Mental health and road safety

 Road safety efforts should include awareness about the mental health factors that can affect our ability to be safe drivers and safe pedestrians.

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Mental health is a critical component of individual, family, community and national wellbeing and prosperity.Human factors are important risk factors in safety and human errors are often a major part of road traffic accidents.

Human errors are often the result of impaired decision making ability and impaired reaction times that may often be the result of mental health challenges.

 Road safety efforts should include awareness about the mental health factors that can affect our ability to be safe drivers and safe pedestrians.

Mental health factors affecting road safety

Stress: 80% of drivers admit to feeling stressed when behind the wheel. Stress is a major factor in fatal road accidents. Stress can be caused by external stressors such as the road or weather conditions or the behaviour of other drivers. Stress can also be caused by internal stressors such as emotional distress or relationship challenges. Stress can cause mental tension, distraction and inability to make sound decisions.

Inattention and distraction: is the cause of up to 30% of fatal road accidents. Distractions can be visual, physical or psychological. Psychological distractions can be a recent argument with a partner or a child or a work colleague. Use of mobile phones and other devices is a major cause of distraction while driving or using the road and can reduce reaction times by up to 50%. Distraction after receiving a phone call while driving can continue for up to 30 seconds after the call actually ends.

Alcohol and substance use: even small increases in blood alcohol concentration can immediately affect our ability to recognise and respond appropriately to road hazards. Alcohol and substances decrease our ability to be vigilant; to be perceptive and our psychomotor skills and often increase our tendency to take unnecessary risks.

Fatigue: is the main factor in 20% of fatal road accidents. Driving after not sleeping for 18 to 24 hours is equivalent to driving while intoxicated.

Untreated or poorly treated mental health conditions: severe anxiety, depression and suicidality can cause serious impairment in our ability to make sound decisions and react appropriately to road hazards.

Road rage and poor emotional self-regulation: fits of anger from frustrations while driving or road rage can affect drivers with road rage and also those exposed to road rage. Road rage can be a symptom of poor anger management, a tendency to over-personalise issues or it can be a part of a mental health challenge such as intermittent explosive disorder. Road rage can cause serious misunderstandings with other road users, poor decision making ability, poor reaction to hazards and road accidents. Those exposed to road rage may also become distracted, fearful and unsure of themselves in the aftermath of the altercation.

How can we improve road safety to improve road safety?

  • Education of the public about emotional and mental health factors that can affect road safety as part of road accident prevention efforts.
  • Training of traffic officers to identify not only physical causes of impairment that can result in road traffic accidents but mental health and emotional red flags as well.
  •  Mandatory mental health assessments for critical drivers like drivers of public transport vehicles.
  •  Identifying vulnerable road users (e.g. persons prone to alcohol and substance use and persons prone to road rage) and facilitating appropriate treatment

If you think that you or someone that you know may be struggling with a mental health challenge, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

  • Dr Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse is a consultant psychiatrist. For feedback: WhatsApp: +263714987729


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