Do NASCAR Races Contribute To Motorists' Wrecks?

New research indicates that five days after major NASCAR races, there is a measurable increase in traffic accidents caused by aggressive driving.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As NASCAR fans know well, this year's Daytona 500 race was marked by rain delays and a massive explosion when a race car collided with a jet dryer truck. The race was supposed to be run on Sunday, but after all the delays, it got done early Tuesday morning.

We want to tell you about some new psychological research now that suggests the race might still not be over for some viewers. It's possible, according to this new research, that people who watch a NASCAR race go out on the roads themselves and drive more recklessly. NPR's Shankar Vedantam joins MORNING EDITION regularly to talk about interesting social science research. And Shankar, welcome.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, David. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So what is this research?

VEDANTAM: So this is work done by a psychologist called Guy Vitaglione. He's at the West Virginia University Institute of Technology, and he looked at all the traffic accidents that took place in West Virginia over a four year period, and then he tried to find the kinds of accidents that mimic what happened on a race track, where there are multiple cars or where the police officer on the scene lists the cause of the accident as aggressive driving.

And he finds that five days after major NASCAR races, there is a spike in traffic accidents. And he did a whole bunch of controls to make sure he was being as conservative as possible, and over a four year period he's found 650 extra accidents on West Virginia roads that he believes are caused by people essentially acting out NASCAR in their own driving.

GREENE: Now, let's hang on a second. I mean most people watching a NASCAR race on TV clearly know that it's a race. They know they can't drive the same way as a professional race car driver. I mean, is this researcher saying that people can't distinguish between what they're watching on TV and their own driving?

VEDANTAM: No, I don't think that's what he's saying. He's actually coming out of a large body of social science research looking at media effects in general, so when there's a highly publicized suicide in a community, people often find there's measurable increase in suicides in that community afterwards. So what the media covers seem to have a powerful effect in helping people shape their own behavior.

Vitaglione is saying the same thing might be happening in the NASCAR races. Here he is.

DR. GUY VITAGLIONE: There is the conscious awareness that I'm watching a NASCAR race, I'm not actually in a NASCAR race, and tomorrow when I drive to work I'm still not in a NASCAR race. But that understanding does not take away from the impact that mass media exposure is going to have on the way you think and the way you feel and what you actually do.

VEDANTAM: So, you know, I want to point out, David, that the effect that Vitaglione's finding is not necessarily a huge effect, but if you have 650 accidents in this one small state over a four-year period, how many accidents are we seeing nationwide?

GREENE: Let's try to pick apart this research a little bit. I mean we have a spike in accidents on the fifth day after a NASCAR race was run.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

GREENE: Why five days, not two days, not three days?

VEDANTAM: You know, so this is a big question. He actually doesn't know the answer to that question. I mean, one possibility is that NASCAR races typically are run on Friday, Saturday, and Sundays, and five days after the NASCAR race, you know, you're heading into the next weekend. Maybe it's a Friday. Maybe people...

GREENE: More people are on the road going on vacation for the weekend...

VEDANTAM: Possibly. I mean the short answer is we don't know. There's speculation, but we don't really know why it's five days.

GREENE: Do we know anything about the people involved in the accidents, whether they're young, old, NASCAR fans?

VEDANTAM: You know, we actually don't know exactly the profile of who gets involved in these accidents. Now, Vitaglione things that there isn't a demographic profile, that it's not necessarily, for example, young men who are getting involved in these crashes. But he thinks they may be a psychological profile about the kind of person who watches this race and is then influenced by it. Here he is again.

VITAGLIONE: They are rooting for someone. They want someone to win or they want someone else to lose, and so there's that vicarious involvement in the outcomes of these competitions. So there's that role of personal identification with the people that you're watching that I think has an especially strong effect on an individual's likelihood to engage in that behavior himself or herself.

GREENE: OK. So interesting research, a lot of questions about it, but if we take the premise, I mean if people who watch NASCAR races actually go out and drive more recklessly, what can be done about it?

VEDANTAM: You know, this effect is likely happening because people aren't realizing what they're doing. They aren't realizing that they are unconsciously internalizing what they see on NASCAR on television to their own driving behavior, and so doing what you and I are doing right now, which is making this unconscious process conscious, may itself have a salutary effect.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. He joins us regularly to talk about trends in social science research, and you can give him ideas and feedback on Twitter @hiddenbrain. And while you're at it, you can follow this program @morningedition.

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