Summary of Responses by Group

The sections below provide summaries of the responses to the topics raised during the focus groups. Some comments are quoted directly because they seem to capture the essence of the group’s reactions. The comments are presented by major topic rather than by individual question since the wording of the questions varied somewhat from city to city.

The presentation of results is organized into the four primary audiences for the focus groups:

  • Generic Males
  • Generic Females
  • Risky Males
  • Safer Males

The presentation of results for the Generic Females, Risky Males, and Safer Males will focus on those aspects that differ substantially from the Generic Males.

Generic Males – Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Seattle, Washington

General Driving Information

Behind-the-Wheel Experience
The range of behind-the-wheel experience was from one week to three years for these boys. One young man with one week’s experience only got his learner’s permit to participate in the group and should probably have been eliminated.

Driving Ability:
When asked to rate their driving skills, responses fell into the 6-to-10 range with most responses around 8. Driving Responsibility was reported in the 0-to-8 range with most responses around 6. Interestingly, the only young man who gave himself a 10 for skill also gave himself a 0 for responsibility. His experiences will be discussed in greater detail below.

Crash Experience
Most of the Generic Males focus groups in Fort Lee and Seattle reported being involved in a traffic crash. Most of these crashes were minor although a few males in each group reported more serious crashes such as flipping their cars, running into a house, and losing control on wet leaves and hitting a telephone pole.

Citation Experience
In Seattle, all the affinity groups participants and three of the focus groups either had tickets or were pulled over. One member of the affinity group reported receiving a total of 21 tickets for such things as speeding and reckless driving, but his parents obtained a lawyer for him who managed to get 20 of the tickets thrown out, so he still has his license. All of the other drivers in the affinity group also reported receiving tickets for reckless driving, speeding, and failure to wear safety belts. As a group, these young men exhibited all of the characteristics of risky drivers.

The majority of Fort Lee drivers reported receiving tickets or being pulled over for speeding or running red lights. Several of them have been pulled over multiple times.

Unsafe Driving Behaviors

We asked the participants to make a list of the three or four most unsafe things they believed that drivers could do.

The items most frequently mentioned are listed below. Comments about each behavior are provided in the paragraphs that follow. The order in which these items were mentioned varied somewhat from group to group but they all emerged without prompting from the facilitator.

  • Driving drunk (or impaired by drugs)
  • Talking on cell phones
  • Fooling with radio or CD player or getting caught up in the music
  • Road rage
  • Drowsy driving
  • Speeding
  • Driving “old”
  • Talking to friends in the back seat
  • Failure to signal lane changes
  • Street racing (different from driving over the speed limit)
  • Putting on makeup (mentioned by more males than females)
  • Other distractions such as eating, flirting with girls

Drunk Driving
Four of the 12 Seattle focus group participants reported having driven after drinking. The reasons given were:

  • Afraid to ask parents for ride;
  • Have to get home and no other way except driving; and
  • “I wasn’t thinking.”

One young man reported that he drove drunk once because he really did not realize how drunk
he was. When he stopped at a stoplight he reported seeing multiple lights, which made him realize that he was “really wasted.” He has not driven drunk since.

Three of the 12 Seattle focus group participants have ridden with a drunk driver. Their reasons

  • “The person did not seem drunk.”
  • “He knows his limits and would not drive if he felt he was too drunk.”
  • “I didn’t have a license so there was no choice.”

The majority of respondents reported that they could tell when someone was too drunk to drive.
They did not see driving after one or two beers to be a problem. They also indicated that their friends would not endanger them and would not drive if they had had too much to drink. Several
participants indicated that they drive with their parents routinely after the parents had been drinking and if that was OK, why should it be different for their friends?

The Fort Lee group reported fewer instances of drunk driving (or riding with a drunk driver) than
the Seattle groups. These young males more routinely reported that their parents had drilled the risks of drunk driving into them so they believed it was not worth the risk.

All of the groups had participants who reported taking the keys from a friend who was too drunk
to drive. They only considered this though if the person was “totally wasted,” not just “slightly

Talking on Cell Phones
All of the groups indicated that talking on a cell phone was a hazard when other people did it, but they all used their phones while driving. They felt that they were experienced enough drivers to be able to cope with the distraction. Some did report that it was hard to control the car while holding the phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other, or while driving a stick shift. Some reported they had mastered the art of steering with their knees. Only one or two participants reported using a hands-free set for their phones.

Talking to Friends
When describing this hazardous behavior, participants universally demonstrated holding their hands on the steering wheel and turning around to talk to someone in the back seat. This behavior was identified as hazardous for a variety of reasons including:

  • More likely to show off in front of friends;
  • Friends did crazy things like covering up the driver’s eyes or tickling the driver just because it would be fun;
  • Encouraging the driver to speed, chase someone, or do other stupid things, like try to jump a curb or “pop a donut”;
  • Giving sudden orders such as “Turn here!” which the driver may follow without checking for other traffic; and
  • Overcrowding the car with six or seven kids in the back seat, making it hard to see and control the vehicle.

The participants generally indicated that riding with friends was only a problem in the “early days” of driving until the new driver had developed better skills. This early period, however, was reported as lasting just “a few weeks or maybe months.”

When asked about graduated licensing laws that limited the number of passengers, the respondents unanimously complained that they were a bad idea. They did not believe they could be enforced - (“How can a police officer tell if the person next to me is my cousin or my friend?”) They also argued that these laws put more kids at risk since they all had to drive separately to meet at the movies or a party rather than carpool. Some also argued that it might be safer to drive with friends because they provide an extra set of eyes to locate hazards, keep you from falling asleep, and help you with directions.

Fooling Around with Radio or CD Player
All of the participants acknowledged that being distracted while driving was a hazard. Looking down to adjust the radio or to find a CD was reported more universally than eating or watching someone outside the car. The groups indicated that this was something they just had to learn to do without taking their eyes off the road.

It is interesting to note that many of the collisions that were reported by participants occurred when they took their eyes off the road for a second. The car in front stopped unexpectedly and they rear-ended it.

It was difficult to discuss speeding with the groups because of their perceptions of what constitutes speeding. In all the groups, respondents indicated that they routinely drove from 5 to 10 miles above the speed limit, especially on expressways. They felt that was necessary to keep up with traffic, which is what their driver’s education instructors had told them to do.

Participants were most aware of speeding as a problem in bad weather, or on local streets.
Generally they claimed to speed less on neighborhood streets (during daylight hours) because
they were afraid to hit a small child.

Those who confessed that they drive too fast reported the following as the reasons why:

  • They were late;
  • It gives them a rush;
  • Speed limits are too low;
  • They only do it when no one else is on the road; or
  • They are skilled enough to handle the car.

Drowsy Driving
It is hard to make general statements about drowsy driving. A participant at one extreme reported, “It is more dangerous than drunk driving because there is nothing to do to get rid of the feeling of being really sleepy, but if you concentrate when you are drunk you can make it home.” At the other extreme, some participants reported that they never felt really sleepy so it was not a problem.

The majority of respondents indicted that they had experienced severe sleepiness more than once. Most common times include:

  • Very, very late at night, coming home from an event;
  • Early morning driving to school; and
  • Late afternoon driving home from school.

While most participants indicated it was dangerous, they did not consider not driving. They did not want to pull over and take a nap because they felt that was dangerous. They routinely opened the windows, turned the music up loud, and occasionally exceeded the speed limit to get home sooner.

Street Racing
Focus groups suggest that organized street racing is very popular in Seattle but less so in Fort Lee, although males in all locations reported having driven in excess of 100 MPH. This type of speeding is not the same as simply exceeding the speed limit. It is designed to test the limits of the car, and the skill and courage of the driver. The situations in which street racing is likely to occur include:

  • Semi-organized events at recognized locations (e.g., Renton, south of the Seattle airport)
    where hundreds of teens gather every Saturday night;
  • At red lights; and
  • On the expressway late at night or early in the morning with very little traffic.

The two The Fast and the Furious movies are credited with generating a lot of interest in street racing.

The semi-organized events draw significant police attention but this did not deter most participants from participating in street racing. When asked about alternatives such as using racetracks, the participants responded that those options exist but that they are too expensive ($35). If they were free, they would use them. The appeal of these events is the ability to test one’s car against the competition, the social aspects of “chilling with other kids,” and the thrill of the adrenalin rush.

More common than the organized street racing is the phenomenon that occurs at red lights. Apparently there is a “look” that passes between two drivers stopped at a red light, challenging each other to a drag race. Teen males believe that this challenge must be accepted.

Even teen male participants who would describe themselves as safe drivers generally admit to having reached speeds of more than 100 mph on the expressway late at night when no one was around. The interesting contrast is how these participants react to that experience. Some report how much fun it was, how thrilling it was, and how they cannot wait to do it again. Others confess to being scared to death and vow they do not need to ever try it again. These two opposite reactions to the same stimulus are discussed in more detail in the section on Risky and Safer Male focus groups.

Things That Others Do
The participants in Seattle and Fort Lee also identified several behaviors that other drivers do
that put road users at risk.

These include:

  • Road rage;
  • Putting on makeup, reading books, or doing anything else that totally distracts the driver;
  • Failure to signal lane changes; and
  • Driving “old.”

Even though the male drivers confessed to breaking lots of laws, they felt strongly that the police should more aggressively enforce the laws against violations that others commit. Every group ofmales, in all four cities, mentioned girls putting on make-up as a very unsafe behavior. (It is interesting to note that none of the female groups mentioned this behavior.) The young men, who reported regularly exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 miles per hour, were the most concerned about other drivers who do not signal lane changes. They relied on these signals as they wove in and out of traffic at high speed. Those who break the law depend on other drivers to be good drivers and to obey the law.

The male drivers also expressed concern about the ability of older individuals to drive. They expressed significant frustration about how slowly they drive.

Behaviors That Were Only Discussed When Prompted
Two behaviors that were of interest to the Working Group were not spontaneously mentioned by the male groups in Seattle or Fort Lee:

  • Failure to wear safety belts
  • Following too closely

Reactions to safety belt use varied widely from group to group and city to city. The male affinity group in Fort Lee reported they all always wore their safety belts, in the front seat or in the back. They claimed that their parents had drilled this into them, refusing to move the car until they were all belted. The boys all went to the same private high school and their parents all knew one another. This same group claimed they would never drink and drive again because their parents had made such a big deal of it.

The Fort Lee Focus Groups reported more mixed levels of use. All participants except one, the only Hispanic, reported they always wore safety belts in the front seat. About half of the focus group participants reported they wore belts always in the back seat with the other half reporting that their use depended on who was driving and general conditions. For example, if a friend who is known to be a reckless driver is behind the wheel, or if they are going on a long trip, they are more likely to buckle up.

The one individual who said he hardly ever wore his safety belt reported that he believed that safety belts could harm you. He believed the stories he had heard about people being thrown free from a crash or others being decapitated by their belts. When one of the other participants told about a crash in which his girlfriend was killed because she was not buckled up in the back seat, the Hispanic teen said he would give it more thought.

In Seattle, 8 out of 12 participants reported they always used safety belts in the front seat but only 2 were regular users in the back seat. Those who were regular users indicated that safety belt use had become a habit. If they occasionally did not buckle up, it was because they had simply forgotten. They also indicated that they felt that the fine for not wearing a belt was too high to take the chance of getting a ticket.

When asked about parental interest in safety belt use, one comment was made that parents are too busy to notice or care. This comment was made by someone who does not regularly wear belts.

Following Too Closely
In Fort Lee and Seattle (and in all other cities as well), following too closely was not spontaneously mentioned as an unsafe behavior but once mentioned by the facilitator, it prompted a lively discussion. In both cities and in all groups, the participants’ typical reaction was that they hated it when people tailgated them. They thought it was dangerous and annoying. Their typical reaction was to slow down to punish the tailgater.

However, the same individuals who rallied against tailgaters admitted that they frequently tailgated others. It was most likely to occur on local streets in response to individuals driving at or below the speed limit. While some indicated that they tailgated on expressways, most indicated that it was too dangerous to follow too closely there. When asked if they felt that it was dangerous for them to tailgate, the tailgaters responded that they were confident they could react in time if the car in front stopped suddenly.

Motivation for Changing Behavior

While the males in Fort Lee and Seattle acknowledged that they might not always drive
responsibly, they did not believe they should or would change their behaviors. They generally
felt that they were in control of their vehicles and would not change their behaviors until perhaps
they were older and had children. While they did feel responsible for the people in their cars,
most felt that their friends knew their driving habits and by agreeing to ride with them, they were
accepting the risk.

When asked what scares them most about being responsible for a serious crash the following factors were mentioned:

  • Fear of going to jail;
  • Fear of the guilt that would come from killing someone else;
  • Fear of losing parent’s trust; and
  • Fear of “breaking parent’s heart if I died.”

When pressed, they indicated that they would not want to die, but if they killed someone else it might be better to have died themselves.

The young man from Seattle with 21 traffic citations listed the things he was most afraid of, in descending order of importance:

  • Wrecking his car;
  • Getting a ticket (which would result in his losing his license); and
  • Losing his life.

Given these fears, however, he refused to consider the possibility of changing his behavior, which consisted of regularly driving over 100 mph. He had already wrecked four cars and had changed his behavior only somewhat because of these crashes. He no longer drove over 100 mph when it was raining because he lost control on a neighborhood street on a rainy night and crashed his car into a house. When the weather is good, however, he believes he can drive at speeds over 100 mph with minimal risk because his “perception is heightened” when he is speeding.

The facilitator then asked the groups to identify what might motivate other teen drivers, not them, to change their driving behavior. The responses included the following:

  • Male teens count on their friends to tell them if they are doing something stupid. Teens therefore are the most likely individuals to be able to influence the driving behavior of their friends.

  • Personal experience is the most likely factor to cause a change in behavior. If a driver has a crash or a near-miss, he is more likely to change behavior after the crash.

  • To bypass the need for actually experiencing a crash in order to drive more carefully, other teens who have had bad experiences should talk to groups of teens about the consequences of the crashes they experienced.

  • Presentations to teens should not spare the gory details. They need to see what it is like to be confined to a wheelchair or to lose a limb. They need to see scars.

  • Increased enforcement would likely have an impact on driving behaviors of young males who are most afraid of losing their ability to drive.

Message Concepts

To begin the discussion of traffic safety messages that might be effective with teen males, the facilitator asked the audience to identify any traffic safety messages they could recall hearing. The results from Fort Lee and Seattle males included:

  • Click It or Ticket;

  • An anti-marijuana ad depicting a young man mourning his brother killed in a car crash in which he was driving while stoned;

  • An anti-marijuana ad depicting a young girl getting run down by a group of teens at a fast-food drive-thru;

  • None of the youth recalled hearing or seeing any messages against drunk or impaired driving; and

  • The marijuana ads were remembered more because they were “silly” than because of their impact. The ad involving the brother did have an impact because it touched on their fear of killing someone close to them.

When asked what messages or message styles would be most effective, the Seattle and Fort Lee males responded as follows:

  • Make messages like the Truth ads on cigarettes. They present facts and leave the conclusion up to the viewer. They do not preach or talk down to kids. They clearly respect the intelligence of teens to make smart choices if they are presented with undisputable facts. They “make me think.” They present information in visually shocking ways, like showing a popsicle studded with razor blades and glass, to represent all the hazardous additives in cigarettes. They have “high production values” (teens’ words).

  • Use lots of high-impact graphics that leap off the page or out of the TV set, such as wrecked cars, gory images, and unusual ways of showing the numbers of kids killed.

  • Avoid messages that can easily be mocked. Every group commented on the Dave Chapelle parody of the marijuana fast-food drive-thru ad. The popularity of the parody completely undermines the effectiveness of the real ad.

  • Involve teens talking to teens, preferably teens who have been involved in crashes.

  • Present real statistics that show the magnitude of the problem.

  • Present information that counters the urban myths about safety belts and air bags being dangerous.

  • Have parents deliver message that they care about their children and that they would be devastated if they died. (One young man in Seattle indicated that the reason he drove more carefully than his friends was that his parents asked him to be careful and told him that they loved him every time he took the car.)

  • Communicate that there is a lot of enforcement and that “Cops are everywhere” because, for some, the only thing that will change their behavior is fear of losing their license because of points.

  • New drivers should be told that it is not cool to drive crazy.

  • Some kids might be affected by information about the increase in insurance costs of they have crashes or get tickets. Many of the kids, however, reported that their parents pay for their crashes and tickets so this message might not impress them.

  • One young man suggested a visual image of people moving in traffic without their cars to show how vulnerable they really are.

Delivery Mechanisms

The groups were asked to review a list of possible delivery mechanisms for communicating traffic safety messages to teens. The group then discussed each item on the list. The mechanisms recommended by the Seattle and Fort Lee males, and the comments made about them are listed below:

  • Radio: Teens listen to the radio a lot but they do not like to listen to commercials. Radio should be used but it should be carefully used. DJs should read copy rather than using prerecorded messages because the kids will change stations as soon as they hear a pre-recorded commercial. The messages should consist of statistics and probing questions that make the kids think about driving differently. Morning drive time is the preferred time since kids listen to the talk/music shows while driving to school. The Seattle group emphasized the need to create the illusion that police are everywhere. DJs could do this by simply interjecting, “You better slow down, did you see that cop behind you?” Males in each city identified their favorite radio stations.

  • Web sites: Web sites that cater to males could be used, but they will not be as successful as radio stations. Web sites dealing with car modifications, car sales, and sports (e.g.,, custom car sites, and would be the most promising. The Fort Lee males recommended, a site that shows disgusting pictures of car crash injuries, diseases, and deformities. This group also placed the most emphasis on using gore to capture attention. Pop-ups should not be used at all to convey messages because it will backfire since “everyone hates pop-ups.”

  • Magazines: The generic males generally did not like magazines as a delivery mechanism because they do not read much. If magazines were going to be used, it should be limited to car magazines, racing magazine, and sports magazines that appeal to young males. Men’s magazines (Playboy, Maxim) were also mentioned but it seemed to be more of a joke than a real suggestion. Articles in the car magazines, with compelling graphics, would be the most effective, focusing on statistics of car crashes.

  • Celebrities and Sports Figures: Sports figures would be the most believable, particularly if they have been involved in a serious crash and can report on the effect it had on them. Racecar drivers might also be effective. Some males indicated that celebrities associated with street racing, such as Vin Diesel or Paul Walker, could be used, but others in the groups thought they would seem hypocritical.

  • Local Figures: The only local figure who could have an impact on teens would be the local coroner or medical examiner or paramedics. These spokespersons should address school groups to talk about the kids who get killed. Police officers are viewed as “the enemy” and are not respected.

  • Cell Phone and Internet Text Messaging: These mechanisms should not be employed because they are considered annoying. It is possible that messages could be placed on the welcome screens to AOL, Instant Messaging, and MSN because some people might click through to learn more. Again, they should be factual news stories that present information to make the teens think.

  • Cable TV Networks: If powerful TV commercials could be made, they should be placed to run on popular cable networks and around popular shows, such as The Simpsons, Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network, ESPN, Spike, and MTV.

  • Movie Theater Trailers: There were evenly divided reactions to placing traffic safety messages in movie theaters. Some males thought it was a great idea because they loved going to the movies and they have nothing else to do but watch the screen. Others felt that it would be annoying to watch serious messages when they are expecting to be entertained. If messages are run in movie theaters they must be high-impact and thought-provoking, with lots of facts and graphic images.

  • School officials: These should not be used. School events can be considered. The males in Fort Lee and Seattle indicated that events like Dead Outs and wrecked cars have an impact on some kids. Placing a wrecked car on the school lawn, especially if you can still see the blood, captures attention.

  • Other:
    • Billboards, placed at on-ramps, should be considered. They should consist of a high-impact photo (and maybe no words), to serve as a reminder.

    • Small group discussions held in school can be effective in getting kids to express how they feel and to hear some facts that they may not have considered.

    • Panel presentations at school assemblies involving people who have lost loved ones to crashes or who have been responsible for killing someone else should be considered.

    • Parents should be aware of how much of an impact they have on their teenage kids. They should be telling their children how much they worry about them, how important it is that they wear their safety belts and drive responsibly, and how they would be devastated if anything happened to their child.