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Addiction and mental health issues manifesting behind the wheel

One should keep their attention on the road when driving.
One should keep their attention on the road when driving. Source: Pexels

While speeding and failure to take into account weather conditions are well-known traffic problems, more awareness needs to be raised when it comes to smart device and information addiction and mental health issues interfering with driving.

Tarmo Vanamõisa, curator of the traffic safety curriculum at the Tallinn University Haapsalu College, described a driver staring into their smartphone after having stopped at a red light. This could cause the driver to miss when the light turns green, resulting in a delay for everyone, or it may culminate in a serous collision.

Vanamõisa described as a popular yet dangerous trend broadcasting live on TikTok while driving. "What this effectively means is having no one behind the wheel for a time. The person is driving based on muscle memory alone. The lecturer placed participating in online meetings and watching videos while driving in the same category. "We have a lot of distracted people participating in traffic today, doing everything except driving."

Life beyond the screen a source of anxiety

The traffic expert pointed to other risk factors that used to be less serious, such as various anxieties for which people take drugs which can cause addiction. While it is illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol or narcotic substances, medicines addiction is overlooked.

Vanamõisa also said that if a person spends their life looking at a six-inch screen, the view out the windshield is much wider, which can be another cause of anxiety.

Former driving instructor Heli Ainjärv, who counsels drivers who need additional training after their provisional license is revoked, gave an example of how using a smartphone while driving can affect traffic safety. She was driving down a highway and noticed that the car in front was not moving at a consistent speed. The road having two lanes in either direction allowed her to pass the other vehicle safely, while she then saw that the driver was distracted looking at their phone.

"This need to be available at all times and keep up with the flow of information coming from the device – it is a problem for both drivers of vehicles and pedestrians," she said. Constantly feeling that you're missing out or come too late also contributes to feelings of anxiety and causes people to undertake risky maneuvers in traffic. A classic example is a driver working hard to overtake a slower vehicle only to turn off the main road half a kilometer later.

Because addiction and substances alter how the brain works and behavior, they constitute problems in traffic, Ainjärv said. While getting a driver's license requires one to have a valid health certificate, this is largely based on a questionnaire the applicant fills out themselves. Ainjärv said that people can choose not to tell doctors if they have an addiction that affects driving or not even know about it themselves.

Social development reflected in traffic

Diva Eensoo, research fellow at the Estonian Institute for Health Development, said that mental health is a major problem in Estonia and if problems – work-related stress, depression and major ordeals – go unresolved, they will ultimately manifest in traffic. She said that risk behavior is quite common in Estonia, with failing to pick the right speed to match road conditions one of the biggest problems.

Speeders and drunk drivers are characterized by heedlessness and lack of restraint. A thirst for excitement and fast-paced decision-making also play a role with the former, which while often useful in other walks of life might backfire behind the wheel, Eensoo explained.

Life experience and impulsivity also affect how people drive. Eensoo said that impulsivity keeps growing until the person reaches their twenties and starts to come down after that. She also said that men tend to be a little more impulsive than women. "Impulsivity can cover different aspects, such as the thirst for adventure, heedlessness, lack of restraint, fast-paced decision-making."

Even biological predispositions and socioeconomic background can affect how a person drives. Eensoo gave the example of Sweden where a society that has remained stable for hundreds of years has resulted in a calm and unhurried traffic culture. In Estonia, society's rapid development and the need for self-realization is clearly reflected in traffic, she remarked.

The article was written by Merili Mihkelsaar, Richard Mägar, Marie-Johanna Kippar and Mihkel Uiboleht as part of a University of Tartu student project.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

Source: University of Tartu

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