“I know how to get there. Just follow me.”
It’s a fairly common request. A driver is asked to follow a friend or colleague’s vehicle in traffic — instead of relying on a navigation system or map — to reach an unfamiliar destination.
But is it safe? A new study, released by Arizona State University, concludes that it isn’t. The struggle to keep up with the lead vehicle often entices the driver to make poor driving decisions.
“We have found that when someone is asked to follow another vehicle, it can lead to them engaging in risky driving behavior, such as driving faster, making more erratic turns and following too close to the car in front,” explained Robert Gray, a human systems engineering professor who conducted the research with his team. “This is most likely caused by a fear of getting lost.”
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, was originally inspired by an accident analysis that Gray performed for a court case. A driver in that case was seriously injured while trying to follow another vehicle.
For the study, Gray and his research team recruited students with a valid driver’s license to participate in a driving simulation. Initially, the students were asked to drive wherever they wanted in the simulated city. The exercise provided a baseline — a look at their basic driving behavior. Researchers compared these results to how the students drove when guided by a navigation system and when asked to “follow your friend in the car in front.”
The research team assessed each driver’s general speed, distance to the car in front, and lane changes. Also, the driving simulator presented some hazards to help researchers see whether driving behavior changed under different scenarios.
“We observed changes in behavior that increased the likelihood of being involved in an accident,” Gray said.
When drivers were “following a friend,” they drove faster and more erratically, closer to the car in front and made quicker lane changes, compared to when they drove under normal conditions or with a guided navigation system. In addition, when confronted with hazards in the following-a-friend simulation, the drivers were more likely to cut in front of a pedestrian crossing a road and speed through traffic lights turning red, according to the study.
“It is important to note that in our simulation, the leader and other vehicles around them did not break any laws, so the follower was not just copying the risky driving behavior they saw from someone else,” Gray pointed out.
By using a computerized driving simulation, the study eliminated the “contagious effect” in which driver behavior is influenced by surrounding traffic. Drivers often feel a social pressure to keep pace with traffic and run traffic lights when other vehicles do so.
What advice would Gray give drivers?
“If you are faced with this situation, get the address from the lead driver and use a map or navigation device so you know how to get there yourself,” Gray said. “In the future, we plan to investigate whether some knowledge about the location of the destination can get rid of these dangerous effects.”
Click here to download the study.