accompanied by dramatic, eerie music that further suggests an enemy is lurking nearby. Even the title of the campaign is an aggressive warning. (5-8) Furthermore, the justification offered is limited to the illegality of drinking and driving. The commercials don’t even attempt to connect drunk driving to the possible harm that can happen; they are entirely focused on telling the viewer that it is illegal and that they will get caught if they do it. (5-8) Additionally, psychological reactance is reduced when the messenger is relatable and likeable. (14) However, in this campaign reactance is only heightened by the messengers: law enforcement who are commanding and purposely framed as the enemy. Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over has a major weakness in that it inadvertently drives viewers to do the opposite of what it intends to promote because it is so prone to psychological reactance.
Overestimating Risk Perception
While part of this campaign does attempt to advertise the effects on people that drunk driving so often has, the campaign uses this information in a very ineffective way. On the Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over website, numerous statistics about drunk driving and death rates are front and center on the home page. They are visible on each page of the website, and upon clicking, one will find themselves engaged in an interactive quiz with a series of questions testing their knowledge about even more statistics. (8) Although these figures are truthful and quite staggering, the large numbers meant to daunt people do not have much of an effect. The makers of this campaign greatly overestimated risk perception in the people they intended to reach.
Humans are irrational when it comes to perceiving risk and understanding statistics. We often fall victim to the Optimistic Bias and the Law of Small Numbers. Optimistic bias is defined as “the mistaken belief that one's chances of experiencing a negative event are lower (or a positive event higher) than that of one's peers.” (15) This is the theory behind the cliché ‘I never thought it would happen to me’ mindset. Neil D. Weinstein’s findings conclude, “An optimistic bias is often introduced when people extrapolate from their past experience to estimate their future vulnerability.” (16) People believe, quite irrationally, that because they have been okay so far, nothing bad will happen to them. Hence, they attribute the large statistics to the rest of the population.
Furthermore, the Law of Small Numbers can cause people to perceive statistics in a very skewed manner. Daxhammer, Hanneke, and Nisch said, “According to the law of large numbers, large random samples closely represent the population from which they are drawn. In contrast, the law of small numbers is the effect that people think that small random samples are highly representative for their underlying population.” (17) The Law of Small Numbers causes people to have an illogical understanding of large statistics. Tversky and Kahneman propose that “people tend to believe in the law of small numbers, but not in the law of large numbers.” (18) This means, for example, that someone would believe they were much less likely to get in a drunk driving accident if all of their friends drunk drive and have not gotten into accidents. This is clearly not the case, but when campaigns use statistics, it becomes much more challenging for people to understand their realistic risks.
Relatedly, the Illusion of Control is activated when it comes to drunk driving. The Illusion of Control can be defined as “an expectancy of a personal success probability inappropriately higher than the objective probability would warrant.” (19) Typically, people give higher value to things that they have control over, such as the safety of driving while intoxicated. Humans trust our own control much more than is rational. Because of the Optimistic Bias, the Law of Small Numbers, and the Illusion of Control, Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over is ineffective in relaying the risks of drunk driving to their viewers.
Campaign Improvements Are Possible
Although this campaign has some major flaws, an effective anti-drunk driving campaign is possible! While Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over uses framing inefficiently, provokes psychological reactance, and overestimates risk perception in it’s target population, with some changes this campaign could be drastically more effective. I have a few suggestions that I believe would improve this campaign and more successfully reach the viewers and reduce the prevalence of drunk driving, ultimately saving lives.
To address the issue of weak frames, I would combine the frames currently in use, and center them on a strong central frame of freedom. I would make the argument that drunk driving is a crime because it threatens the freedom of innocent people that are often harmed in subsequent accidents, as well as the drivers themselves. I would argue that people have the right to be healthy and happy, and drunk driving takes that right away from everyone involved when accidents happen. The original crime frame was sending the message that people would be fine as long as they are not caught drunk driving, instead of telling them that it is dangerous for others and can have severe consequences. Framing the issue as a freedom problem while incorporating criminality of drunk driving and safety of those affected into the message would be effective in invoking reactions in people. It would put the viewer primarily in the shoes of those harmed by drunk driving rather than solely in the shoes of the person committing crime and being arrested. The core values of this revised frame are freedom and rights, which are universally strong values that trump safety and health. (12) Because of the United States’ history of fighting for rights and independence to live freely, many people in this country especially identify strongly with those values and will become defensive when they feel their freedom being threatened. (20) By re-framing the issue of drunk driving in this way, the campaign would become much more emotive for viewers and consequently would more successfully achieve the goal of reducing drunk driving.
Get on the Viewer’s Side
This campaign is very prone to psychological reactance because of the threatening approach used. To diminish this phenomenon but maintain the goals of the campaign, I would create a situation where viewers come to the realization of the message on their own. (13) Instead of using intimidating threats and dominant law enforcement presence, I would show the effects that the campaign is ultimately trying to reduce. Replacing the direct warnings with an emotional message that drunk driving is harmful will ultimately make viewers realize that they should not drink and drive. This angle also offers ample justification for the message of anti-drunk driving by showing the dreadful consequences, which makes it even less likely for the viewer to experience psychological reactance. (13)
People can more easily picture themselves in the position of a victim rather than a criminal, so making the messenger a person harmed by drunk driving would make them more relatable and thus send a much stronger message, whether the person was the driver or someone else. (14) Therefore, commercials consisting of the detrimental consequences of drunk driving on people, families, and communities would be much more likely to get through to viewers, and would actually position drunk driving as the enemy, communicating the fundamental message of the campaign. By changing the campaign to eliminate opposition to the viewer, we eliminate psychological reactance and consequently strengthen the message to reduce drunk driving.
Ditch the Statistics
Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over is very reliant on statistics and rates to inform their audience of the harms of drunk driving. Since statistics and large numbers are not very effective in making people understand their own risk, a different, more personal approach would be much more successful. Instead of using large numbers and population estimates of the harm done by drunk drivers, I would share detailed personal stories of those tragically affected by drunk driving accidents. Individual cases would be much more comprehendible to viewers, and would invoke an emotional reaction that statistics could not. A personal story has the ability to somewhat dissolve people’s optimistic biases and illusions of control by showing a real individual similar to the viewer themselves that experienced an unexpected tragedy. By making the viewer stop and think about the life of the person in front of them, the campaign would be much more effective in reaching viewers on a personal level and making them understand the extent of the risk of drunk driving. Ultimately, this approach would reduce drunk driving much more so than a cluster of statistics that people feel disconnected from. (21)
Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over has several flaws that hinder it from attaining its goals of reducing drunk driving. By reconstructing Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over into a new campaign, which we can call Think Twice to Save a Life, we could introduce changes that would make for a more successful public health campaign. The ineffective framing of drunk driving as a crime problem and a safety problem can be combined and enhanced, the psychological reactance that is so largely induced can be eliminated, and the harmful effects of drunk driving can be communicated without useless statistics.
The Think Twice to Save a Life program would use personal stories of individuals negatively affected by drunk driving to communicate the realistic risk of life altering accidents. The campaign would frame drunk driving as having taken away the freedom of these individuals to live healthily and happily, which would invoke a strong reaction in viewers. Ultimately, people watching the commercials or visiting the website would identify with the harmed individuals telling their stories, and would understand the risk that drunk driving has on both innocent people and the drivers themselves.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Effects of Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/Motorvehiclesafety/Impaired_Driving/bac.html
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drinking and Driving. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/drinkinganddriving/
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Impaired Driving: Get the Facts. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html
4. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA's Core Values. Washington, D.C.: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/NHTSA's+Core+Values
5. “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over,” YouTube video, 0:34, posted by "NYS DMV," January 8, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRu0IlOxJP0
6. “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over Motorcycle,” YouTube video, 0:30, posted by “MyFDOT,” August 31, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ILRoguA7wM
7. “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over Couple,” YouTube video, 0:30, posted by “MyFDOT,” August 31, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2NkztWW6IE
8. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over. Washington, D.C.: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. http://www.nhtsa.gov/drivesober/
9. Menashe C. L., Siegel M. The power of a frame: an analysis of newspaper coverage of tobacco issues – United States, 1985-1996. Journal of Health Communication 1998; 3(4):307-325.
10. Vito, G. F., Maahs, J. R., Holmes, R. M. Criminology: Theory, Research, and Policy. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2007.
11.Moss, S. Psychological Reactance Theory. Psychlopedia 2008.
12. Brehm, J. W. A theory of psychological reactance (pp. 377-392). In: Brehm, J. W. Organization Change: A Comprehensive Reader. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.
13. Dillard, J. P, Shen, L. On the Nature of Reactance and its Role in Persuasive Health Communication. Web of Science, 2007.
14. Silvia, P. J. Deflecting reactance: The role of similarity in increasing compliance and reducing resistance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 2005; 27: 277-284.
15.Klein, W. M. P. Optimistic bias. National Cancer Institute 2011.
16. Weinstein, N. D. Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems: Conclusions from a community-wide sample. Journal of Behavioral Medicine 1987; 10(5): 481-500.
17. Daxhammer, R. J., Hanneke, B., Markus, N. Beyond risk and return modeling-How humans perceive risk. Hochschule Reutlingen 2012.
18. Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science 1974; 185, 1124-1131.
19. Langer, E. J. The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1975; 32:311-328
20. Bullard, B. Polls show more Americans value freedom over safety. Personal Liberty Digest 2013.
21. Paulos, J. A. Stories vs. statistics. New York Times 2010.