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Does finger length predict risky driving?

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

How can we better understand how “risky” a particular person is when driving? Some people are very risky, whilst others are far more cautious and less likely to have an accident. We know that males are more risky than females and that there is increased risk of an accident if you are under 25 years old or over 75 years old, but other factors also contribute to how risky a person is.

One approach is to treat the tendency to take risks as a personality trait. This trait can then be measured through questionnaires such as the Traffic Locus of Control ScaleThese questionnaires can tell you a great deal about people and they do predict driving behaviour, but not as much as you might expect. One study found that personality traits could explain 39% of the variability in risky driving and only 20% for accident involvement[3].

It seems that these personality questionnaires can help us to understand driving risk, but only to some extent. Why is this? Obviously there are many other factors that contribute to risky driving and accidents: age, sex, alcohol consumption, etc. However, another issue is how accurately a person responds to a questionnaire.

Social desirability is a bias towards giving an answer on a question that is not necessarily an honest response, but a response that will be viewed more favourably by others. For example, when asked to rate how often you overtake a slow driver on the inside, you may report doing this less frequently than you really do to portray a more socially acceptable image of yourself. This might be even more exaggerated if the questionnaires are being completed for occupational reasons. You really wouldn’t want to tell your employer, or a potential employer, that you frequently undertake!

Is there any way to resolve this issue? It is obviously advantageous to know an individual’s level of risk taking, but does the subjective nature of a questionnaire reduce, at least to some extent, the validity of the data collected from them? If a more objective measure were available, one that could not be manipulated to “look better”, we might be able to make more accurate judgements of whether an individual is a risky driver.

Finger length might provide this more objective measure of risk taking when driving. Although it may sound bizarre, your finger length, more specifically the relative lengths of your ring finger and index finger, is determined by the amount of testosterone that you are exposed to whilst in the womb.

Take a look at your index finger (the second digit, 2D) and your ring finger (the fourth digit, 4D) on your dominant hand – the hand that you write with. In most men, the index finger is shorter than the ring finger, whereas in women, the index and ring fingers tend to be of similar lengths or the index finger is slightly longer than the ring finger. This relationship between the lengths of the index finger and ring finger is called the 2D:4D ratio.

If your index finger is shorter than your ring finger, you have a low 2D:4D and this means that you were exposed to high levels of testosterone prenatally. In contrast, if your ring finger is shorter than your index finger, you have a high 2D:4D and this indicates low levels of prenatal testosterone exposure.

Research has shown a strong relationship between personality and 2D:4D. One study found that people with lower, or more masculine, digit ratios scored higher on measures of sensation seeking[4]. The relationship between digit ratio and sensation seeking seems particularly relevant to driving risk as high sensation seekers are more likely to drive faster than 80 mph, drive after consuming alcohol and race other drivers[5].

A recent study looked directly at the possible relationship between 2D:4D and driving behaviours[6]. They found that people with low 2D:4D ratios, so those with higher levels of prenatal testosterone exposure, had more points on their licence. This seems to suggest that measurement of the 2D:4D ratio may provide a more objective indicator of how likely a person is to drive in a risky manner.

When assessing an individual to identify whether they drive in a risky manner it is important to get as much information as possible about their driving behaviours. Perhaps the measurement of digit ratio could contribute to this initial assessment and help to maximise the benefits of subsequent training.

Dr Victoria Bourne (BA Hons, DPhil)

Counsultant to Driving Risk Management

[1] Ozkan and Lajunen (2005)

[2] Reason et al. (1990)

[3] Iversen and Rundmo (2002)

[4] Austin et al. (2002)

[5] Arnett (1996)

[6] Schwerdtfeger et al (2010)

Don’t rise to the bait

Friday, February 5th, 2016

Road rage occasionally makes the news when drivers really lose their temper but there are earlier stages of this potentially dangerous condition that many of us witness, or are even subject to ourselves, on a day to day basis. Some of us are prone to a form of road rage because we take other peoples’ actions far too personally when we’re driving, so it may be helpful to have a look at why we do this.

So why do we take things so personally when we’re in our cars and why does it matter? Let’s tackle the second part of that question first. It matters because anything that takes our mind off the road can contribute to an on-road incident. When we allow ourselves to get angry with another road user, that person becomes the focus of our attention, which often clouds our ability to make good driving decisions and can increase the chance of being involved in collisions.
Take this typical scenario, which many of us might have witnessed first hand.
You’re on a motorway stuck in a traffic jam which extends well beyond an on-slip. A car drives down the slip road toward the traffic jam and you can almost see all the drivers in the vicinity saying “I’m not going to let him in…..I’m not going to give him an advantage.” Drivers can get quite belligerent about it, especially if they’ve been caught up in the jam for a while and tempers are wearing thin.
It’s as if those caught in the jam thought the joining driver had been following them for months, waiting for a chance to get one up on them and get further ahead in a traffic jam just to annoy them. The truth was of course much more mundane and far less threatening. Rather than being some strangely patient stalker, the other driver would have had little option but to drive the length of the slip road and join the traffic jam wherever he could. But many drivers don’t see it like that and gradually close the gap between their car and the one in front in a vain attempt to shut the newcomer out, which is of course when many typical motorway low speed rear end shunts occur.
So, back to the question of why we let other peoples’ actions affect us so badly. The first thing to note is that it isn’t the logical part of our brain that does the thinking when we are angry; it’s the more primitive areas. When someone cuts us up on a motorway we don’t think “Well that was rude” and carry on driving. Instead we react emotionally. Even if we don’t decide to hunt them down and remonstrate with them, there are a few seconds after the incident where our focus is not on the road in general or the traffic around us but on the person who cut us up.
There is even a sporting analogy to consider. How many times have you seen a football team score right after something unusual or distracting happens? The temptation is to allow our attention to become focussed on the wrong thing. Sports psychologists are only too aware of it. They know that when a team scores, the resulting euphoria causes their focus and attention to drop for just long enough to allow the opposition to score one back almost immediately.
The same is true on the road. If you allow your concentration to drop, so that you get caught out when others around you drive badly, you’re increasing the likelihood of being caught up in an incident for that short period. In short, you’re allowing your emotions to control your vehicle, rather than the logical part of your mind. You’re also allowing the other person affect how you drive. If you’re involved in an incident on the road, and then drive differently from the way you had originally intended, you’re effectively allowing that other driver to control your actions.
I would suggest that it’s far better to accept, from the moment you get behind the wheel, that you may come across others who won’t show you the courtesy you think you deserve. At that point it’s also crucial to accept that you can do nothing to influence their actions. Instead, it’s far better to drive as you had originally intended and be in total control of your actions; after all, that is the only way to win on the road. Remember that moments of anger and inattention pass relatively quickly if you don’t allow the feelings to take control. Also it’s vital to be aware that it’s those moments when you are most vulnerable to becoming involved in an incident.

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Passenger induced distraction

Friday, April 10th, 2015

Red dice spell the word "Risk"One of the most interesting things about studies into driving habits is that so many of the results are counterintuitive. Strikingly and tragically, one of those facts is that teenage drivers accompanied by other teenage passengers are more likely to crash than those who are driving alone. The risk is more than double for teenagers compared to other groups. In fact, statistically, the risk for drivers with passengers is greater than those who drive alone up until the age of 29.
Risk taking is greater in teenagers partly because their judgement of risk is different to that of mature adults. *The area of the brain, such as the ventral striatum and prefrontal areas, which are involved in social stimulus and reward magnitude, are still developing in adolescents. So a young person is more likely to over-evaluate the reward of social stimulus, compared to the risk. Social acceptance by peers becomes very important and, if that acceptance is gained by hazardous driving practices, the risk will be overridden by the reward.
That situation begins to resolve itself in our twenties and the statistics reflect that. From the age of thirty there is no difference in risk, whether we have passengers or not. The picture is slightly different for older drivers. We can still have our moments of bad driving. In part that can be attributed to the driving behaviour we learned in our adolescent years. Our brains can become wired for us to drive in a particular way.
Sportsmen refer to ‘muscle memory’, which is really attributable to the fact that, as we practice an action, the neural pathways in our brain become established and the action becomes over time second nature. The process is very much the same in driving. We drive in a certain way and the neural pathways gradually become established, making it second nature. So bad habits established to impress social groups in adolescence can persist and encourage us to drive in a more risky fashion in later life.
It’s all very well to understand the problem but what can we do about it?
One approach is to encourage driving lessons very early on. There are several projects in which children as young as eleven years of age are taught to drive. This is beneficial because it will establish good driving practices early on and hardwire them into the learner’s brain.
A second approach is to teach young people about how their brains are developing and how they may be prone to over-valuing the social stimuli, putting themselves and their friends at risk in the process. A lot of work has been done on informing young drivers about the risk of drinking and driving, speeding and so on but one of the key factors in tackling the behaviour traits involved is to explain them clearly directly to the adolescents. Various psychological studies*, particularly in bystander intervention, have shown that explaining the reasons for particular behaviour can immediately prevent it.
Early in this article I mentioned distraction. Regardless of our age, having passengers in a car can potentially be a distraction. If the conversation is light and unchallenging for the driver, it’s less likely to be a problem but, if the passenger’s conversation requires a lot of cognitive processing, the driver will revert to driving on his reactions, rather than processing what is going on in front of him.
So it would be a bad idea to drive while contributing to a conversation about modern particle physics theories! In fact, anything which is likely to make the driver pause is potentially dangerous. If you want to see how easily distraction compromises driving performance, ask someone for an honest answer to a tricky question while they are completing a complex task with time constraints. You will visibly see the hesitation as the driver fights for the cognitive resources to deal with both demands.
Passengers can sometimes cause exactly that sort of conflict for resources and, on occasions, it can be fatal. So, don’t be afraid of asking a passenger to stop talking if you have a tricky on-road situation to deal with. It’s much better to risk offending someone than have a collision.
References: *Preusser et al (1998), The anatomy of Crashes Involving Young Drivers; Steinberg, L., (2008), A social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk Taking,

Driving Risk Management Ltd

Rubbernecking – nature or nurture?

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Many of us have been involved in traffic queues and congestion caused by so-called ‘rubbernecking’ by those passing a broken down vehicle or a collision. It’s unfortunate that journalists and police often attribute ‘rubbernecking’ to ‘sick titillation’ or ‘morbid obsession’ because the real reasons are actually much more altruistic than they may seem.
One of the other things to understand is that human beings are social creatures and we’re programmed to be inquisitive. As the famous naturalist Desmond Morris* said “We never stop investigating. We’re never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species.”
So when weRubbernecking concept. pass a crash site, or even a broken down vehicle, we’re naturally curious about what has happened. Far from being morbid or seeking titillation, we often want to help in such circumstances.
Picture the scene. You come across a scooter that has broken down on a country lane. There’s every likelihood that you would stop to help the rider, who is by the roadside trying in vain to get it going again. A cyclist also stops to help. Having decided that the only course of action is to call his breakdown recovery company, you would both almost certainly establish that he was ok and didn’t need anything else before continuing on your way. This is a classic example of altruism, as neither you nor the cyclist had anything to gain from the encounter.
When it comes to road traffic incidents there’s a genuine psychological need that’s fulfilled by rubbernecking. As we go through life we try to avoid pain and death as much as possible. We investigate the accidents we see, albeit in a primitive way, to see whether the conditions could apply to us. Carl Jung, one of the great psychiatrists of the 20th century, referred to the phenomena as a ‘corpse obsession’ and it has a logical evolutionary root. After all, if we can find out how someone else was killed or injured, we can try to avoid those circumstances ourselves.
So we have a twofold call on our instincts when we see a crash or broken down vehicle – our instinct to help and our instinct to investigate. In that sense it’s amazing that our roads don’t become gridlocked. To test this out, think of the last time you saw a road traffic incident. Did you gloat about it and find it amusing, or were you saddened and confused about what you could do to help? For most people, the latter is the case.
In describing rubbernecking as ‘seeking titillation’ the police and others are indulging in what psychologists refer to as a ‘fundamental attribution error’. That is to say, we make an incorrect assumption about the motives of others. We see others slowing down to look at the crash scene and say “They’re just gloating”, when in fact that’s far from correct.
So how can we counter this natural tendency to investigate and help? In a situation where there’s a traffic tailback and the emergency services are already in attendance, you need to tell yourself that the best thing you can do is to help keep the traffic flowing freely and not get in the way. It can be a strain to do so but, in essence, it’s that simple. Make sure your conscious thoughts override your emotions and instincts, and just keep going, albeit in a measured fashion.
Of course the opposite is true if you’re the first on the scene of an incident. In that case, follow your instincts to stop, help and investigate. As always, give yourself a moment to think rationally about how you should help. A pause for thought can provide you with a clear set of priorities and prevent minutes of useless and disordered actions.
So, next time you see a traffic tailback with people apparently rubbernecking, don’t think they’re being morbid; remember they’re like you and deep inside they really want to help.
*Morris. D., The Naked Ape: A Zoologists Study of the Human Animal, 1967


Driving Risk Management Ltd

At Work Drivers Are Different

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

It’s the sort of comment you hear in a lively discussion about driving down at the pub. You might have even uttered it yourself in a moment of weakness on the road, having witnessed a poor bit of driving: “And they call themselves professional drivers.”

It’s perhaps understandablBusinesswoman drinking coffee while drivinge that some drivers view those who drive for a living as infallible but of course at-work drivers in general are under far more pressure than the ordinary motorist who is just involved in a trip to the supermarket.

As human beings we’re vulnerable enough already while we’re driving – it’s a well known fact that in 95% of on-road collisions human error was the principal cause – so adding the responsibility of being at work while driving inevitably ups the stakes.

Hardly surprising then that a third of all road traffic incidents are thought to involve people who are at work.  Also, it’s been established that employees who drive in the course of their working day are 49% more likely to be involved in an incident than other road users who are not working [*Department for Transport].

There are a couple of key differences between the ordinary motorist and occupational drivers that we must bear in mind.

First of all, many people who have to drive for work do so on unfamiliar roads.  Most of us will have had the experience of driving on unfamiliar roads from time to time, such as when we go on holiday.  A good example is when we find ourselves at a roundabout and we panic while looking for the correct exit. Often we hand over control to the SatNav and let it tell us where to turn off.

Each instance of having to make a hurried or unexpected decision can take our attention from our surroundings for long enough to be caught up in an incident.  Making assumptions is a dangerous premise but in this case I think it’s reasonable to assume that making a decision as to which turning to take in busy traffic is just as distracting as being in the middle of a mobile phone call.  So it’s easy to work out where a sizeable amount of distraction arises for occupational drivers.

Another crucial, risk-elevating factor for the at-work driver is that they’re almost always under some form of time pressures to get the job done. Time constraints are something that the driver’s employer must be aware of and expectations for task completion should therefore be realistic, with driver safety always being the guiding principal.

But there are things that occupational drivers can do to help themselves as well.  Firstly proper journey planning will ensure that weather, traffic delays and major events are taken account of to optimise the route.  These days it’s possible to get a great deal of accurate information on the web or via the broadcast media, so there really is no excuse. It just means taking an extra 10 minutes planning time before setting out.

However, more than anything else, the main thing a professional driver can do is to take an extra moment to think before acting.  When you’re in unfamiliar territory and you’re under pressure time-wise, it’s very tempting to put your foot down and go when you think you see a gap.  In fact, if you have to pause to think at all, you shouldn’t be carrying out that manoeuvre in the first place.

Accept that if you miss that gap it doesn’t matter.  It’s far more important to control your emotions on the road than letting them control you.  You may feel anxious at times and that’s exactly when you need to take that extra second and wait for the next, larger gap in traffic, rather than take a chance.  After all you’re being paid to do a job, a job where the vehicle is a constituent part. It’s not worth risking serious injury, or worse, at any time………. let alone when you’re at work.

It’s also worth remembering that sometimes we see what we want to see and miss important things such as bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians and even other vehicles.  If you’re a professional driver you’ll do yourself, your loved ones, and maybe even a complete stranger, a favour by taking a moment longer at crucial points on each journey.  It may just take the blink of an eye but it could be the best decision you’ve ever made behind the wheel.


*Department of Transport, An In-Depth Study of Work-related Road Traffic Accidents, Road Safety Research Report No. 58, 2005

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