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Passenger induced distraction

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,

 
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