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Post Accident Trauma – a psychological perspective

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

When we think of road traffic incidents we generally think of the incident itself, or perhaps the physical injuries that can occur, but there are serious psychological issues as well.
Road traffic incidents have all the ingredients necessary for post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s entirely possible that someone could survive a road traffic incident physically uninjAttractive business woman with eyeglassesured but suffer psychological trauma, due to other occupants in the vehicle either being killed or injured. In some cases just the sudden violence of the incident is enough to trigger post-traumatic stress disorder.
Post traumatic stress disorder is often associated with soldiers in active service abroad but our minds work the same way, whether the trauma is a bomb or an incident on the road. Road incidents can happen very quickly. If the driver and car occupants are conscious, the stress reaction will kick in straight away. The heart will begin racing to get blood to muscles that may be used for escape, and the part of the brain we think with, the pre frontal cortex, will reduce activity as we rely on our reactions. That is one reason why it’s good to practice controlling skids or slides in controlled circumstances. If the manoeuvre becomes a reaction rather than a conscious thought, you have a better chance of getting it right when something really goes wrong.
Back to the stress reaction though. In itself the stress reaction can help us in emergency situations. It can help us get out of the car because our bodies are prepared to respond quickly and strongly. That’s what the response is for. The incident itself will be stored as an emotional response, so that, if similar circumstances happen again, the body will react even faster.
That reaction was great when it helped our ancestors deal with a predator. They would have a near miss with a predator and then, if later something reminded them of the incident, the reaction would kick in and help them escape before trouble got any closer. They would even have flashbacks, as the memory bedded in and they learned to react to it.
The problem arises when we have an incident in a car and then later the flashbacks go on too long or things unconnected with the incident create the reaction. It’s normal for some reactions to a serious incident to go on for a couple of weeks but a definite diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder would only be made if the reaction went on for months.
As a result it’s often an invisible problem that can affect people’s lives for some considerable time. As always the question remains as to what we can do about it.
Interestingly, there are things we can do that will help. The mechanism within the brain that leads to traumatic memories being stored can be interfered with. Studies into post traumatic stress disorder done in laboratory settings have shown that there are benefits to undertaking a rational, logical task, such as playing a brain game or doing a maths problem, following a traumatic event. This diversion activity can prevent the stressful emotional memory forming fully and thus prevents a long term problem.
Of course it might be impractical to carry a game with you at all times but it’s worth remembering that you can set yourself a series of logical tasks to complete as soon as an incident happens. For example, most of us know we have to get the other persons insurance details and we can work through the logical stages of assessing injuries calmly, calling the police if necessary and so on. Planned distractions of this sort can go a long way to preventing longer term psychological damage.


References: Holmes E.A., James E.L., Kilford E.J., Deeprose C. (2010) Key Steps in Developing a Cognitive Vaccine against Traumatic Flashbacks.

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

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