Your Personality May Affect — Geez, Look Out! — Distracted Driving

Auto Insurance, Insurance
Study Reveals Personality Affects Distracted Driving

Dependable and outgoing people may make great car-ride companions, just as long as they’re not the ones at the wheel.

Groundbreaking research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that some personality types may be more likely to pick up their phones while driving. The study looked at the connection between personality and attentiveness for the two highest-risk driving groups, teens and seniors.

Results showed that conscientious teens and extroverted older adults are more likely to be distracted while driving, but agreeable adolescents are relatively responsible behind the wheel. An open, curious personality is also closely linked with distracted tendencies across both groups.

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What’s your personality?

Researchers gave 120 participants — one group of older adults ages 65 to 85 and another group of teenagers — what’s known as the Big Five personality questionnaire, which measured how they identify with five key traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Participants were then asked to track three distracted driving habits over two weeks, all involving their phones:

  • Texting.
  • Talking on the phone with a hand-held device.
  • Interacting with their phone, which could include simply holding and touching it or more demanding activities.

“At any point during the day, over half a million drivers are using cell phones in some manner while driving,” says Despina Stavrinos, one of the study’s authors and director of UAB’s Translational Research for Injury Prevention Laboratory. By looking across generations, she says, we can see the unique ways smartphones are distracting different age groups.

Is Your Personality Prone to Distracted Driving?
Age groupPeople prone to using electronic devices frequently while drivingPeople able to decrease their use of electronic devices while driving People with no strong association either way
Teens
  • Conscientious (organized, dependable, plan-oriented)

  • Open (curious, imaginative, interested)
  • Agreeable (sympathetic, kind, warm)
  • Extroverted (talkative, energetic, assertive)

  • Neurotic (anxious, moody, tense)
Older adults
  • Extroverted

  • Open
None
  • Agreeable

  • Conscientious

  • Neurotic

Conscientious teens not as responsible as you’d think

Researchers hypothesized that highly extroverted and agreeable teens would be frequent distracted drivers because these groups tend to be most influenced by peer relationships. However, these drivers weren’t as lost in the clouds — er, the Cloud — as expected.

Agreeableness was actually linked to a decrease in texting and phone interaction. The study notes that affable teens’ cooperative and warm nature may lead them to prioritize rules of the road and others’ safety above messaging their friends.

In a twist, conscientious teen drivers were the most likely type from this age group to text and interact with their phones on the road. Researchers originally thought that their dutiful nature would make conscientious young motorists staunch rule-followers and relatively safe drivers. But researchers theorize that their need to be seen as dependable by peers may trigger an urge to respond promptly to messages, even when driving.

Extroverted seniors living dangerously

While extroverted teens exhibited more focus on the road than researchers expected, that quality gets lost across the generations.

Among the senior participants, extroverts were the most likely to talk and interact with their phones while driving.

The problem with openness

Though extroverts’ behavior differed depending on their age group, people of all ages with a willing, curious disposition consistently struggled to resist the siren song of their phones. However, their preferred way of succumbing to distraction did vary.

Open teens showed a sharp increase in texting and driving, while openness among seniors was most strongly associated with an uptick in phone interaction. Open personalities are known for having an impulsive streak, researchers note, which could explain why they have difficulty ignoring their phones or other distractions.

You’re really bad at multitasking

No matter what your personality, you probably don’t have an accurate idea of your true ability to drive and use your devices. “Most people think they’re actually very good at multitasking,” Stavrinos says, but that perception is far from reality.

And it’s not just a dangerous misperception that could lead to injury or death for you or others. At best, it’s a costly one, because crashes and claims will ultimately cause your car insurance rates to go up.

Alex Glenn is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: aglenn@nerdwallet.com.