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The Dangerous Distractions Of Spring Break


March Madness is upon us and also for many college students spring break. On that subject, there's new research that might give some students and their parents something to think about. NPR's Shankar Vedantam joined our colleague David Greene to tell us about it.



GREENE: So you're about to ruin spring break for everybody.

VEDANTAM: I think I'm going to make parents a lot more worried than they were, David. And here's why. There's new research into the effect that spring break has on traffic fatalities. I recently spoke with Michael French. He's a health economist at the University of Miami. He's recently conducted a study into the effect that spring break has on traffic crashes and deaths. He told me that even without examining the data, he had an intuition about the effects that spring break might have on traffic behavior. Here's French.

MICHAEL FRENCH: Personally, I live in a spring break hotspot. What I notice is that you have a lot more distracted drivers - texting while driving, using a handheld device while driving.

GREENE: So I guess this is what you can do when you're a researcher - you can kind of get a feel for something, which he did as a Floridian. He decides to test his intuition using numbers.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And then he decides to actually find out if there's empirical support for that intuition. Along with Gulcin Gumus, French analyzed 14 popular spring break hotspots. And French and Gumus also tracked down national traffic fatality data and correlated it with these 14 locations. And the researchers found that traffic fatalities shot up during the period of spring break. Here's French again.

FRENCH: For sure, there was a big spike during those weeks. It was about 9 percent more fatalities during that period across all 14 hotspots. It turns out that around the middle of March was the biggest effect.

GREENE: Seems circumstantial - but couldn't there be other things causing more crashes?

VEDANTAM: Potentially, David. Now, of course, it's important to remember that correlation isn't the same thing as causation. And in this case, you can't conduct a randomized experiment that can tell you for sure that spring break partygoers are causing this increase in traffic fatalities. But there are a couple of clues that French and Gumus have that are really revealing. Traffic-related fatalities seem to go up in these weeks specifically for people with out-of-town driver's license and specifically for young people, both of which of course point to the driving behavior of young people visiting from out of town for spring break.

GREENE: Does seem to suggest this might be spring breakers - any idea how much alcohol could be involved?

VEDANTAM: You know, David, when I first came by this paper, I assumed that alcohol would explain much or all of the findings. But surprisingly, the data do not suggest that crash victims have higher levels of alcohol in their blood. French actually thinks that these results might be the result of fatigue or distraction.

There's been independent work showing that when you have multiple young people in a car, you are more likely to have a distracted driver. These are people partying at spring break, so they might be up all night. They might be really fatigued and driving for breakfast in the morning. They might be texting using handheld devices. So there are a lot of other reasons besides alcohol why young people coming into town for spring break might end up being more dangerous drivers.

GREENE: Which makes me wonder - I mean, as important as it is, obviously, to send a message to young people not to drink and drive, you know, should campaigns focus on other things as well, like, you know, being distracted, being sleep deprived?

VEDANTAM: I totally agree with you, David. Much more attention might need to be paid to the issue of just being distracted or tired as a driver, not just being drunk. French actually has a very useful policy recommendation. He thinks that jurisdictions might figure out ways to build in travel vouchers for taxis into hotel and vacation packages so that spring breakers coming into town can get where they want to go without getting behind the wheel of a car.

GREENE: And don't have to worry about driving at all.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks as always.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That's Shankar Vedantam, who regularly joins us on the program to talk about social science research. You can follow him on Twitter at @hiddenbrain. You can also follow us. I'm at @NPRGreene. The program is at @MorningEdition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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