Just in time for Memorial Day and millions of Americans taking to the highways en route to holiday get-togethers, recreation and good times come two studies that show how two bad driver behaviors could signal tragedy ahead.

Texting Wreaks Havoc with ‘Sixth Sense’

Researchers from the University of Houston and Texas A&M Transportation Institute looked at texting drivers and found that their behavior behind the wheel is riskier than when driving while distracted or mentally upset.

The difference between texting drivers and drivers who are emotional or absent-minded is a sixth sense. But, researchers found, this sixth sense doesn’t become activated in texting drivers because the eye-hand coordination loop is broken.

During the study, 59 volunteers drove the same section of a highway four times:

  • Once under normal conditions, focused solely on safe driving
  • Another time while being distracted with mentally challenging questions
  • A third time while peppered with emotionally charged questions
  • The fourth time while preoccupied with texting

Except for the normal driving mode, all other driving behavior produced jitters in the drivers. The difference was that, even though all the drivers experienced the jitters, only the texting drivers veered out of their lane or drove in an unsafe manner. The drivers experiencing jitters who were emotional or absent-minded actually drove straighter.

Researchers explained that there’s a particular part of the brain that automatically intervenes when there’s conflict, such as driving when emotional, distracted or while texting. Conflict ratchets up psychological stress, sending ‘fight or flight’ energy to the drivers’ arms and resulting in jittery handling of the steering wheel.

Then the brain takes charge and sends an equally strong offsetting reaction in the opposite direction, with the result of very straight driving. But this only works properly when there’s the appropriate eye-hand coordination loop. Texting breaks this loop, resulting in drivers veering off course.

Researchers next hope to develop a car system that monitors both outward driving behaviors, such as lane deviation and jittery steering, as well as the driver’s internal state.

Dude, I Can Drive Stoned…

Chances are that most drivers would not utter these words when they’re sober. Not so surprisingly, however, a study found that drivers who are stoned think they’re just fine to drive.

The study was conducted by RTI International and results were published in the May issue of the journal Health Education Research.

Researchers surveyed 865 marijuana users in the states of Washington and Colorado, two states where recreational use of marijuana is legal. The study participants had used hashish or pot within the past month. What was surprising is that more than 16 percent of them said they were high when they completed the survey.

Other eye openers from survey participants who said they were stoned when taking the survey:

  • They were more likely believe it was OK and safe to drive under the influence of marijuana
  • They said they might drive high in certain situations
  • They claimed they could drive high and not get caught

In a news release, study author Jane Allen said that most drivers who are sober acknowledge that they can’t drive safely while under the influence of marijuana or alcohol. “The problem is, being intoxicated affects our perceptions of risk.”

Allen added that it’s important that developers of public education messages meant to discourage driving while high should take this into account when preparing their campaigns.

It’s not just Colorado and Washington where the problem exists. Marijuana is legal for medical or recreational purposes in nearly 50 percent of the states. Another 10 states, at a minimum, have or are considering ballot initiatives legalizing the recreational use of pot.


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