Making Drunk Drivers Work in a Morgue Won’t Stop Drunk Driving

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Earlier this week, The Guardian reported that Thailand has a new “shock treatment plan” for drunk drivers, requiring repeat offenders to spend some time working in the morgues of public hospitals.

“They should see the actual mental and physical damage,” Anurak Amornpetchsathaporn, the director of emergency response for Thailand’s Bureau of Public Health, told The Guardian, adding that the work will emotionally affect people in a way that more conventional community-service punishments don’t. “They will have to be cleaning up and transporting bodies, so that hopefully they would feel the pain, so that they may understand and attain a good conscience, so that it could be safer on the roads.”

It’s a noble sentiment. It’s also somewhat of a misguided one.

“Fear-arousal tactics usually don’t work in getting people to behave better or be healthier,” says Alexander Wagenaar, a professor of health outcomes and policy at the University of Florida. “There’s only one particular situation where a fear-arousal tactic will work, and that’s when you have an immediate, one-time solution to resolve the anxiety” — for example, gathering people together in an auditorium in the midst of a deadly flu pandemic, explaining the extent of the danger, and then announcing that flu shots are available in the next room.

Such one-and-done fixes, he says, are “very different than flossing your teeth every day for the rest of your life, or not driving drunk every day for the rest of your life.” Expecting one instance of fear to permanently alter behavior is the same philosophy behind Scared Straight, the widely discredited 1970s program in which at-risk youth toured adult prisons as a means of, well, scaring them straight. (And some research even suggests that it may have the opposite effect, actually increasing recidivism among the kids who participate.)

Benjamin Hansen, an economics professor at the University of Oregon who’s studied drunk driving, says that fear is particularly ineffective when there’s a culture of acceptance around drunk driving — something that Thailand is currently grappling with. The country’s new morgue policy was enacted as a preventive measure leading up to Songkran, a holiday that involves an unfortunate combination of booze and travel as people return to their hometowns to celebrate. Drunk-driving accidents have traditionally been such a problem during this time, in fact, that it’s earned itself the nickname “Seven Dangerous Days.”

Wagenaar listed three broad categories of anti-drunk driving measures that have proven effective: making it more difficult to drink and drive (by hiking alcohol taxes, for example, or more strongly enforcing laws against serving someone who’s visibly intoxicated); making it impossible to drink and drive (like rigging a car so it won’t start if the driver fails a breath test, or South Dakota’s “24/7 Sobriety” program); and deterrents, like the Thai policy was designed to be.

Where the morgue-time-as-punishment concept fails as a deterrent, though, is in its timing — specifically, in the amount of time that can go by between getting caught and actually serving the punishment.

“The way to deter behaviors like this is, you have to combine a very high probability of detection, a high chance of getting caught, with an immediate consequence,” Wagenaar says.

“The things that are most effective are punishments you can tie to the time of the offense,” Hansen agrees. Suspending a person’s license the day after an incident, in other words, may be more effective than a longer legal process, even one that ends in an emotionally jarring sentence like handling dead bodies.