Risky driving identified by balloon pumps

A simple computer game where people inflate balloons may someday predict an individual’s likelihood of being in a car accident, report researchers at the Yale School of Medicine.

The Balloon Analog Risk Task (BART) is a common assessment of behavioral risk-taking that has been previously shown to correlate with a range of dangerous behaviors. In response to a sharp increase in accident rates among teen drivers over the last few years, the Yale research team explored whether performance on the BART correlated with self-reported answers to a series of questions about driving behavior. As expected, the team reports a correlation between the two measures, a result that provides clinicians with an easy way to identify individuals at increased risk for unsafe driving behavior, said Federico Vaca, a professor of emergency medicine in the Child Study Center and study co-author.

“The BART is a promising tool because it provides objective data that can help identify youth and teenagers who have a propensity for risk taking,” said Antonio Riera, a professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine and study co-author. “It is relatively easy to implement and can be employed in busy clinical settings, like emergency departments. We know that targeted interventions, at the prevention stage, can have [a] profound impact on clinical outcomes.”

In the BART — created in 2002 by researchers at the University of Maryland — Yale researchers ask subjects to decide how many pumps to give a balloon. While more pumps translated to greater reward in the study, each pump carries the risk that the balloon will pop and all reward will be lost. To compare performance on the BART with risky driving behavior, the Yale research team tested over 100 adolescents on a series of questions about their risky driving behaviors, including whether they wear seatbelts, text while driving, or drink and drive.

The researchers found a positive association between those adolescents who showed more risky behavior on the BART by pumping balloons more and self-reported risky behavior on the questionnaire.

“A combination of several factors makes teenage years the ‘perfect storm’ including developmental, environmental, psychosocial, and cognitive changes,” said Sheryl Ryan, a professor of pediatrics and nursing at the Yale School of Medicine and study co-author. “They are trying to establish autonomy, become independent from parents and socialize more with peers and thus they are taking risks experimenting in behaviors we prefer they do not try.”

Crowley said the research team is planning on replicating the study with more subjects. If the follow-up confirms this initial finding, the team can try to roll out the BART in emergency rooms to identify high-risk youths.

The ability to better identify adolescents with high risk-taking propensities should help clinicians optimize their time spent on anticipatory guidance, education, and prevention measures, Riera said.

“Our goal is to develop a prediction model of risk taking in traffic safety and other contexts, but you can imagine that with some level of prediction you can use this information to intervene,” Crowley said. “We can teach adolescents decision-making skills and also possibly mindfulness skills, such as paying attention in the present moment, which may help them to make measured decisions and avoid risks.”

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States. In 2010, about 2,700 teens aged 16–19 were killed and almost 282,000 were treated by emergency departments for injuries suffered in automobile accidents.

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