I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
Tremendous advances in traffic safety have been made over the past two decades, with successes coming from advances in engineering and changes in driver behavior. While new developments in automotive technology will continue to make automobiles more crashworthy, the best-engineered car is only as safe as the person who drives it.
For this reason, the personal and social domains - those of individual perceptions, attitudes, behaviors, and social understanding - must remain a major focus of efforts to improve the safety of our roads. This is especially true in the reduction of alcohol-related crashes and fatalities, which are entirely caused by personal choices and behavior and are therefore 100-percent preventable.
Rates of impaired driving in Montana are disturbing. In 2002, Montana ranked first in the nation for alcohol-related fatalities per Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), up from fourth in 1999.15 13 Although the State achieved a 60-percent reduction in alcohol-related crashes between the 1980s and the mid-1990s,11 progress has since stalled. Alcohol and/or drug-related crashes account for approximately 10 percent of all car crashes in the State, a figure that has been holding steady for the past five years.12
As in other States, differences exist between sub-populations and their relative representation in traffic injuries and fatalities. In Montana, young adults play a disproportionate role in incidence of crashes involving driver impairment. In 2002, 21-to-39-year-olds represented less than a third of the State's licensed drivers, but were involved in nearly half of its alcohol- and drug-related crashes, with 21-to-24-year-olds having the highest percentage involvement.12
A common assumption drawn from this kind of data is that an underinformed public is not sufficiently aware of the serious consequences of impaired driving. If only the public perceived the urgency and seriousness of the problem, the logic goes, its behavior would change. But while most health and social justice groups vie for a share of the public's attention, traffic safety advocates have been highly successful at putting the seriousness of impaired driving at the forefront of public awareness. Surveys from NHTSA have shown that Americans consider impaired driving a more pressing social issue than health care, poverty, or education.14 Clearly, widespread public awareness and concern for the prevention of impaired driving has not been enough to fuel continued success in reducing the number of alcohol-related crashes and fatalities.
This situation underscores the need for new research to help illuminate the ways in which media could be used to increase the protective factors and decrease the risk factors associated with impaired driving in young adults.