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Why you should avoid following a friend in a car

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Drivers who follow another car to a destination are much more likely to drive recklessly, putting their lives and the lives of others in danger.

Following a friend in a car to an unfamiliar destination is not a good idea. It’s a much wiser decision to use a map or a voice-guided navigation system.

For, according to a new study, drivers who follow another car to a destination are much more likely to drive recklessly, putting their lives and the lives of others in danger.

“We have found that when someone is asked to follow another vehicle, it can lead to them engaging in risky driving behavior, such as driving faster, making more erratic turns and following too close to the car in front. This is most likely caused by a fear of getting lost,” said Robert Gray, the study’s lead author and an applied psychologist at Arizona State University, in a released statement.

As Gray and his colleagues point out in their study’s introduction, drivers engage in risky behavior for a variety of reasons, but one that has received relatively little attention is the social influence of other vehicles on the road. Research has shown, for example, that drivers will run yellow lights more often when they observe others doing the same and that they also tend to feel unnecessary pressure to match their speed with those of other vehicles on the road. 

One common social interaction that occurs on the road — but, which, apparently had not been studied before — is the “following-a-friend” situation, where, to avoid getting lost, one person follows another to a designated destination.

“This study was actually inspired by an accident analysis I was doing for a court case, where a driver was seriously injured in a ‘follow a friend’ scenario,” said Gray. “Although most people have an intuition it could be dangerous, we couldn’t find any research to back this up.”

How the study was designed

For their study, Gray and his colleagues recruited 16 university students between the ages of 18 and 22, all with valid drivers licenses. They were placed in a driving simulator, which had a 300-degree wraparound screen display, a full-width automobile front (a Ford Focus) and a motion platform that recreated for the students the sense of accelerating and decelerating.

The students were first asked to spend five minutes “driving” around an invented city. They could go wherever they wanted, but were told to obey all traffic laws, including the posted speed limit, which was 35 miles per hour.  During this period, the students’ driving behaviors were observed and recorded.

Then, each student was asked to spend 10 minutes driving to designated destinations within the invented city by two different methods — by following a voice-guided navigation system and by “following your friend in the car in front.” Once again, they were asked to follow all traffic laws and speed limits.

Specific safety hazards were programmed into each scenario, including a pedestrian entering a crosswalk when the driver was about to make a turn and a light turning from green to yellow when the driver was two seconds from entering the intersection.

All other cars — including the lead car in the follow-the-friend scenario — obeyed the traffic laws and drove at the posted speed limits. This was done to avoid the “social contagion” factor.

What the study found

The study found that the students were significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviors when “following a friend” than when following voice-guided navigation or when just driving around on their own.

“In the follow a friend condition drivers made turns that were higher speed and more erratic (i.e., high steering angle variability) and had a higher maximum acceleration when driving through intersections as compared to behavior in the navigation condition,” Gray and his colleagues write. “For instance, in the pedestrian crossing critical event, a significantly higher proportion of drivers made the riskier choice (cutting in front of the pedestrian) as compared to waiting for the pedestrian to complete the crossing.”

And because the lead car and all other vehicles were obeying all traffic laws, the social contagion effect was not a factor.

Gale and his colleagues believe that the risky driving behaviors in the follow-a-friend scenario was most likely the result of a unique type of time pressure — one caused by the fear of getting lost. Other research has shown that getting lost is among the top 10 driving-related fears of drivers.

Limitations and implications

This study comes with several important caveats. Most notably, it involved only a small number of drivers — and all were young university students. Older and more experienced drivers might react differently in a follow-a-friend scenario. Also, the experiment was conducted with a driving simulator. Drivers on actual roads, where real people could get injured, might behave with more diligence.

Still, the findings are troubling, and Gray and his colleagues recommend that you avoid getting involved in a follow-a-friend scenario. A better solution, they say, is for the friend to provide you the route — via a map or a navigation device — so that you can get there yourself.

If that’s not possible, they say, “it is critical that the lead vehicle reduce the likelihood of losing contact with the following vehicle by reducing their speed and making decisions that account for the driver following them” — such as waiting until there is a large gap to make a left turn and waiting to change lanes until both cars can safely change lanes.

It may be particularly important to equip teenage drivers with navigation devices so that they will avoid following other drivers.

“Most concerning … are situations in which teenagers are following one another to reach a destination, such as a party,” write Gray and his colleagues. “In this specific situation when the lead driver is disobeying the rules of the road, such as driving at increased speeds and swerving through traffic erratically, the following driver may not only feel the pressure to not lose them, but more importantly, justify mimicking these same behaviors in order to stay together, thus causing potential for serious driving incidents.”

FMI: The study was published online in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, where it can be read in full.

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