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Does watching violent video games cause bad driving?

Kathryn Hawkins

Your kids may love speeding down alleyways in “Grand Theft Auto,” but when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a real-world car, they’ll stick to the speed limit — right?

Not necessarily. In a survey conducted of more than 5,000 teens conducted by Dartmouth College, more than half of the teens said that they play violent video games, and that hobby was associated with a self-reported rise in risky driving and other thrill-seeking behavior. Those risky driving habits included speeding (78 percent), tailgating (26 percent), weaving in and out of traffic (26 percent) and running red lights (20 percent).

“Most parents probably would be disturbed to learn that we observed that this type of game play was more strongly associated with teen drivers being pulled over by the police than their parenting practices,” Jay Hull, lead author of the study and a psychology professor at Dartmouth, says in a news release.

Why do violent games lead to reckless driving?

Why are teens who play “mature” video games – those geared toward players age 17 and up – more likely to be risky drivers? 

“If you look across a lot of the (research) that’s been done on video-game play, it’s pretty clear that the activities teens are engaging in can spill over into the next set of activities they’re doing,” says Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. “If you’re playing aggressive video games, it makes sense that you treat people more aggressively.”

However, Markman says, the effect often is short-lived. 

“It’s not the case that you play a single video game and you’ll be a more aggressive driver for the next six months,” he says. “Generally speaking, you’ll play a game and then hop into a car and drive more aggressively on that particular trip.”

And while the effects of violent video games are a concern, they’re not the biggest risk for teen drivers. “To put it in perspective, it’s much more dangerous for teens to talk on cellphones while driving,” Markman says.

Positives of violent video games

Still, many parents may worry about whether letting their children play violent games could endanger their lives when they get behind the wheel. Is it worth banning the games outright?

That’s a decision for every family to make. But as it turns out, video gaming behavior also has some positive implications when it comes to driving.

A study by the University of Rochester in New York found that people who play at least five hours of action games (those involving physical challenges) each week had significantly faster reaction times than non-gamers. The study’s authors claim that this can make the gamers better drivers, and that these quick-reaction skills can apply to real-world occupations. “If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference,” study co-author Daphne Bavelier says in a news release.

In action-focused games, “you have to quickly assess a situation,” Markman says. “The more you hesitate, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. Those skills do seem to transfer.”

Building better driving habits in gamers

If you don’t want to ban your children from playing their favorite games, how can you make sure that their bad video-game driving habits don’t transfer to the road?

“Minimize the number of people in the car,” Markman says.

The more people there are in the car, the more likely your child is to become distracted, leading to bad decisions. Additionally, he may be more likely to perform a reckless stunt to impress or entertain his friends.

Markman also recommends imposing a “cooling-off period” between playing a video game and hopping into the driver’s seat of a car. That will give your teen a chance to calm down and shed the excess energy and aggression that the game may have built up.

Teen drivers and car insurance rates

Whether your teen plays video games or not, “teens are the most aggressive drivers,” Markman says.

Drivers between ages 16 and 19 are three times more likely to be involved in a crash than drivers between 65 and 69. Such crashes often are deadly, in part because of poor decision-making. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that cellphone use while driving was highest among the 16-to-24 age group, and that teen drivers were the least likely among all motorists to wear seat belts.

As a result, teen drivers pay the most money for car insurance among all age groups. For an average family, adding a teen to a car insurance policy can bump up the family’s car insurance rates by as much as 200 percent. However, teens often are eligible for car insurance discounts if they earn good grades, so you might want to encourage your teens to spend less time gaming and more time hitting the books.

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