Mock Car Crashes - What You Need to Know!

Talking about ineffective and counterproductive strategies as you build the capacity of your community partners can be highly challenging for all involved, particularly if the practice under discussion has become a tradition, is close to your community partner's heart, or was their response to a tragedy or other personal experience with substance abuse.

It can be downright devastating to learn that our best intentions may have been fruitless, or actually contributed to increases in the very behaviors we're trying to prevent; however, as effective preventionists, we must be equipped for these important conversations. 

Mock car crashes involve resource-intensive fear appeal strategies organized and funded by well-meaning people, institutions and public and private agencies across the United States. Their primary goal is to influence the poor driving decisions of teenagers by decreasing driving under the influence behaviors.

Proponents of mock car crash events believe these goals are attained by showing a hard-hitting, detailed reenactment of a fatal car crash scene and emergency responders and law enforcement in action. Typically, these strategies are implemented in schools and communities under program banners like Every 15 Minutes, Shattered Dreams, Grim Reaper Day, Ghost Out and White Out Day, and are often preceded by activities that include pulling students from class to represent the rising death toll from teen dui.

Despite their expense, these types of programs have been clearly demonstrated by research to be ineffective at best, and to likely reinforce the behaviors they are trying to prevent. What does the research actually say?

Fear appeals do not lead to positive behavior change.

  • De Hoog, N., Stroebe, W. & De Wit, J. (2005) The impact of fear appeals on processing and acceptance of action recommendations, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 31,1, pp. 24-33.
  • Lewis, I., Watson, B. & Tay, R. (2007) Examining the effectiveness of physical threats in road safety advertising: The role of the third-person effect, gender, and age. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, vol. 10, 1, pp. 48-60.
  • Ruiter, R., Abraham, C. & Kok, G. (2001) Scary warning and rational precautions: a review of the psychology of fear appeals, Psychology & Health, vol. 16, 6, pp. 613-630.
  • Hover, A., et al. (2000) Measuring the effectiveness of a community-sponsored DWI for teens. American Journal of Health Studies; 16:171-176.

Fear appeals lead to increases in risky behavior.

  • Brehm, J. (2009) A Theory of Psychological Reactance (pp. 377-390). In: Burke WW, ed. et al. Organization Change: A Comprehensive Reader. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Taubman Ben-Ari, O., Florian, V. & Miculincer, M. (2000) Does a threat appeal moderate reckless driving? A terror management theory perspective, Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 32, 1, pp. 1-10.
  • Zimmerman, Robert. Social Marketing Strategies for Campus Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems. Newton, Mass.: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, 1997.
  • Steele, Claude M., and L. Southwick. "Effects of Fear and Causal Attribution About Alcoholism on Drinking and Related Attitudes Among Heavy and Moderate Social Drinkers." Cognitive Therapy and Research 5 (1981): 339-350.
  • Hasting, Gerard, and M. Stead. "Fear Appeals in Social Marketing: Strategic and Ethical Reasons for Concern." Psychology and Marketing 21 (2004): 961-986.

Fear appeals are least effective among those who most need to change their behavior.

  • Ruiter, R., Abraham, C. & Kok, G. (2001) Scary warning and rational precautions: a review of the psychology of fear appeals, Psychology & Health, vol. 16, 6, pp. 613-630.
  • Witte, K. & Allen, M. (2000) A meta-analysis of fear appeals: Implications for effective public health campaigns, Health, Education & Behaviour, vol. 27, 5, pp. 608-632.

Traumatic scenes, images and other fear appeals create psychological trauma.

  • Wakefield, C. & Campain, J. (2006) Don’t Do It! Ineffective Prevention Strategies. Prevention Brief, Colorado Department of Education.
  • Brown, J., D’Emidio-Caston, M. and Pollard (1997) Students and Substances: Social Power in Drug Education Evaluation Review. 19 (4) 451-492.
  • Pfefferbaum, B., Seale, T. W., McDonald, N. B., Brandt, E. N., Rainwater, S. M., Maynard, B. T., Miller, P.D. (2000). Posttraumatic stress two years after the Oklahoma City bombing in youths geographically distant from the explosion. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 63, 358–370.
  • What Triggers PTSD (2016) WebMd. Retrieved from:

Secondary Traumatic Stress and Post Traumatic Stress responses can be triggered by environments that replicate the dynamics of the original trauma.

  • Zgoda, K., Shelly, P., & Hitzel, S. (2016) Preventing Retraumatization: A Macro Social Work Approach to Trauma-Informed Practices & Policies, The New Social Worker Magazine, retrieved from:
  • Gil, S. et al. (2005) Does Memory of a Traumatic Event Increase the Risk for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Patients with Traumatic Brain Injury? A Prospective Study, 162 AM. J. PSYCHIATRY 963, 963.

One-time events focused on teaching about the negative impact of unsafe behaviors do not result in behavior change.

  • Elkington J., Hunter K. & Makay, L. (2000) A systematic review of the evidence on preventing injuries to young people (15-24 years), Youthsafe
  • Gottfredson, D. (1997) School Based Crime Prevention, In Sherman, Gottfredson, Layton, McKenzie, Reuter, Bushway. Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising, A Report to the United States Congress. College Park, MD: University of Maryland, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
  • Glendon, A., McNally, B., Jarvis, A., Chalmers, S. & Salisbury, R. (2014) Evaluating a novice driver and pre-driver road safety intervention, Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 64, pp. 100-110

Fatal Vision goggles do not decrease drunk driving

  • Jewell, Jeremy, and Stephen D. A. Hupp. “Examining the Effects of Fatal Vision Goggles on Changing Attitudes and Behaviors Related to Drinking and Driving.” The Journal of Primary Prevention 26.6 (2005): 553-65.

No evidence base supports Fatal Vision goggles effect on youth or adolescents in the 10-17 age group.

Remember, relationships are a key to creating sustainable change in your community, so be gentle; however, we cannot work against our goals by supporting practices that reinforce trauma or substance use.

Call or email me if you want to talk,

Joe Neigel, Monroe Community Coalition
(360) 804-2594


Broken link?

Great information, Joe!

I'm trying to access the last link in your post (effectiveness of Fatal Vision goggles) but the link is broken. Could you please repost?

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