Neurobiology May Explain Why Some Teenage Drivers Take More Risks

Dr. Marie Claude Ouimet, Ph.D. Assistant Professor/ Professeure adjointe University of Sherbrooke/ Université de Sherbrooke Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences/ Faculté de médecine et des sciences de la santé Longueuil, QC, Canada, J4K 0A8MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr. Marie Claude Ouimet, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor/ Professeure adjointe
University of Sherbrooke/ Université de Sherbrooke
Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences/ Faculté de médecine et des sciences de la santé
Longueuil, QC, Canada, J4K 0A8

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings of the study?

Dr. Ouimet :The goal of our study was to examine if teenagers’ driving risk was associated with a neurobiological factor. Driving was continuously observed with cameras and sensors installed in the vehicles of teenagers during their first 18 months of licensure. Cortisol response was measured within the first weeks of licensing. Our study showed two main findings:

1) Higher cortisol response to a stressful event was associated with lower crash and near crash rates over the study period;

2) Higher cortisol response was also linked to a sharper decrease in crash and near crash rates over time.

 

MedicalResearch.com: Were any of the findings unexpected?

Dr. Ouimet : This study was initially planned to solely examine behavior, but we succeeded in transforming it into a fruitful collaboration between researchers trained in different research fields including neuroscience, psychology, and engineering. The level of insight that can be achieved when an important yet complex public health problem like driving risk is addressed using a novel multidisciplinary approach was an unexpected finding for us. These insights also raised the possibility that other opportunities and discoveries are missed when similar questions are not addressed using the multidisciplinary approach.

MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Ouimet : Road traffic crashes are one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity for young individuals worldwide, and risk is particularly high during the first months and years of licensing. Interventions targeting young drivers such as the Graduated Driving Licensing programs are associated with some reduction in risk, but risk remains elevated. While these findings are preliminary, they are suggestive of both why some young drivers engage in more risky driving than others or are less affected by prevention strategies. For clinicians, the results imply that some patients may be more neurobiologically predisposed to risk taking, or may be less able to change their risky driving as a result of their experience. For these drivers, extra preventative measures may be needed, though at present we do not have the data to know what these measures could be.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Ouimet : This study’s findings justify pursuing research into the neurobiological processes of risky driving, a behavior that teenagers and young adults are more susceptible to compared to other age groups.

This study was one of the first to examine teenagers’ driving risk in a naturalistic, longitudinal design. Naturalistic driving studies are very expensive and this study was therefore limited in terms of the number of participants that could be observed. As technology becomes more affordable and analytic methods more efficient, a future study with a larger sample should validate and build upon these preliminary findings.

Continued research into the mechanisms underlying the observed relationships is needed. While this study is one of the first to examine the relationship between driving risk and cortisol response, other risky behaviors (e.g., alcohol misuse, treatment refractoriness, externalizing behavior) have also been associated with lower cortisol response. A number of hypotheses have been put forward to explain the mechanisms underlying the relationship between risky behavior in general and cortisol response.

Two which we believe are plausible in the context of driving include:

1) Some drivers have more need for the arousal that comes with engaging in risky behavior than others, and

2) Drivers who do not experience much stress when engaging in risky driving are less likely to try to avoid involvement in this behavior in the future than those who do. These hypotheses need to be tested more directly in the context of driving risk.

Citation:

Ouimet MC, Brown TG, Guo, F, et. al. Higher Crash and Near-Crash Rates in Teenaged Drivers With Lower Cortisol Response: An 18-Month Longitudinal, Naturalistic Study. JAMA Pediatrics. 2014