Scare Students out of Drinking and Driving with a Hoax?

The Oceanside Unified School District in California, along with the California Highway Patrol, decided to conduct a program in which law enforcement officers went into classrooms, announced the names of students who had been killed after drinking and driving, reading obituaries, and placing roses on the desks of the dead students.

Many students cried and became hysterical to learn that their girlfriends or boyfriends, classmates, and friends had been tragically killed. At this point, some school counselors admitted that it was a hoax perpetuated to discourage them from drinking and driving.

Grief turned to fury when they learned they had been fooled. Some students made posters declaring: "Death is real. Don't play with our emotions," and a number of parents complained to the state's education department.

Nevertheless school officials defended their hoax, saying it gave students the opportunity to experience of real grief. "They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized," said guidance counselor Lori Tauber, who helped organize the shocking exercise and got dozens of students to participate. "That's how they get the message."

But what message was really being conveyed? "You feel betrayed by your teachers and administrators, these people you trust," said a 15-year-old student. Perhaps students also learn that they can't trust their teachers to present truthful information about alcohol issues. By the time they're in high school, they've probably already realized that they were misled and deceived by their Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) officers.

What young people want and need is factual, accurate information instead of trickery and more deception.

There's no evidence that causing such trauma has the intended effect. To the contrary, research for over 75 years has demonstrated that fear appeals rarely work and are often counterproductive.

An effective alternative is to tell students the truth about the real incidence of drinking in their schools by conducting surveys and publicizing the results. Most students falsely believe that most other students drink more alcohol and more frequently than they really do. By correcting this misperception and freeing students from the false belief that "everybody's doing it" they are empowered to drink less or to abstain.

Generally known as social norms marketing, the approach has repeated been found effective in inexpensively and quickly reducing alcohol consumption among students.



  • MADD terrorizes high school students, Musings Over a Pint, June 2, 2008.
  • Hoffman, Allison. California High school students hit with hoax, Daily Herald, June 13, 2008.
  • A cruel hoax, Las Vegas Sun, June 18, 2008.

Filed Under: Drinking and Driving