Could TV Reminders Cut Down Drunk Driving?

Since the threat of texting and driving hit the scene, it feels like we’ve heard less and less about drunk driving. But it’s still very much a part of our culture. In fact, 2016 might have been one of the worst years in U.S. history for impaired driving deaths, with an average of 28 people being killed every day in a drunk driving accident, according to reporting by CBS News.

A team of Cornell University researchers has proposed an idea they believe could eliminate 35 drunk driving-related deaths per year in a city of 1 million people.

The magic bullet? More public service announcements on television, during prime time specifically. The researchers found that doubling PSAs during the most popular time to watch TV would have the power to do away with those 35 deaths.

“You need frequent and widespread exposure to these kinds of messages for them to influence rates of fatal accidents,” said study co-author Jeff Niederdeppe, an associate professor of communication at Cornell, to the university.

Why aren’t we seeing more prime-time PSAs?

Because prime-time advertising is so valuable, PSAs usually air outside of peak viewing hours. Stations sometimes often this advertising time in the interest of getting important safety and health messages to their viewers and fulfilling federal obligations to serve “in the public interest.”

But “the only PSAs we’re really seeing have a big impact are those airing in prime time, which of course are the most expensive,” Niederdeppe said. “Because these campaigns usually rely on time donated by the networks, they’re not airing very often in prime time, and their potential impact is likely much higher than their actual impact has been.”

Drunk Driving pbs rewireThe PSAs also need a very obvious anti-drunk driving message in order to save lives, the researchers found. Anti-alcohol abuse PSAs—which make up 30 percent of today’s alcohol-related PSAs—do nothing to prevent fatal drunk driving crashes, the researchers found.

The researchers compared data from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting Systems, a database of all drunk driving accidents in which at least one person died, to all alcohol-related PSAs run across the country from 1996 through 2010.

During those 15 years, the average media market—a city or group of cities that watch the same TV channels—aired alcohol-related PSAs during prime time only seven times per month. That’s only seven times across all stations in one month. Not many people were seeing them, the researchers said.

But a doubling of prime-time drunk driving-related PSAs was associated with a lessened fatality rate the next month and for several months after that. The findings suggest the benefits of prime-time PSAs accumulate over time. PSAs aired during low-traffic times weren’t nearly as effective.

“Anti-drunk driving PSAs should be planned and designed with the same strategic focus and level of investment committed to commercial advertising campaigns,” the researchers wrote.

PSAs in the streaming era

Researchers pointed out that viewers are turning more and more away from traditional television and toward online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Roku and YouTube. People—especially young people—are also watching video on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. These services don’t yet have the same federal obligations as TV stations do to serve in the public interest, the researchers said.

They suggested that the public health organizations that are creating PSAs for TV adapt to reach a migrating audience. Luckily, running ads online is still a lot more affordable than TV time.

“You probably can’t rely on donated media time to get that exposure and have a widespread impact,” Niederdeppe said “It means we’ll have to invest in efforts to educate the public if we care about this issue.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.