Keeping drivers’ impulses in check: Estonian research finds raising awareness of impulsivity can help cut road accidents

One of the best-known products of evolution is the fight or flight response. But such gut reactions aren’t necessarily appropriate when it comes to one stressful activity many people undertake frequently: driving a vehicle. As 1.25 million people die in road traffic accidents each year, according to the World Health Organization, we need a better understanding of why individuals drive the way they do.

“Most people drive and, of course, they go faster than anything in the evolutionary past and have an absolutely different type of behaviour, so you are taxing your mental faculties in a different way,” notes Jaanus Harro, a professor of psychophysiology at the University of Tartu, who has explored how impulsivity (behaviour without forethought) can cause traffic accidents.

Although much of his day job involves working in laboratories with animals, Harro is well known in Estonia – a nation of car enthusiasts - for helping novice drivers understand their impulses. As a by product of their work on neuroscience, Harro and his team have conducted two randomised control trials that found that raising awareness of impulsivity among learner drivers can result in 20% to 25% fewer road accidents. Driving schools in Estonia and the AMG Academy of Driving (part of Mercedes-Benz) have since introduced training programmes based on the findings of these studies. Moreover, the research has been widely covered in the Estonian media.

Straddling two separate research arenas

Harro’s left-field research into the impact of impulsivity on driving points to how science itself can evolve in unexpected ways.  “Watching misbehaving rats in tests led me to think of impulsivity, which is not a normal thing for a psychopharmacologist like I to study,” Harro explains. “I am better known in the research world for my work on anxiety and depression. And even if you look at mainstream psychology theories, impulsivity comes in the corner.” In effect, Harro is straddling two distinct research arenas – social science/public health and neuroscience.

The first of Harro’s two control trials tested the impact of an intervention in which more than 900 students at driving schools were given a presentation on impulsivity, followed by an assessment of their own impulsiveness and a group discussion. This intervention appears to have raised awareness and had a positive impact on the students’ driving. Harro’s analysis of police and insurance records over the following year found that this group of students recorded half as many speeding violations compared with those in a control group. Four years later, the positive impact was still evident.

“One reason that traffic is good to study is you have objective records,” notes Harro. “You don’t have to ask people about their behaviour. You can take it from the databases of traffic police and the databases of traffic insurance funds and see how people behaved.” The impact of the impulsivity intervention was particularly pronounced among people carrying certain gene variants, leading the researchers to conclude that interventions that focus on psychological risk factors may need to be personalised further still.

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