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Directions in Highway Safety, Fall 2008 Cover Page Download Newsletter pdf
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Fall 2008 | Vol. 11 | No. 3

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Into the Minds of Motorists

By: Phil Riley, Director, South Carolina Office of Highway Safety

The reasons behind highway fatalities in South Carolina are varied, but most are the result of people either driving while drunk or not wearing seat belts. So, last year, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety attempted something never done in the state before. We commissioned research that put us inside the minds of motorists- and it started with safety belts.

South Carolina Buckle Up Logo

Observational safety belt surveys are a good tool for determining the percentage of motorists who wear safety belts, but we wanted know why so many people in our state refused to wear them in light of the primary safety belt law that went into effect in December 2005 and advertising campaigns that demonstrated the life-saving potential of buckling up.

Our research has long shown that four demographic groups in our state were under-represented in safety belt usage-teenagers, African Americans, Hispanics and white male rural truck drivers. With that knowledge, and under legislative direction of the new primary safety belt law to conduct educational outreach to African Americans and Hispanics, we decided to dig deeper.

We brought in psychologists Dr. Michael Apter and Dr Mitzi Desselles of Apter International, Inc. to conduct research to identify emotional themes and motivations that drive people to do, or not do, something. Apter International is a pioneer in reversal theory, based on the idea that our experiences are shaped by a set of alternative ways of viewing the world. According to this theory, people are driven by eight core motivational states that are organized into four pairs of opposite states. These constantly move through a dynamic pattern of reversals within each pair. For instance, a teenager may rebel against the safety belt law while conforming to his peer group by not buckling up.

Respondents' comments ranged from the bizarre to the outrageous.

While safety belt usage was our primary interest, we also decided to have the research team explore people's motivations behind drinking and driving. To save money and time, we used the same respondents, with the understanding that the DUI interviews may not include some demographic groups at high risk for driving under the influence. However, the high risk behavior of not wearing safety belts may be associated with additional high risk behaviors such as drinking and driving. The researchers felt positively about utilizing the same base group for the DUI study, and we gained significant value from conducting both the safety belt and DUI interviews. The interviews proved provocative, sometimes humorous and often shocking.

After receiving the research results, it was incumbent upon us to use the research in a positive way. We decided to use it to craft highway safety messages that might reach the high risk groups. This year, during our state's DUI mobilization, we reissued an anti-DUI television spot from our successful Highway or Dieways campaign that began airing 20 years ago to show the personal consequences of driving drunk. We paired that commercial with a new enforcement spot that included findings from the research.

The TV spot, which had a counterpart on radio, opens with a South Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper introducing comments from the research study, including:

After a series of actors speak the responses, the camera transitions to a local law enforcement officer telling the viewing audience, "If that's you're attitude, we'll be seeing you soon." The spot closes as the view widens to a crowd shot of local and state officers and their vehicles.

The verbatim comments featured in the TV and radio spots corresponded to key themes the researchers found. After drinking, many respondents thought that not driving would create a hassle for themselves or others, while others exhibited sheer arrogance about their ability to drive after drinking and some simply liked the idea of defying the law.

By highlighting the actual responses of real motorists, we hoped people would either see themselves in the comments or be outraged. Either way, we hope the ads, coupled with enforcement, will motivate more South Carolinians to drive responsibly.

For more information regarding the Apter study, contact the Office of Highway Safety, SC Department of Public Safety at 1-877-349-7187.