Couple driving fast down country road
Personality and self

Sensation-seeking drivers are more likely to speed

People high in personality trait of sensation-seeking drove faster in VR study of driving behaviour.

22 August 2022

By Emma Young

Why do some people tend to drive faster than others? Research has thrown up a number of answers, including: gender (men tend to drive faster), age (young people ditto) and also various psychological traits, including impulsivity, sensation-seeking, psychopathy and Machiavellianism.

Speeding caused about 26% of fatal traffic accidents in the US in 2018 and 30% in Europe in 2019, note Uijong Ju at Kyung Hee University in South Korea and colleagues in a new paper in Scientific Reports. Understanding the factors most likely to contribute to speeding could enable more targeted interventions, with the aim of lowering that death toll. Most previous research in the field has, however, asked participants to report on their driving speeds and style. This approach is vulnerable to people mis-remembering, or believing that they are safer drivers than they actually are. Instead, the South Korean team explored people’s driving more directly, using a VR car driving simulation.

The team devised a rural-type route. It lacked other traffic — and speed limit signs — but was a challenging course, with sharp turns and other potential dangers, including a cliff. The researchers chose this environment because recent data from the US, for example, shows that though relatively few people live in rural vs urban areas, they are the scene of 45% of car crash fatalities.

A total of 124 student participants (93 male, 31 female) aged between 19 and 37 took part. After completing a battery of questionnaires, which assessed a range of personality traits, they did three training runs on the route, and then a test run. On the test runs, the team measured their average and maximum driving speeds.

The researchers found that the trait of being sensation-seeking was a “crucial strong predictor” of both average and maximum driving speed. (Sensation-seekers enjoy intense experiences and are willing to take risks to enjoy them — so it makes sense that higher scores should be linked to faster driving.)

Also, men had a faster average speed — male drivers were about 17% faster than female drivers, and people who fell into the 19-24 age range had a faster maximum driving speed than those aged 25 and older (the max speed for the older group was about 7% slower).

Overall, the team found that sensation-seeking scores and gender best predicted average driving speed, while sensation seeking and age could predict maximum driving speed.

Importantly, however, none of the other factors — including scores for impulsivity, Machiavellianism, driving experience, psychopathy or anxiety — were related to either of the measures of driving speed.

So, for this male-heavy group of South Korean students, at least, it appears that just a few factors are clearly linked to being more likely to drive faster. This could make it easier to target the drivers who would benefit most from interventions, such as a driving simulation that gives feedback on speeding. More research with VR driving simulations is needed, of course, to explore whether these same patterns will apply elsewhere.

If they do, perhaps personality tests should be a part of driving tests. And perhaps young males who score highly for sensation seeking (a trait linked to speeding in other research, too) should at the very least be advised that they are most likely to drive too fast.