Media Release: Lovers’ tiffs could lead to dangerous driving, says study

DRIVING with your loved one in the car could prove dangerous if the conversation turns sour, according to new research from Heriot-Watt University.

Drivers having contentious conversations with their partners in the passenger seat exhibit poorer performance, a study of 20 couples showed.

Drivers’ control over both speed and lane control suffers in the middle of a lovers’ tiff, as does their ability to spot potential obstacles.

The research showed that drivers’ road performance is better if they’re arguing with their partner over the phone than when sitting next to them.

Dr Terry Lansdown, from Heriot-Watt, recruited couples from across Edinburgh to assist with his research, which was carried out in a simulator based on the university’s campus.

Couples were asked to list the top five topics that cause disagreements in their relationships and discuss them in two different scenarios – one with the passenger in the car, and one with them talking to the driver on a hands-free mobile.

Lansdown and his research partner, Dr Amanda Stephens of University College Cork, found that in-car tiffs affected drivers and non-drivers differently.

Drivers found in-car fights more stressful and it affected their ability to stay in lane and control their speed.

In contrast, their partners found in-car fights less stressful and having the tiff over the phone was much more emotionally fraught for them.

Terry Lansdown commented: “Our research shows that it’s better to avoid contentious conversations altogether when driving, but especially if your partner is next to you in the passenger seat.

“If you sense you’re getting into an argument it’s best to try to avoid it or change the subject until you’re safely parked.

“The drivers’ partners found it more stressful to have a contentious conversation over mobile phone than when they were in the car.

“This is perhaps because they couldn’t judge their partners’ body language or make eye contact during the argument.

“It’s better for all involved to be safely parked if they suspect a difficult conversation is likely.”

Terry Lansdown and his team analysed both the drivers’ and the passengers’ anger and emotional distress, as well as the drivers’ distraction levels to measure how contentious issues affected driving behaviour.

The couples underwent three simulations – a control session, with both in the car and no contentious conversation; an in-car argument and a remote argument, when they discussed tense topics over a hands-free mobile device.

Before leaving the laboratory, couples were asked to discuss the things they love and enjoy most about each other.

The team are currently recruiting for a survey on distracting driving behaviours at work and during leisure; and looking for parents across Edinburgh to look at how arguing with a teenager affects driving.

To take part in either study, go to:


Notes to editors

About Dr Terry Lansdown

Terry Lansdown is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. His recent research has been on the issues with ‘social’ distractions in the vehicle and opportunities to encourage safe and efficient driving. He also focuses on the safety implications of operator workload, attentional distraction and task conflict.

About Heriot-Watt University

Heriot-Watt University specialises in science, technology, engineering, business and design, with a particular focus on developing solutions to critical global issues, such as climate change and energy.

In The Sunday Times 2013 University Guide

• Scottish University of the Year 2012/13 (for the second year running)
• UK University of the Year 2012/13 for student experience
• Number nine in the UK overall

In the National Student Survey 2012

• Psychology at Heriot-Watt was rated No.1 (for two of the last three years)
• Heriot-Watt was rated No.1 in Scotland and No.4 in UK (based on responses to all questions from FT degree students)
• In the top ten for graduate employment in the UK (over 94 per cent of graduates are in employment or further study within six months of graduation)

Established in 1821, the university has campuses in Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, Orkney and Dubai, and is investing £35 million in a new campus in Malaysia.

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