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Can Too Much Information Increase the Risk of Drunk Driving?

New research explores why people ignore risks associated with impaired driving.

There is no question that impaired driving is a major public health threat.

In the United States alone, alcohol-related driving accidents account for more than 12,000 fatalities a year (about 40 percent of all traffic-related fatalities) and well over 250,000 injuries annually. Despite repeated public service announcements, greater use of field sobriety tests, and tougher sentencing for repeat offenders, impaired driving still accounts for an estimated one out of every ten arrests made in the United States (over 112 million alcohol-related driving offenses annually). In real terms though, this is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2010 alone, surveys showed that an estimated 4 million U.S. adults admitted to impaired driving at least once that year, though most are never caught or convicted.

But why is impaired driving so common? Virtually every driver is well aware of the potential consequences of impaired driving, whether it involves getting into a serious accident or being arrested for impaired driving. Every student driver is obliged to learn about traffic laws relating to alcohol abuse along with numerous public service announcements on television, radio, and in print. Unfortunately, actual research tends to show that none of these attempts at educating the public are really that effective in curbing potentially harmful behavior.

While we are bombarded with warnings about the dangers of impaired driving, smoking, substance abuse, or poor nutrition, making people aware of these risks doesn't necessarily lead to them making different choices in their lives. When it comes to impaired driving in particular, experimental research suggests that exposure to messages about responsible drinking may actually increase the likelihood of impaired driving under certain circumstances.

To understand the reasons for this, it's important to look at recent advances in motivational psychology and how we weigh the costs and benefits associated with any potentially risky behavior. With smokers, for example, the craving for cigarettes can often override any concerns about health by focusing on the positive aspects of smoking instead, i.e., being more relaxed and relieving the craving. For people who have been drinking, the need to get home by the most direct method (which typically involves driving), can make them downplay the actual risks associated with being impaired on the road. When it comes to public service announcements about the negative consequences of impaired driving, they may often decide to disregard or distort the message that is conveyed and assume that the negative consequences don't apply to them for whatever reason.

One particular factor that comes into play when making health decisions deals with the need for closure (NFC). By and large, people dealing with ambiguous situations tend to try resolving that ambiguity any way they can so they can decide how to respond. According to social psychologists, how we attain closure often depends on the how urgently we need to make a decision and how permanent the solution we come up with may be. For individuals with a strong need for closure, this often involves relying on whatever information might be available to make a quick decision, whether this information is accurate or not. When looking at the question of whether to drive while impaired, for example, someone with a high need for closure would downplay the potential risks involved and simply focus on doing what is necessary to get home as quickly as possible. And this could include misinterpreting any information that might interfere with that goal.

A new article published in the journal Health Psychology explores the often-paradoxical link between public education and risk of drunk driving using three research studies. Conducted by Mark B. Johnson of the Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation and Catalina E. Kopetz of Wayne State University, the studies examined the different cognitive processes people often use to make health-related decisions and what it can mean for impaired drivers.

In their three studies, Johnson and Kopetz recruited research participants from the waiting area at a Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration office as well as students at a large mid-Atlantic university. The participants were evenly divided between males and females and ranged in age from 18 to 56. Along with completing questionnaires measuring NFC and providing demographic information, the participants completed different measures looking at the likelihood of drinking and driving as well as cognitive tasks measuring the accessibility of risk information relating to impaired driving. Accessibility refers to how available certain memories can be, which in turn can shape the kind of decisions people make based on those memories.

For the purpose of the research studies, accessibility was measured using word search puzzles in which participants searched for sixteen words during a ten-minute period. In the high-accessibility condition, six of the sixteen words were directly related to the risk of impaired driving (i.e., crash, police, swerve, arrest, risky, drink) while the low accessibility condition used only neutral words. Participants also completed tests of NPC and statements describing ethical dilemmas relating to drinking and driving (i.e., whether they would call for a taxi over driving themselves even if the taxi was less convenient).

Across all three studies, over ninety percent of research participants reported driving several times a week or daily. They also stressed the greater convenience of driving which gave them more mobility than other forms of transportation. More than 60 percent admitted to driving within two hours of drinking at some point over the previous six months. The researchers also found evidence for a significant interaction effect linking self-reported likeliness of driving and accessibility of risk information, particularly for participants with a high NFC. This result held up regardless of the gender or age of the participant or how often they reported driving.

As Mark Johnson and Catalina Kopetz point out in their conclusions, we continue to be bombarded with public service announcements, driver's education courses, and media stories about the dangers of impaired driving. For most people, however, driving is seen as the most direct and convenient way of getting home and other alternatives, such as taking a taxi or relying on a designated driver, may be seen as taking longer and being more difficult to arrange. Being aware of the risks associated with impaired driving often does little to deter people from making risky choices.

People high in NFC appear especially likely to suppress or ignore accessible information relating to risks of impaired driving and may simply decide that the benefit of getting home quickly overrides the risk of being caught or getting into an accident. Other factors that may cause people to overlook the risk of impaired driving and boost NFC can include dealing with a time constraint (such as the need to get home by a certain time) or having their judgment impaired by too much alcohol or fatigue.

While more research is definitely needed, these results demonstrate that individuals' personal goals can often shape how they respond to public service announcements warning them about dangerous or unhealthy behavior. Future public service campaigns can try taking this into account by describing healthy alternative behavior rather than simply warning people about potential dangers. For example, rather than relying on slogans such as "Stay alive, don't drink or drive", messages such as "Take a taxi/Uber, don't drink and drive" might be more effective for many people.

Ultimately, we all make our own life choices and that includes decisions about unhealthy behaviors such as impaired driving or cigarette smoking. Reassuring ourselves that "it can't happen to me" often does more harm than good and, as we can see from the toll impaired driving takes each year, it most definitely can happen to us.


Johnson, Mark B.,Kopetz, Catalina E. The unintended effects of providing risk information about drinking and driving. Health Psychology, Vol 36(9), Sep 2017, 872-880

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