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The thrill of victory, the agony of the car crash

By Bill Briggs:

As the radio announcer screamed that my favorite team, the Colorado Rockies, had just tied the game with a clutch ninth-inning knock, blue police lights abruptly gleamed behind my car. I slowed, steered to the shoulder and smiled.

Watching the ticket-toting cop stroll closer in my side mirror, I heard two things: the Rockies finishing their furious comeback by pushing home the winning run, and my then-5-year-old daughter howling in horror: “Daddy, please don’t go to jail!”

“Sir, do you know why I stopped you?” the officer asked.  “You were going 85 in a 55.”

“Yeah. My bad. The Rockies just rallied with three in the ninth. They just won!” I said. “I guess I got a little caught up in the action.”

“You serious?” the officer responded. “They actually pulled that out? Nice!”

So, I did not get a ticket. I did not go to jail. My daughter’s tears dried. And the Rockies finished the season in third place.

But true to my speedy tale, grave roadway dangers indeed lurk for drivers whose beloved teams just gnawed out nail-biting wins, according to a new study by researchers at North Carolina State University and the University of South Carolina.

They found that traffic fatalities increase in or near the hometowns of winning teams on game days.

“While some sports junkies will be quick to tell you they live and die by whether their favorite sports team wins, there may be more truth in their statements than they know,” the authors wrote. Their study was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The researchers dissected 271 pro and college sporting events played over an eight-year span -- all “highly anticipated football and basketball games, like playoffs and rivalry games,” they wrote. Because close scores often don’t reflect exciting finishes, the authors asked fans to rate the intensity of the outcomes: “1” for a “blowout” and “5” for “extremely close.”

Then they crosschecked the national Highway Safety Administration’s traffic facility database against the game dates and saw a link between the thrill of victory and the agony of a crash. The closer the games, the higher the rate of deadly accidents.

“For every one-point increase on that scale, we observed an approximate 21 percent increase in observed fatalities at the game location and a 29 percent increase at the winner’s home town,” said Stacy Wood, professor of marketing at N.C. State’s Poole College of Management.

“There was no increase in the loser’s hometown,” Wood added.

The researchers floated two theories. First, that many of the crashes involved in-game alcohol consumption -- although, they acknowledged, not all traffic records indicated whether the drivers had been drunk or sober. Second, high levels of testosterone churned up by vicariously soaking up a big win seemed to influence how those delirious fans later drove -- too recklessly or too quickly.

Artificially snuffing the fans’ joy is not the answer. The researchers suggest, however, that team and stadium officials use certain means -- like singing school songs or listening to players’ speeches -- to keep fans in their seats after the games, adding a “cooling off period.” That often happens naturally following college games.

“If fans are aware of this effect, if they feel like they’re walking on air, that’s the time to have that small voice in your head say, ‘OK, take a deep breath and be calm before you turn the key in the ignition.’ Just have that that little voice of caution,” Wood said.

Or you can learn from famously frenzied fans of Duke University’s basketball team. Dubbed the “Cameron Crazies,” Duke fans have a special clapping chant they shout for the losing squads and their backers: “Drive home safely!”

Bill Briggs is a frequent contributor to and author of the new nonfiction book, “The Third Miracle.”

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