Oscars Can Add Drama to Roadways

Benson & Bingham

Last Sunday millions of households tuned in to watch the 91st Annual Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars. (The “Oscars” nickname derives from the golden statuettes given to winners, though the exact origin of that name is contested. [1]) The broadcast was held on Sunday, February 24, and while many households watched it on a television screen an increasing number of viewers are opting to stream the event online. Last year’s show posted the lowest ratings of all time, and several factors are cited for the decline. [2] Controversies about the lack of diversity in positions of power within Hollywood were front-and-center, and as the audience for the Oscars broadcast trends younger the pressures to create a succinct and streaming-friendly show are mounting. There are even tensions between the Oscars’s twin goals:  putting on an engaging but not overly long show for the general public is at odds with giving even the most obscure figures in the movie industry a platform to celebrate their work and appreciate their recognition. [3]

Despite the Oscars’s many challenges, it remains a highly relevant aspect of American popular culture. Movie releases for films deemed “Oscar-worthy” are still timed for the late part of the calendar when audiences have greater opportunities to watch movies – due to the holidays, extended time off, etc. – and when films can build momentum from a series of film festivals to the Golden Globe awards and then parlay those successes into the ultimate victory: an Oscar. Oscars-viewing parties remain popular, with guests sometimes dressing up in their black-tie finery and hosts sometimes concocting a version of a red-carpet event. A centerpiece of any Oscars party is a pre-show ballot, which guests use to try and predict the night’s winners in each category. While the nominees for Best Picture and Best Actor/Actress are often high-profile, it is the rare Oscars viewer who can proffer anything more than a wild guess for categories like Best Sound Mixing.

Another staple of Oscars-viewing parties is alcohol. While this year’s event was a “trim” 3 hours and 20 minutes, [4] the event often runs near or in excess of 4 hours. When people are socializing and consuming alcohol over such an extended period, they are at higher risk of over-consuming. Even those who attempt to remain conscious of their alcohol intake may lose track of their baseline – it is easier to monitor how intoxicated you feel in the first hour of drinking than it is after maintaining a buzz for two or more hours. But unlike the glamorous stars and Hollywood insiders stepping into and out of limousines all night at the Oscars, most viewers have to make it home on their own. On Oscars night, this can present several increased risks of injury.

February – which generally plays host to the Oscars broadcast [5] – is in some respects the safest month to be on the roads. According to 2016 data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), alcohol-related fatalities are relatively rare during the winter months, and crashes during the month of February make up the smallest share. [6] (Of course, February is also the shortest month, with two or three days fewer than the other winter months.) The NHTSA also collects data on fatalities incurred in speeding-related crashes, and those data reflect that February is neither among the most dangerous months nor among the safest. [7] February is the deepest part of the winter in the United States. While that may mean little to Las Vegans who enjoy relatively warm and sunny days year-around, in snowier parts of the country the winter weather likely depresses automobile use and may contribute to February’s relatively strong safety profile. Those effects are more pronounced in northern Nevada’s snowier communities, especially Reno and the larger Lake Tahoe region.

There is another potential risk on Oscars night, one that is inextricably wound up with the role the Academy Awards plays in popular culture. One recent study found that Generation Z was the age cohort most likely to watch the Oscars, with one-third of those surveyed saying that they planned to watch. [8] Those born in Generation Z make up roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population, [9] and most of them are now of driving age. Broadly speaking, they are also famously attached to their smartphones, Twitter feeds, and other means of staying in the know. Thus, a large and growing share of the population, a cohort that by both youth and attitude seems to be inclined to follow popular culture closely, is now increasingly getting behind the wheel on Oscars night. This young cohort is also at higher risk of drinking and driving as well as of speeding and undertaking other risky driving behaviors, but even beyond that is a hazard unique to the social media age: distracted driving.

Overall, teen drivers are among the most likely to engage in distracted driving, including texting while driving. (Here, “teen drivers” are defined as drivers between ages 15 and 19.) According to NHTSA data for 2016, teens ages 15 to 19 made up 8 percent of all distraction-affected crashes. [10] Distracted driving accidents killed 10 percent of all teen drivers who lost their lives in automobile accidents. This small bloc of drivers – representing just a four-year span of all drivers age 15 to way-too-old – made up 9 percent of all distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes. Carmakers and lawmakers alike are trying new strategies to limit the risks of distracted driving. The increased use of integrated hands-free phone systems, improvements in voice-text translation, and features that disable text messaging and other functions on mobile phones while the owner is driving combine with increasingly stiff criminal penalties for those who get behind the wheel without their full attention on the task at hand.

These innovations may not be the stuff of blockbuster films, but they can save lives and make our streets safer – and not just on Oscars night.

[1] http://mentalfloss.com/article/48892/why-are-academy-awards-statuettes-called-oscars

[2] https://variety.com/2018/tv/news/oscars-early-ratings-shape-of-water-down-1202718015/

[3] https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/20/18232253/2019-oscars-academy-awards-backlash-kevin-hart-ceremony-…

[4] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/91st-oscars-tv-ratings-sunday-feb-24-2019-1190257

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Awards#Telecast

[6] https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/Publication/812450

[7] https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/Publication/812480

[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/tonifitzgerald/2019/02/24/study-whos-watching-the-oscars-mostly-young-m…

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Z#Characteristics

[10] https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/Publication/812504

Benson and Bingham