When’s the last time you cut someone off in traffic? Answered a text while zipping through an intersection?
These kinds of dangerous behaviours on the road are a real public health hazard, though they may not command the same national urgency and attention as other epidemics.
One challenge for treating aggressive and distracted driving as a public health problem is that the roots of this kind of behaviour are difficult to tease out.
For one thing, not all car crashes result from a dangerous driver. And there isn’t a blood test you can administer to a crash victim to tell if they died from bad luck or negligence.
For another, people don’t tend to admit when they have behaved badly before an accident, and aren’t likely to spill their guts to a researcher about the roots of the road problems.
So scientists approach the problem sideways.
In a paper published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology in September, University of Haifa researchers Keren Turgeman-Lupo and Michal Biron looked at the relationship between workplace problems and dangerous behaviour during commutes.
They asked 216 employees at a company about their driving habits during their commutes. How do they feel about texting? Phone calls? Other distractions? Do they cut people off? Tailgate?
They also asked the same employees a series of questions about their work lives. Does their work cut into their time with their families? Do their bosses bully them?
Employees who said they had a worse time at work were substantially more likely to report bad behaviour on their way home.
Keep in mind:
- Self-reported studies are never as precise or accurate as when scientists go out into the field and watch how people actually act.
- This is one study, on one workplace. Much more research is needed before this result can be considered a universal rule.
- Nothing in the paper proves that the bad experience on the job causes bad behaviour on the road. Maybe the kind of people who drive poorly are also just more likely to complain on psychological questionnaires.
But this study lays out a tantalising path for some potentially lifesaving science.
Maybe if a work-related bad mood does contribute in some way to more reckless behaviour, public health workers could figure out a way to interrupt that mood and refocus workers on the tasks of the road ahead.
At the very least, this research adds to an ever-growing stack of evidence that the way workers feel at work can be a matter of life or death.
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