Driving is dangerous. In 2014, a total of 29,989 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the U.S. resulted in 32,675 deaths.
Many of those who contributed to these fatal crashes were repeat offenders, or individuals who regularly drove while drunk, drove over the speed limit or otherwise engaged in other reckless behaviors while driving.
“Surprisingly, these drivers usually don’t consider themselves as risk takers,” explained Thomas G. Brown, an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University and researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal. “If drivers don’t believe they are risky, they will not accept the need to change. On the other hand, if we and they don’t understand their behaviour, how can they be expected to change it effectively?”
To better understand the psychology behind risky drivers, Brown and his colleagues performed a study entitled Personality, Executive Control, and Neurobiological Characteristics Associated with Different Forms of Risky Driving. The results of this study were published on Feb. 24, 2016, in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
Brown and colleagues wanted to understand whether or not high-risk drivers share common behavioral, personality and neurobiological traits. By studying the psychology behind repeat offenders, it may be possible to craft new, effective interventions to save their lives and make roads safer.
The researchers recruited 138 male participants between the ages of 19 and 39 and divided them into four distinct groups. The first group (36 people) was the DWI group, or individuals who have repeatedly driven under the influence of alcohol. The second group (28 people) was the SPEED group, or reckless drivers who were caught speeding or committing another moving traffic violation three or more times in the past two years. The third group was the MIXED group (27 people), or people who met the criteria for both the DWI and the SPEED group. The fourth and final group (47 people) was comprised of low-risk drivers and served as a control.
Participants performed multiple cognitive tests and filled out behavioral questionnaires designed to measure inhibition, impulsivity, personality traits, decision-making skills and thrill-seeking behavior. The researchers also looked at whether or not participants had a history of drug or alcohol abuse and criminal behavior. Researchers measured how well participants drove using a simulator and analyzed their cortisol levels — a hormone engaged in the stress response — after having the participants complete a stressful task.
The researchers found that each of the three high-risk driving groups — DWI, SPEED, MIXED — had distinct emotional and behavioral profiles.
- DWI: Compared to the control group, individuals in this group demonstrated severe alcohol abuse and greater levels of disinhibition, or a diminished ability to stop themselves from performing risky behaviors. They were considerably less likely to take risks when sober.
- SPEED: Members of this group were more likely to be sensation seeking “adrenaline junkies.” They also demonstrated high levels of disinhibition as well as disadvantageous decision-making and risk-taking behavior.
- MIXED: People in this group demonstrated high levels of sensation seeking and substance misuse. They also were more likely to exhibit antisocial personality features, or a tendency to disregard the rights of other people. They were strongly motivated by external rewards.
All high-risk groups experienced less cortisol release than the controls during a stressful situation, suggesting that they were less biologically sensitive to stress.
What does this mean?
Since researchers now better understand how certain high-risk drivers think — and how these thoughts differ from those of other high-risk drivers — clinicians may be able to craft more efficient interventions.
For instance, people who tend to drive drunk might benefit from exercises that improve their ability to recall negative consequences for drinking and driving, since they are less likely to make risky decisions while sober. People who make dangerous driving decisions while sober might benefit from performing exercises such as sports to raise their adrenaline when they’re not on the road. Since people who drive drunk AND drive recklessly while sober tend to be reward-motivated, it may be helpful to use contingency management, a behavioral therapy that encourages positive behavior via rewards.
In the end, these results provide clinicians with some much-needed guidance when it comes to treating individuals who engage in risky driving.
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About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.