ScienceDaily (Oct. 21, 1998) — Writer: Kristin Harmel

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As the drivers in the Pepsi 400 revved their engines last weekend and prepared to face the difficulties of the Daytona race course, there were millions of drivers in the United States preparing to face what they believe are the same challenges.

Some are elderly drivers. Some are newly licensed drivers. Some are average drivers faced with stressful situations.

They all have something in common: Millions of drivers daily face anxiety behind the wheel that can limit their driving skills and contribute to the likelihood of accidents, University of Florida researchers have concluded.

“As we become more anxious, we also become more easily distracted,” said Christopher Janelle, a professor in UF’s department of exercise and sport sciences. “As this happens, we tend to focus on a lot of irrelevant things and become somewhat scatterbrained.”

In a study to be published this spring in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Janelle used results obtained from a race-car simulation to suggest that increased anxiety leads to performance deterioration behind the wheel.

The study required 48 college-age participants to drive on a simulated race course while reacting to lights in their peripheral visual field. An eye-tracking system determined what participants were looking at while driving. Anxiety was induced in some participants and was monitored by tests before the driving simulation and by a heart-rate monitor during the experiment. The study used only female drivers; research has shown males are less likely to report emotions such as anxiety, which would distort the results, Janelle said.

Anxiety was induced before the experiment by a variety of methods, including telling the drivers they were being filmed, their performances were far below average and they were competing for a $100 prize, based on the best performance time.

As higher levels of anxiety were achieved, the participants’ ability to identify peripheral lights became slower and less accurate. The drivers also became more likely to miss important cues and to crash on the simulated road course.

“As we increased stress levels in the participants, they actually had to make a fixation to the peripheral cues to determine whether they were relevant or irrelevant,” Janelle said. “They’re taking their fixation point away from the road, so the incidents of having to look at the cues increase dramatically in a high-anxiety situation.”

Anxiety is likely to affect everyone at one time or another, Janelle said. Even Bobby Allison, third on the all-time list of NASCAR lifetime wins with 84, said anxiety has come into play in his career.

“Early on in my driving career, I had some anxiety,” he said. “It certainly affected how comfortable I felt driving.”

Janelle said average drivers are even more likely to be affected by anxiety. Young drivers who have just gotten their licenses tend to be anxious because they are unfamiliar behind the wheel. More experienced drivers tend to experience anxiety in the form of “road rage” or after nerve-wracking situations such as near-accidents.

However, the likelihood of elderly drivers becoming involved in anxiety-related accidents is higher than that for the average population, said Robert Singer, chairman of the department of exercise and sport sciences and Janelle’s adviser on the study.

“There’s a lot of research to indicate that as we get older, there’s a slowing-down in the information-processing system,” he said. “If you couple that with anxiety or a situation where you’re presented with obstacles, the elderly have a better chance of being impaired, simply because their systems are not as fine-tuned as those of younger people.”

Allison, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, turns 61 this year and has noticed the effect that age has had on his driving.

“I think that certainly I’ve noticed that I have to pay attention more to what I’m doing constantly rather than being as casual about it as I have been,” he said. “As we get older, these things tend to go downhill a little bit. You always need to stay alert and aware, and you need to be confident going into any action you do while driving.”

Adapted from materials provided by University Of Florida.