Risky Business

Popular movie series gives a turbo boost to dangerous drivers 

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Exposure to movies, video games and other media  that glamorize risky behavior have been linked to … well, risky behaviors in a number of studies in recent years.  

But do pop culture messages propel people to take risks or do people prone to risky behavior gravitate to movies and games that reflect their way of life?  

Writing in The Upshot, Harvard Medical School physician-scientist Anupam Jena reports new evidence suggesting that high-speed driving in the “Fast and Furious” series may push some motorists into overdrive. His research shows a spike in tickets  for extreme speeding on weekends following the release of these films. 

Jena sat down with HM News to discuss his findings and their implications. 

HM News: What did you find in your data that suggests the movies triggered the increase in fast driving? 

Our data came from a large county in Maryland, where we presume the same drivers were on the streets more or less every weekend. But they  seemed to be driving their fastest on the weekends after the movies came out. 

Traditionally, most studies that look at these questions have tried to measure attitudes and impacts in controlled lab settings. 

We think a more promising approach is to analyze natural experiments that show how people actually behave after being exposed to risk-glorifying media. 

HM News: And what do these studies find? 

It varies. In some cases, the findings are counterintuitive.  For example, the release of a violent video game seems to have no effect on crime and may even decrease it, perhaps because, for some, playing video games is a form of psychological release that diffuses the urge to commit an actual crime.  Or, the simple act of playing a video game for hours on end means that that time isn’t spent in other, sinister, ways.

In other cases, the findings are grimmer. A recent study found that searches related to suicidal intent went way up with the release of 13 Reasons Why, a Netflix series that focused on teen suicide.   

HM News: What were you hoping to learn from “Fast and Furious”? 

Many studies have looked at risky or violent behavior in general, but since these movies portray street racing and reckless driving, we thought this would be a good case study in one specific type of risk-taking behavior: fast driving. 

HM News:  And what did you find? 

We looked at 192,892 speeding tickets recorded from 2012-2017 in Montgomery County, Maryland. Those years covered the release dates of three films in the series.  

We found that drivers who got caught speeding were driving at speeds much higher over the limit on weekends just after these films were released. The overall number of tickets doesn’t go up, but the amount that people are speeding increases. We suspect this is because these people would have driven fast anyway but now they are induced to drive faster. Comparing the three weekends before each movie’s release with the three weekends after, we found that the ticketed speed increased almost 20 percent, to an average of 19 miles per hour over the speed limit, from 16 miles per hour.  

Even more disturbingly, the number of extreme speeders—that’s people driving more than 40 miles per hour over the limit— more than doubled after the film was released.  And we know from location data on the tickets that these extreme speeders were clustered around the movie theaters in the area.  

HM News: How did you come up with this question? 

I’ve always been interested in the role that media plays in our lives. This specific idea came out of a brainstorming session with several excellent summer students. 

HM News:  Is there a bigger lesson here? 

One lesson is to keep looking for natural experiments that can give us insight into the way people behave in the real world. It is difficult to generalize conclusions about the effects of media exposure on human behavior without specific data.  It is critical to study this intricate interplay between message exposure and behavior because some of these scenarios have important real-world consequences.  

That’s the other lesson here:  Even a fantastic, out-of-this world movie franchise like “Fast and Furious” that has our heroes parachuting their cars out of a cargo plane into the middle of a high-speed chase on a twisting mountain road can have very tangible effects on the way people behave in the real world. 

Anupam Jena is the Ruth L. Newhouse Associate Professor of Health Care Policy at HMS. Co-authors Aakash Jain, an undergraduate student at the Duke University School of Medicine, and Tanner Hicks, a research assistant at HMS, also contributed to this research.


Challenging Common Knowledge

Economist and physician Anupam "Bapu" Jena analyzes compelling health care issues. Listen here.