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'Grand Theft Auto' causes teenagers to be bad drivers?

Do 'Grand Theft Auto' and other similar video games cause teens to be reckless drivers?

By Rachael RettnerLiveScience Staff Writer / June 15, 2010

A 'Grand Theft Auto' driver? Some say video games cause teens to be lousy drivers.

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Playing certain types of video games might influence adolescents' driving habits, a new study suggests.

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The results show playing video games that include reckless driving, such as Grand Theft Auto, was associated with reports of actual reckless driving, including speeding, crossing double yellow lines, tailgating and being pulled over by the police.

The findings held true even after the researchers took into account factors that might impact careless driving behavior, such as age, gender, reports of prior reckless driving and a tendency toward rebelliousness and sensation seeking.

IN PICTURES: Controversial video games

The study is also the first to look at the effect of video games on driving behavior over time (for about three and a half years), as opposed to just a snap shot in time. This long-term view gives scientists a better idea of how the influence of video games plays out in real life.

However, the researchers emphasize the findings only show an association, and not a direct cause-effect link. Also, they note that although statistically significant, the effect is quite small.

Nonetheless, in light of the fact that car accidents are the number-one cause of death for teenagers, the findings should not be taken lightly, the researchers say.

"If you're going to die before the age of 20, you're most likely to die in a car accident," said study researcher Ana Draghici, a doctoral student in psychology at Dartmouth College. The ultimate impact of these games might be to make this already prevalent problem even worse, the researchers say.

Previous studies have found playing racing video games is associated with risky driving in a computer-simulated driving environment. However, it's unclear how much these laboratory-simulated situations can be generalized to everyday situations in addition to them being very similar to playing a video game, Draghici said.

Also, some studies have shown a link between playing racing games and both getting into car accidents and competitive driving, though these studies only surveyed participants once, and so only represent a single instance in time. Also, the subjects did not represent the population at large.

Draghici and her colleagues examined survey responses from 6,522 children and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14.The subjects were asked questions in waves, every 8 months for three and a half years. In the third wave of the survey, participants were asked about their video-game habits, including how often they played games rated M for "mature," and whether they specifically played Spiderman II, Grand Theft Auto III, or Manhunt.

In wave 5 of the experiment, subjects were asked how often they were pulled over by the police while driving as well as how willing they were to drink and drive. They were also asked about other reckless driving behaviors, including speeding, tailgating, failing to yield, running red lights, running stop signs, passing on a double yellow line and speeding through yellow lights.

Playing video games at wave 3 was associated with reports of speeding, tailgating, weaving and crossing double yellow lines at wave 5.

Those who played Grand Theft Auto were about two times more likely to report tailgating and 1.7 times more likely to say they had been pulled over by the police. Also, those who played Manhunt were almost two times more likely to report crossing over double yellow lines.

The researchers did not see any specific effects from playing Spiderman II.

Since the results are based on the teens’ own reports of playing video games and committing driving violations, any untruthfulness on the part of the participants could mean the findings over- or under-estimate the effect.

Future studies should further investigate the impact of video games on driving behavior, Draghici said. "If you think of car crashes being the number-one cause of death for teenagers, a small effect can become quite important, she said.

The findings were presented May 28 at the Association for Psychological Sciences convention in Boston.

IN PICTURES: Controversial video games