Thomas Brown, McGill University – Risky Drivers

brownt-mainNot all reckless drivers are alike.

Thomas Brown, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, examines each type of risky driver.

Thomas G. Brown, Ph.D. and his team of students and collaborators are developing psychosocial interventions to combat substance abuse. They also aim to identify individual characteristics of vulnerability in order to optimally provide the most suitable intervention.

In addition, Thomas G. Brown works on the prevention of alcohol and drug-related risk taking and injury. Since 2009, he has directed the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Transdisciplinary Team into Driving While Impaired: onset, persistence, treatment and prevention. This international team of multidisciplinary researchers, traffic authorities, licensing program administrators and graduate trainees is conducting studies into the human factors responsible for road traffic crashes. To address this complex global public health problem, multiple levels of analyses are deployed, included virtual reality simulation, engineering, neurobiology, psychology, policy and the law.

A licensed clinical psychologist, Thomas G. Brown is also the head of research of Foster Addiction Rehabilitation Centre, a large public treatment facility serving the Anglophone community of Quebec.

Risky Drivers


Reckless driving and driving under the influence of alcohol, or DUI, are two of the most deadly road behaviours. Prevention strategies for both forms of risky driving involve public health messages and punishing penalties, even though there are important differences between them. But the picture is even murkier; for instance, surprisingly alcohol problems do not reliably identify which drivers are DUI offenders. Our study asked the following question: are drivers who repeatedly engage in different forms of risky driving dissimilar in other ways?

We studied four groups of drivers: low-risk drivers, frequent DUI drivers, frequent speeders, and drivers who engaged in a mixed bag of both DUI and speeding behaviours. They were then tested on a driving simulator, personality questionnaires, decision-making and behavioural self-control tasks, and their hormonal response to stress. The results were revealing. Even though we instructed everyone to drive safely in the simulator, the speed group drove very recklessly, as if they couldn’t control themselves. In fact, their other characteristics suggested that they experienced more positive sensations in the brain when taking risks than most people. Like with certain drugs, this is a powerful motivation to repeat the experience – despite the danger. The DUI group showed almost no risk-taking, at least when sober. Add alcohol though, and it is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; these drivers may be very sensitive to the disruptive effects of alcohol on self control.

Finally, the mixed bag group showed signs that they lacked a strong fear response to risky situations,  which discourages most people from putting themselves, and others, in such situations again and again. Overall, we believe that each driver group will need very different approaches to curtail their risk driving – a topic for future research!



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