Driving Under the Influence of Risky Peers

Adolescents engage in a great deal of risky behaviors, particularly when their friends are around. This is especially problematic when adolescents become drivers. 

By Tara Kuther

Risky behavior, a hallmark of adolescence, tends to occurs in the presence of familiar peers. Peers can influence risky choices explicitly by directly emboldening youth and reinforcing risky behaviors, or implicitly, via perceived norms and anticipated gains in peer status and approval. Centifanti and colleagues (2015) used an experimental paradigm to examine explicit (active) and implicit (passive) peer influences during a simulated driving task.  This study examined 675 11th and 12th grade students (52% female) from England.  Whereas prior research employed same-age confederates, or unknown peers, in this study each adolescent participant was instructed to bring two friends in order to examine friend influence on risky driving. Adolescents completed a driving simulation computer task using a keyboard to control the degree to which a car slowed down while passing through 20 intersections that varied in safety and the probability of a crash. The task required weighing the risks of crashing and losing time against the ultimate goal of arriving on time.

Adolescents’ preference for risk was measured with a series of scenarios varying in social acceptability and riskiness. Two experimental conditions manipulated active and passive peer influences. In the active influence condition, the adolescents discussed each of the scenarios before privately recording their preferences. One adolescent in each group was chosen randomly to be in control of the keyboard and “drive.” The two peers were encouraged to give verbal advice to their friend. Adolescents in the passive influence condition completed the scenarios independently, without peer discussion, and completed the driving task while wearing noise canceling headphones and seated where they could see their peer but could not see the screen and could not observe them driving. In the second condition peers were present but their active influence was eliminated.

Passengers with a preference for risk taking increased adolescents’ dangerous driving and the presence of risk averse passengers decreased dangerous driving. Peers influenced adolescents through both active and passive pathways.  Adolescents experienced more crashes when they had passengers who preferred risk taking and who actively provided decision-making suggestions.  Although youth in the passive influence condition were also influenced by the riskiness of their peers, this relation was less strong relative to the active influence condition. In addition, adolescents’ own risk preferences influenced their susceptibility to peers; in the passive influence condition adolescents with higher risk preferences engaged in similar levels of risky driving as those in the active influence condition. An important finding was that, although risky friends actively influence greater risk taking, risk averse friends pull adolescents in the direction of lower risk taking. These findings suggest that interventions promote refusal and resistance strategies that allow adolescent drivers to resist overt pressures to engage in dangerous driving as well as encourage youth to communicate risk aversion.

Learn more about this study:
Centifanti, L. C. M., Modecki, K. L., MacLellan, S. and Gowling, H. (2014). Driving under the influence of risky peers: An experimental study of adolescent risk taking. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26 (1), 207-222.
doi: 10.1111/jora.12187