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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.

Driving Risk Management Ltd

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

Don’t let driving stress get to you

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Driving is a complex task that requires many decisions at various times. Experiments have shown that our decision-making processes short circuit when we’re in an aroused state, be that anger or another, heightened emotional condition. We certainly behave far less rationally when we’re angry.
To put it into context, a psychological experiment was conducted in which people were asked to judge how they would react under certain circumstances and then later they were put under stress and asked for a response to questions. The stress-inducing situation involved giving a short speech to an audience, which was enough to raise the blood pressure of most volunteers.
The result wawoman12-his interesting. When people were put under stress, they took longer to answer the questions. Many of us will have had that sort of experience. For example, if someone is driving through a strange town with unfamiliar roundabouts, traffic lights and so on, they may take longer to make a decision if they’re feeling under pressure to respond quickly near an exit or a turn.
If you’ve ever felt slightly annoyed at a driver who keeps going round a roundabout when you thought they were about to turn off, or perhaps they braked a little late for a turn off the main road, you may now have some sympathy with them. Feeling stressed, angry or emotional in any way can slow down the decision-making process and lead to erratic driving.
There are ways that individuals can help themselves to cope with driving through unfamiliar towns and cities. One way is simply to prepare thoroughly before leaving. Make yourself a ‘flight plan’ and mentally rehearse the route before you even set off. Perhaps drive a little more slowly too, to allow yourself an extra couple of seconds to make decisions.
If you’re familiar with the area, you can do others a favour by understanding that they might not know the roads as well as you. It sounds obvious but you can give yourself a better chance of avoiding an incident, while at the same time helping less familiar drivers, just by using planned, considerate driving methods. Keep your distance and resist the temptation to use the horn in anger; that will just make things worse.
That last point is worthy of note too. If you allow yourself to get angry, your decision-making will be slowed too. So, even if you are familiar with the area, your decision-making processes will slow and increase your chances of an incident. Many drivers will be familiar with the experience of having had a near miss and then, almost immediately, having another near miss. The first incident makes you angry and then you go on to make an error yourself as a result.
From a physiological point of view, when we are angry or stressed, the prefrontal cortex partly closes down and the more primal parts of the brain take over. Anyone who has ever given a public speech will know that random questions from an audience can be difficult to answer, not because you don’t know the answer, but because the stress reaction kicks in and limits normal thought.
When you encounter situations that make you angry while driving, make a conscious decision to pull over and give yourself a minute to get your thoughts back to normal before you continue driving. That minute could save your, or someone else’s, life.

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

Driving Risk Management Ltd

The magnetic draw of the mobile

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Driver on mobile phoneThe dangers of using mobile phones whilst driving have been well documented. Department of Transport statistics for 2012 showed mobile phone use was a factor in 378 incidents, which caused 548 injuries and 17 deaths. In 2008 a study* by the Transport Research Laboratory showed that texting while driving could increase reaction time by 35%, compared to 21% for smoking cannabis and 12% for being at the legal drink drive limit.

In 2013 a truck driver was seen to delete texts from his phone after he had been involved in a crash that resulted in the death of a thirteen year old girl. That case illustrates the central message in this article – we know the use of mobile phones slows our reaction times, we know we shouldn’t use them while driving and yet a lot of people still do. The question then is why?

In some cases, but by no means all, the problem can be attributed to employers who want to be in contact with their drivers all the time but, in the main, it’s more to do with the modern phenomenon of social media and the habits that it can instil in us. A lot of people will have had the experience of putting something on social media and then thinking “Let’s see if that post gets any likes or increases our followers.” There is a natural desire to be in contact with other human beings because we are social creatures, to the extent that it can often override our use of common sense.

For many of the sub 50 generation there is a natural tendency to answer a text immediately it arrives, despite the fact that the sender won’t even know if the phone is even switched on. It’s one of the most basic and powerful examples of behavioural conditioning in modern life. At that moment when the phone rings, buzzes or bleeps, it’s almost as though we have no other option but to answer it or reply to the text.

The conditioning itself takes place easily. As stated before, we’re naturally social creatures, so our reward for answering the phone is social interaction, and, although a small reward in itself, it’s enough to condition us to respond to the phone, in preference to continuing to deal with the situation we’re in.

In some cases we want to initiate the call to activate the social interaction and the same behavioural influences are brought to bear. We’re effectively rewarded for our efforts. Even drivers who don’t actually use mobile phones when they drive will be aware of that moment when either the phone rings or there’s the buzz of an incoming text, which takes their attention off the road for that vital split second.

That leaves us with the problem of what to do about this situation. For responsible drivers, who are likely to have had some form of advanced or defensive driver training, it’s simple – it’s instinctive to turn the phone off when driving and let that voicemail function do what it was designed to do all along.

But, trained drivers or not, it’s vital that businesses robustly apply their mobile phone policies, even if it means using negative reinforcement to reverse the conditioning effect and improve driver behaviour. The use of mobiles while driving, particularly hand-held, should be a disciplinary offence for the employee, with all the consequences which that brings.

Also I don’t believe I’m alone in saying that we need to outlaw the use of mobile phones entirely while driving, whether hands free or not,. Until that happens there should also be far heavier penalties nationally for the illegal use of hand held mobiles and rigorous application of the ‘dangerous driving’ offence when they clearly play a contributing part in a collision.

In addition to legal penalties there should also be social penalties. Anyone who uses their phone whilst driving should be made aware that it is unacceptable, in the same way that drink driving is reviled and the use of seatbelts, for the vast majority of drivers, is second nature.

Sadly mobile phone use on the move is a relatively new phenomenon in terms of human behavioural development and change won’t happen overnight, but the fleet industry can play an important role in getting this message across and helping this essential attitude shift to occur.

References: *Transport Research Laboratory, 2008, Dangers of Texting Whilst Driving

Driving Risk Management Ltd


Adolescent Drivers and their attitude to risk-taking

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Insurance data harvested over many years demonstrates that the under 24s are at a much higher risk of becoming involved in road collisions than any other age group. There seems to be a general assumption that young drivers fall into this category because they are inexperienced and impetuous.  To some extent that is true but the greatest influence is the significant change that occurs in our brains during adolescenForging fabulous friendshipst years.

Just fifteen years ago it was assumed that most of the major changes in our brain happened in the very early years.  But then along came Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and neuroscientists suddenly had the ability to look inside actual living brains.

The main area of the brain that concerns us here is the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex in human brains is proportionately much larger than in any other species.  It is involved in a lot of our higher functions, such as planning, decision making, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour and so on.  That latter point is an interesting one; it stops us saying things that can offend and doing things that are stupid.  So it is very important in modern society; it helps us understand other people and contributes to our sense of self awareness.

It is an area of the brain that goes through a lot of changes in our adolescent years.  During that period, the connections in our brain are fine tuned and the connections that appear to serve us well are strengthened, whilst those that don’t are pruned away.  From a driving perspective, the most important change comes between the age of fourteen and early adulthood, i.e. approximately twenty years of age.

As children and adolescents we have less ability to see things from other people’s perspective.  That is in the literal sense of ‘If I can see them they can see me’, which as adult we know isn’t always true.  As adults we are more familiar with the rules of the road and are more easily able to anticipate other people’s actions.  That may appear to be another way of saying adults have more experience but the fact is the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex changes a lot in adolescents and exaggerates their lack of experience.

The biggest change though is in taking risks.  Adolescents are particularly prone to taking risks when they are with their friends.  There is a significant drive to become independent from parents and to impress friends during that period.  There are physical rewards for adolescents, in that the limbic system within the brain becomes active when risks are taken and are successful.  There is literally a reward system for risks.  It is true for adults too, which is why we have extreme sports like bungee jumping but in adolescents the limbic system is hypersensitive and rewards risk taking disproportionately.

So what we have in adolescents is a prefrontal cortex that is not sufficiently developed to stop us from doing things that are inappropriate, combined with a hypersensitive limbic system that rewards risk taking and an inability to see things from other people’s perspective.  Perhaps we can now begin to understand why there are so many incidents involving young people on the roads! Hardly surprising then that the average fleet manager thinks twice about giving a driving-related job to an under 24 year old.

That may appear to be a bleak picture for adolescent road safety but there is a very positive note to strike here.  Our environment helps to shape the adolescent brain so if we are taught road safety in an engaging way from an early age that will help to shape our attitudes later on.  The very malleability of the brain in adolescent years is sometimes seen as a problem but it can also be the solution.  If good driving tuition is provided in our pre-adolescent and early adolescent years it can almost literally shape our thoughts for the future.

Young men go through adolescence a couple of years later than young women, which is probably why the term ‘boy racers’ springs so easily to mind and they tend to hit that point in their lives just as they are starting to drive.  The key is to give them the right guidance in a manner which is acceptable to them in these crucial years, a time when self image is everything. Making road safety ‘cool’ is a tall order perhaps but it may be the only way to change the dangerous driving habits of a generation.



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Do you know where you’re going? The psychology of satellite navigation system use.

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Over the past ten years or so there has been a massive increase in the amount of technology that we can use when driving. While this technology can either entertain us or aid our driving, it can also distract us. In fact, some research has suggested that distractions may account for up to 78% of crashes[1]. Much of the research and media attention has been focused on the use of mobile phones when driving; however the use of satellite navigation systems has become commonplace, with over 14 million in use in 2008.  Relatively little is known about the advantages and disadvantages of using these systems.


iStock_000002494679Large The main problem with using mobile phones when driving is that your attention is divided between two tasks: talking and driving. You cannot give either your full attention, therefore your driving skills decrease. There seems to be a similar effect when using sat navs. Cases of drivers ending up on the edge of a cliff, on railway lines or on roads too narrow for a car to pass through have been well publicised in the media. If they were paying attention how could this have happened? What has research shown us about how we use satellite navigation systems?

Intuitively, it might seem that the use of a navigation system would be less distracting than using a mobile phone. However, research has shown that drivers are more likely to be distracted by a task that is relevant to their driving, such as map reading, than to something that is irrelevant[2]. It’s therefore possible that the use of sat navs might distract a driver or interfere with their ability to drive safely.

While there may be some negative effects from using sat navs, they are used for a good reason – to navigate our way to a destination. Drivers have needed to achieve this since long before sat navs came into use! Maybe a more relevant question is whether sat navs are safer, or less distracting, than the traditional paper map?

One study compared driving performance when using either a sat nav system or a paper map[3]. They found that drivers using a sat nav system reached their destination faster and took a shorter route to their destination. However, the sat nav users also drove significantly faster and drove more aggressively around corners. So it seems that the use of sat navs in fleet cars would bring some advantages in terms of efficiency, but may bring some increased risks at the same time.

It’s unlikely that the use of sat navs will decrease and they have many obvious benefits for drivers, so how can we minimise the negative effects of using sat navs? There seems to be two approaches to this issue.

First, much research is being conducted to improve the sat nav systems in order to reduce the cognitive load that is placed on the driver, so that they can focus their attention more on driving. One line of research is comparing the usual head down display with a head up display for the use of sat nav systems when driving. One study asked commercial lorry drivers to drive in a simulator using either a head down or head up display[4]. They found that drivers using a head up display responded faster to emergency situations and maintained more consistent driving speeds.

Current sat nav systems provide the driver with information about when to complete a manoeuvre on the basis of distance. One research group[5] is examining how verbally identified landmarks, for example “turn right after the pedestrian crossing”, might be used to improve the information that drivers are given by navigation systems. Half of the participants received direction on the basis of distance and half on the basis of landmarks. They found that the participants being given landmark instructions were more confident in their driving, spent less time looking at the sat nav display and made fewer driving and navigation errors.

The second approach is to help drivers to better understand the risks involved when using a sat nav and to develop driving techniques to avoid the possible dangers that are encountered. For example, being more selective about when to look at the device, not making sudden changes of direction and trusting your own common sense, can help you to drive safely whilst still having the advantages of a navigation system.

[1] Neale et al. (2005)

[2] Cnossen et al. (2004)

[3] Lee and Cheng (2008)

[4] Liu and Wen (2004)

[5] May et al. (2005)

Dr Victoria Bourne  (BA Hons, DPhil)

Consultant to Driving Risk Management Limited