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social sciences

Science|Business: Keeping drivers’ impulses in check

The kind of intervention developed by Prof. Harro and his team could prompt more people to drive within the speed limits or take traffic regulations more seriously. Photo credit: Taaniel Malleus.
The kind of intervention developed by Prof. Harro and his team could prompt more people to drive within the speed limits or take traffic regulations more seriously. Photo credit: Taaniel Malleus.
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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.

Read the full article by David Pringle in Science|Business.

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