Why You Should Never, Ever Follow a Friend When You’re Driving

We all know texting when driving is a seriously bad idea. But the spotlight is now on another common driving habit, one that we may believe is harmless but can cause erratic, dangerous driving and often lead to a car accident.

This could be just as bad-or worse-as texting while driving.

A study carried out by a research team from Arizona State University, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that following a friend in a car can lead to risky driving maneuvers. Due to a fear of getting lost, the driver in the car behind may drive faster, more erratically, or closer to the car in front, not to mention jump traffic lights. Researcher Robert Gray, a Professor in Human Systems Engineering, revealed that the study was inspired by an accident analysis he was doing for a court case, where a driver was seriously injured in a “following a friend” scenario. (Did you know that the colour of your car can also affect your chances of getting into a car accident?)

Gray and his team recruited Arizona State University students with a valid driving license to participate in a driving simulation. First the students were asked to drive wherever they wanted in the simulated city to get an idea of their basic driving behaviour, which was then compared to how they drove when guided by a navigation system and also when asked to “follow a friend in the car in front.” Researchers gauged their general speed, distance to the car in front of them, and the time they took to switch lanes. The researchers even presented hazards to see if the drivers’ behaviour changed under different driving scenarios.

“We observed changes in behaviour that increased the likelihood of being involved in an accident,” Dr. Gray told Science Daily. In particular, drivers drove faster and more erratically when they were following a friend. They also drove closer to the car in front and made quicker lane changes, compared to how they drove under normal conditions when directed by a navigation system. In addition, when confronted with hazards in the “following a friend” simulation, the drivers were more likely to make riskier moves-cutting in front of a pedestrian crossing a road and jumping traffic lights. “It is important to note that in our simulation, the leader and other vehicles around them did not break any laws, so the follower was not just copying the risky driving behaviour they saw from someone else,” Dr. Gray says.

So next time you’re headed to a new destination, for your own-and others’-safety, consult a map before setting off, or use a navigation system instead of relying on a friend to lead the way.

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