Taking a closer look at the behaviours of young drivers



Throughout the world, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among people 29 years and under. Why? On account of factors such as age and inexperience, of course, and also dangerous behaviours such as impaired driving and speed. Despite mandatory driving courses, prevention campaigns and strict highway safety codes, why do some young people still take so many, sometimes fatal, risks?

Marie Claude Ouimet was able to link the levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—to the risk of collision.

This very question led Marie Claude Ouimet, research professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Université de Sherbrooke and director of the Road Safety Research Network of Québec, to develop a research program based on new technologies. In her laboratory, she designed a cutting-edge driving simulator that relies on a real vehicle and virtual images to study at-risk behaviours without putting drivers' lives in danger. After uncovering epidemiological evidence that young males drive more recklessly when another male is in the passenger seat, Professor Ouimet now uses her simulator to assess the behaviours of drivers under the influence of alcohol and, soon, cannabis.

To conduct road studies, Marie Claude Ouimet equipped vehicles with high-tech cameras. By filming young drivers for 18 straight months, she was able to link the levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—to the risk of collision. Her results show that the drivers with lower cortisol levels were more likely to be involved in an accident. She also observed that, following the stressful events recreated in the laboratory, these same drivers did not significantly improve their driving records within 18 months of receiving their probationary licence, in contrast to the drivers whose stress hormone levels were higher.

A leading authority in road safety, Marie Claude Ouimet has transferred her simulation technology to several institutions in Québec, Ontario and France and will be collaborating with organizations in Brazil. Her research results help better target prevention programs aimed at young drivers.