News from the Virginia Driving Safety Lab

The YN Blog will feature the research and experiences of  five U.Va. undergraduates working in the University of Virginia Health System’s Virginia Driving Safety Laboratory.

Student contributors, Melissa Avalos, Annie Friedell, Emily Meissel, Glenda Ngo and Julia Thrash work with Ann Lambert and Youth-Nex Associate Director, Daniel Cox.

About the Virginia Driving Safety Laboratory: In order to improve the safety on our roadways, the lab conducts driving safety research and provides patients with the opportunity receive comprehensive assessments of their driving abilities.

Related posts will be found under Driving; and Ann Lambert, Dan Cox.

It is widely acknowledged that driving while under the influence of alcohol is dangerous. However, what many fail to realize is that distracted driving, or simultaneously making use of two of our most useful innovations, the cell phone and motor vehicle, is just as dangerous as drinking and driving, but in different ways, according to Strayer, Drews, and Crouch (2006). Results using a virtual driving simulator indicated that distracted drivers had a more delayed response time, greater following distance, and even more collisions than those who were tested while drunk. However, those who were tested under the influence of alcohol demonstrated more aggressive driving. This study is vital in demonstrating that the act of driving is one that requires one’s full attention and should not be taken lightly.

As a third year undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, I have experienced firsthand what it is like to live a fast paced life that can blur the distinction between convenience and danger.

I am currently involved with the study, Investigating Relationships Between Physical Fitness/Activity, Executive Function, and Risk-taking in Life and Behind the Wheel which explores of the relationship between brain development in adolescents and their risky behavior.

One purpose of this study is to examine the relationships between individual differences in adolescent risky driving and the development of executive functioning. Executive functioning is defined as the ability to make use of working memory, which in turn allows us to plan for the future, anticipate consequences, problem solve, and interact with our environment in creative ways.

Dr. Cox and his research team hypothesize that physical fitness will positively influence the development of executive functioning, and that this, in turn, will be related to reductions in risky driving. With this knowledge, we can predict risky driving, future accidents, and other future risky behaviors, and possibly who will be more likely to engage in distracted driving.

Overall, adolescents today are experiencing new and very different driving conditions than any of their predecessors. As such, it is important that we employ empirical research methodologies to better understand why certain tasks should not be done while driving, and who is most at risk for the consequences of those tasks.

-Melissa Avalos

Melissa Avalos is a third year psychology major working in the Virginia Driving Safety Lab. She is currently a research assistant studying the relationships between adolescent physical fitness/activity, cognitive development, and risk behavior.

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