THERE IS A television program called "The Dukes of Hazzard." I watch it sometimes because it is so bad, because the acting is so awful, the Southern accents are so bad, the arid Southern California terrain is so unlike the South and because most of the time the people in it do nothing more than ride around in cars, make fun of the local fuzz and ride around in cars some more. This is the way I spent my youth.
In my youth, though, people who drove the way the actos do on "The Dukes of Hazzard" wound up either in the clink or in the hospital or before a judge. At the very least, they could not drive their cars through barriers, over water, up ramps and over trees without doing some damage to the springs or the body or parts of the car that are always being cited to me by mechanics but which, like the Loch Ness monster, I have never seen -- the manifold, for instance.
It would be one thing if the Dukes were the only ones on television who drove as if life were the demolition derby. They are not.In fact, they have spawned some imitators and some progeny, but even before the tube got to look like Hee Haw on wheels, reckless driving already was a television staple. No kid who learned to drive from watching television could survive puberty.
Now far be it for me to attribute the way kids kill themselves on the road to what they see on television. I cannot, in some scientific way, prove that one can cause the other. In fact, I am sure that there are studies galore that prove just the opposite and it is these studies that I really want to believe. The others are always being cited by groups that want to censor television or movies in the name of safety, sex or sanity. I fear them almost as much as I do reckless drivers.
But life, at least the little part of it I have savored, tells me that there really is some connection between what people see on the screen and the way they behave. I, for one, took a bathrobe as a kid, slung it from my shoulders as a cape and drove off the end of my parent's bed a la Superman. Had I done the same thing out a window, MasterCharge would be hounding someone else to pay his bill.
Years later as a teen-ager, I recall leaving the movies after seeing some violent film and thinking that nothing could be more fun than a fight. I particulary felt this way because all the fights in the movies were fun. No one ever got hurt -- a proposition I discovered was not true the first time someone gave me a shot in the mouth.
Of course, there are limits to the effect that a movie or a television show can have on a viewer. But it seems clear that some people do emulate what they see on television. After a particularly celebrated suicide, for instance, there is a spate of them, less celebrated, to be sure, but just as deadly. And after an execution, the murder rate really does fall (only to rise quickly again) and after some particularly compelling violent deed is enacted on television, it is duplicated in real life. The National Coalition on Television Violence counted 16 deaths by Russian roulette after television showed the movie "The Deer Hunter."
If there is a cause-and-effect relationship between what is shown on the screen and what happens in real life then when it comes to reckless driving and violence, television has much to anwer for. Television teachers, after all, that reckless driving is commonplace, frowned upon only with boys-will-be-boys admonitions. It almost never results in serious injury or death (not to mention a traffic ticket) and is almost totally without consequence. In real life, of course, both reckless driving and violence have all kinds of consequences.
But real life, the television industry will tell you, is a long way from what happens on the screen. They say that kids who see violence on the screen know better than to act violenty in real life -- an update of the old line that no book ever seduced a woman, I, for one, would love to believe that, except that the networks demand, and the sponsors pay, incredible sums of money simply because people do emulate what they see on television. Television can't have it both ways. If the sponsors aren't suckers, then the viewers are -- especially the ones who drive the way they drive on television.