Does football viewership lead to unexpected traffic accidents in Asia?

In early May 2019, I was invited to present my research at a university in Barcelona. At the time of my visit, FC Barcelona were playing Liverpool FC in a semi-final match of the UEFA Champions League. Barcelona was up 3-0 in the first leg, and I was lucky enough to catch the second leg in a bar in Barcelona. The atmosphere was fantastic; people were cheering and celebrating before the game had even started. 

Ninety minutes later, all cheers stopped. People in Barcelona were in tears. Liverpool pulled off one of the biggest upsets in football history by defeating Barcelona with an aggregate score of 4-3. 

I am a behavioural scientist originally from Hong Kong. I currently work in Singapore, and I was surprised to find that most of my friends back home were up late and watching the game. It must have been 3 or 4 am when I chatted with my friends on social media right after the game ended. 

At that time, I formed a hypothesis: Because virtually all high-profile football games are played in Europe, Asian fans must suffer from sleep deprivation in order to watch these games. This is because most European football games are played in the late afternoon/early evening local time (GMT + 0 to 2), which is the typical bedtime for most people in Asia (GMT + 7 to 9). 

In our new study, published in The BMJ, my co-authors and I found that this sleep deprivation as a result of watching football is positively associated with traffic accidents in Singapore and Taiwan. To test this idea, we analysed close to 2 million cases of traffic accidents in both Taiwan and Singapore over a six-year span. After statistically controlling for the drivers’ demographics (e.g., gender, age, experience of the driver), weather, and roadside conditions (e.g., wet vs. dry), and seasonal effects, we found that days where high-profile football games were aired also had higher than average traffic accidents in Singapore and Taiwan. 

Our research highlights that, annually, this increased rate of traffic accidents translates to approximately 371 accidents in Singapore and approximately 41,079 accidents in Taiwan, as well as economic losses of approximately US$ 900,000 in Singapore and US$ 15 million in Taiwan. The lower numbers in Singapore are not due to the fact that Singaporean drivers are more careful than their counterparts in Taiwan. It was because we only analysed accidents that involved taxis in Singapore whereas we analysed traffic accidents that involved all types of vehicles in Taiwan. As such, the number of traffic accidents associated with high profile football games is likely to be much higher in Singapore than reported in this study. 

Conducting this study was not easy. We had to retrieve daily traffic accident records from Asian countries and regions. Most Asian governments do not post such records online publicly, except Taiwan. We were also fortunate to have support from a private organisation in Singapore to provide relevant data. 

Although we only had data from Singapore and Taiwan, we expect the actual impacts of watching popular European football games on traffic accidents in Asia to be much larger. This is because the GMT +8 time zone (which includes both Singapore and Taiwan) is the most populous time zone in the world, with over 1.7 billion people. Critically, Singapore and Taiwan already have much better roadside infrastructure than some other countries and regions in this time zone, and it is very likely that these other countries and regions would observe even more traffic accidents as a result of this effect.

We recommend football agencies, associations, and leagues to consider scheduling popular games on Friday or Saturday evenings (local European time; Saturday and Sunday early mornings local Asian time) when fans in Asia have more opportunities to sleep in immediately after watching the games. This might have the potential to lower traffic accidents. Many popular games are now scheduled to play on Sunday nights (local European time), an arrangement which affects Asian drivers the most on Monday mornings when many of them have to drive to work. 

Fans should also be responsible. If you choose to stay up late to watch games, perhaps consider using public transport, or taking a taxi to work the next morning. 

Kai Chi Yam is an Associate Professor and Dean’s Chair at the National University of Singapore Business School. 

Competing interests: None declared.