New Mexico’s Drunk Driving PSA: Does the “Shock Factor” Still Work?

Drunk driving has been a public health menace for as long as the car has existed. All of the factors that enable drunk driving – public apathy, lax enforcement, peer pressure, youthful overconfidence  – have been present for over a century now, but so too has the knowledge that the practice is dangerous and should be prevented.

public-dangerFor a long time prevention centered on youth. Driver’s Education classes featured a generous helping of discouragement, usually in the form of vivid crash videos. Anyone from the baby boom or earlier eras will remember movies with titles like “The Bottle and the Throttle” and “The Last Date.” Some of them were obvious exceptions to the general prohibition against obvious gore in films – presumably because it was educational in nature.

The tradition continues in New Mexico, where NMDOT has produced a drunk driving PSA designed to scare people into driving sober. The film shows a drunk driving crash from the point of view of an EMT.

“The blood, the carnage, the screams of pain, the tears…” The film shows them all, and while it doesn’t revel in gore, it doesn’t shy away from blood either.

Here’s another NewMexico anti-drunk-driving message, from the point of view of a highway patrol officer.

But does a drunk driving PSA like this really work? Remember that drunk driving education stressed the carnage and sorrow for decades, during which little progress was made. What began to bring down the numbers was a concerted effort by road safety organizations to get law enforcement to crack down on impaired driving, and media campaigns that helped make drunk driving socially unacceptable.

The biggest influence in bringing down New Mexico’s drunk driving death stats was the introduction of strong anti-drunk-driving legislation. After a terrible and widely-reported fatal crash on Christmas Eve in 1992, in which a woman and three children died, advocates were able to pass much stricter DWI legislation, including an ignition interlock law. New Mexico was the first state to require all drunk drivers, including first offenders,  to install the devices. The result was a marked and immediate downturn in alcohol-related road deaths.

There’s more to do. In absolute terms, New Mexico’s drunk driving death rate is still too high – substantially higher than national rates in the 21-34 age range. But it is clear that legislation – particularly ignition interlock laws – and good enforcement can save lives.

“If people had to see what I see, they’d never drink and drive again,” says the EMT in the film. That’s probably true. But we don’t all get the chance to observe the carnage first hand, which is why we depend in ignition interlocks, the police, and the courts to keep drunk drivers from reoffending.