Is it video games — or just plain hormones — that make teens reckless drivers?

A new study finds that kids who play video games that “glorify” reckless driving are risky drivers in reality. What if it’s the other way around?

You can tell the universities are back in session, because suddenly video-game studies are hitting the news again. This time, a cadre of researchers at Dartmouth College, led by Jay G. Hull, looked at the relationship between gamers who play
video games that “that glorify reckless driving” and their real-life driving habits.

Over a four-year period, Hull and his team worked with 5,000 teens aged 14 to 18. Half of the teens said their parents let them play M-rated games; the others weren’t allowed. Once the kids turned 16 and were old enough to drive, the researchers asked about their behind-the-wheel behavior:

A quarter of them answered “yes” when asked if they engaged in any unsafe driving habits, the researchers said. By the final interview, 90 percent said they engaged in at least one unsafe driving habit, including speeding (78 percent), tailgating (26 percent), weaving in and out of traffic (26 percent), and running red lights (20 percent).

The study found that playing mature-rated, risk-glorifying games was associated with an increase in self-reported risky driving, as well as sensation seeking and rebelliousness — qualities measured by the teens’ rating of themselves with regard to such statements as “I like to do dangerous things” and “I get in trouble at school.” And higher rankings in thrill seeking and rebelliousness were directly linked to risky driving habits, car accidents and being stopped by police, according to a statement from the American Psychological Association (APA)

However, statistics from the AAA Foundation (PDF) show that teenage drivers — particularly males — are already the most aggressive drivers on the road:

When analyzed with respect to age, the proportion of fatal-crash-involved drivers for whom any potentially-aggressive actions were coded decreased steadily with increasing age from the teenage years through about age 60, before increasing again. For example, 58.8 percent of 16-year-old drivers, 35.3 percent of 35-year-old drivers, and 26.5 percent of 60-year-old drivers had any potentially-aggressive actions coded.

There are a number of possibilities here, very few of which play into the old Jack Thompson malarkey that blames Grand Theft Auto for everything that’s wrong with kids today. There is absolutely a subset of teens who engage in riskier behavior; when Jeffrey Jensen Arnett studied metal fans in the 1980s and 1990s, he found tons of them listening to heavy-metal music. But, as with metal, I suspect it’s that thrill-seeking teens love intense experiences, and seek out those experiences in fantasy — such as video games — as well as reality.

In other words, it could be the love of risk that makes kids interested in high-stakes driving games — not the other way around. And, as long as these kids are playing out their wishes on the screen, they’re not engaging them behind the wheel, an option that keeps them much safer in the long run.

I’d also like to see some side-by-side driving statistics for teens who play these games and teens who don’t. I suspect they’re actually much more similar than Hull found — and that the problem is adolescence and hormones, not video games.

But Hull doesn’t think so. In fact, he takes it to a very slippery-slope place:

“Playing these kinds of video games could also result in these adolescents developing personalities that reflect the risk-taking, rebellious characters they enact in the games and that could have broader consequences that apply to other risky behaviors such as drinking and smoking.”

All right, readers: do you play games where reckless driving is rewarded? Why do you like such games? Does it influence your real-life driving? How so?


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