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Risky driving and lifestyle may have a common psychobiological basis

Presented by
Dr Tõnis Tokko, University of Tartu, Estonia
ECNP 2021

A study found significant associations between risky traffic behaviour, accidents, and lifestyle aspects such as consumption of alcohol, junk food, or energy drinks, as well as engaging in vigorous physical activity. This relationship is associated with genetic variation in serotonin metabolism. Therefore, risky behaviour in driving and in daily life may have a common psychological basis [1].

The current study aimed to examine whether people with less healthy lifestyles take more risks in traffic, and whether impulsivity and the serotonin transporter genotype could mediate or moderate such associations. First author Dr Tõnis Tokko (University of Tartu, Estonia) explained psychological, genetic, and biochemical data were obtained from the Estonian Psychobiological Study of Traffic Behaviour (EPSTB) as well as police and insurance records. A sample of 817 drivers (50.8% women, mean age 36.6 years) of the EPSTB participated in the study. They filled out lifestyle questionnaires to measure factors such as impulsivity and aggression, and underwent a series of blood tests and genetic analyses.

Numerous associations –but not causalities– were found between everyday risk taking and risky driving. For example, participants who consumed energy drinks at least once a week were twice as likely to exceed speed limits as those who consumed energy drinks less often (14.6% vs 7.5%; χ2=7.21; P=0.007). Dr Tokko suggested that energy drink consumption may be related to a need for excitement, rather than the drinks themselves being a direct cause of traffic violations. The drivers’ underlying psychological makeup may lead them to speed in traffic and to want to consume more energy drinks or junk food. Similarly, psychological tests showed that those with fast decision-making skills were 11% more likely to speed, and those with higher excitement seeking behaviour were 13% more likely to speed.

Moreover, the serotonin transporter gene promoter polymorphism (5-HTTLPR) has been associated with impulsivity, alcohol use, speed limit exceeding, and traffic accidents. Genotyping revealed that 5-HTTLPR was not directly associated with speeding, but carriers of the 5-HTTLPR s-allele had higher AUDIT scores if they were junk food eaters and vice versa.

  1. Tokko T, et al. Unhealthy lifestyle is associated with risk-taking in traffic and moderated by the serotonin transporter gene promoter polymorphism. P.0318, ECNP 2021 Congress, 2–5 October.

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