The Association of Sensation Seeking and Impulsivity to Driving While under the Influence of Alcohol

By Curran, Matthew F.; Fuertes, Jairo N. et al. | Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, April 2010 | Go to article overview

The Association of Sensation Seeking and Impulsivity to Driving While under the Influence of Alcohol


Curran, Matthew F., Fuertes, Jairo N., Alfonso, Vincent C., Hennessy, James I., Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling


This study examined the association between sensation seeking, impulsivity, and drunk driving. Results showed significant differences in sensation seeking and impulsivity among 160 individuals convicted of impaired or intoxicated driving and individuals who had never been arrested for driving while under the influence/ driving while intoxicated offenses.

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In 2004, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI; n.d.) reported that approximately 1.4 million people in the United States were arrested for driving while under the influence/driving while intoxicated (DWUI/DWI), with one third of those being repeat offenders. This figure represents more than all FBI Uniform Crime Report offenses, except drug abuse violations (FBI, n.d.). In 2001, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA; 2003b) reported that 17,448 people had been killed in alcohol-related crashes, the highest number of fatalities in a decade. Also, alcohol-related traffic crashes were identified as a leading cause of death for individuals between the ages of 6 and 33 years (NHTSA, 2003b). NHTSA also found that enforcement, treatment, and educational efforts have had some success in reducing the drinking and driving problem, but more research was needed to investigate and identify personality characteristics that influence some motorists to engage in this dangerous and risky behavior. Criminal justice regulatory agencies in most states have used a variety of testing instruments to identify DWUI/DWI recidivists. Nevertheless, according to a study that was sponsored by the American Automobile Association, none of the 10 widely used screening tests reviewed were effective in predicting DWUI/DWI recidivism with an acceptable level of accuracy (Chang, Gregory, & Lapham, 2002).

Given reports released by the FBI and NHTSA as well as many research studies indicating that DWUI/DWI is a national crisis, this study was conducted to investigate the influence of sensation seeking and impulsivity on the risk-taking behavior of individuals convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol. The results may provide new information to help identify, educate, and treat motorists who risk arrest by driving while their ability is impaired (DWUI) or while intoxicated (DWI). A succinct but informative literature review on sensation seeking and impulsivity as they relate to high-risk behavior such as drinking while under the influence of alcohol is provided next to give the reader a context from which to understand the current study.

Sensation Seeking and Impulsivity

There is an increasing body of literature addressing the influence of personality and psychosocial risk-taking factors on the problem of alcohol-related crashes and in the treatment of offenders. Several critical reviews of the effectiveness of drinking driver education and prevention programs (Foon, 1988; Mann, Leigh, Vingilis, & de Genova, 1983; W. R. Miller & Hester, 1986; Montagne & Scott, 1993) have suggested that alcohol education and treatment programs aimed at remediation of DWUI/DWI-related crashes seemed only marginally effective and did not have much impact on alcohol and drug behaviors. In another review of DWUI/DWI remediation programs, B. A. Miller and Windle (1990) found that offender personality and behavioral characteristics, including hostility, belligerence, risk taking, and negativism, were frequently not taken into account in the design of those programs. B. A. Miller and Windle suggested that investigation of personality traits is important in understanding the emergence of serious alcohol problems in a drinking and driving population and that there were similarities between personality characteristics and the mental health of DWUI/DWI offenders and individuals who abuse alcohol.

More than 20 years ago, Donovan (1993) reviewed the psychological and psychosocial characteristics of 2,300 youthful drivers (between the ages of 18 and 25 years). …

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