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Scientists Identify the Most Dangerous Driving Distractions

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You might think that roads today would be safer than ever before: Cars are smarter, sturdier, and better able to avoid crashes. Unfortunately, drivers are not. Scientists calculated the risks and prevalence of various distracting driver behaviors and found that we just can't put down our phones—and that this bad habit can really cost us.

The U.S. Congress funded the Second Strategic Highway Research Program Naturalistic Driving Study (SHRP 2 NDS) to identify the most common causes of highway crashes and traffic jams. It’s called “naturalistic” because the data was collected from real drivers in real cars on real roads. More than 3500 participants agreed to let the researchers install unobtrusive cameras, sensors, and radar units in their cars. Over the course of the study, participants were involved in more than 1600 incidents, ranging from a near miss or scraping a curb to a full-on collision.

Image Credit: Virginia Tech

For the report published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute looked at just the incidents that resulted in injury or property damage. They compiled data from the vehicles involved, analyzing speed as well as the drivers' sobriety, fatigue, and distraction. The results showed that distracted driving is indeed incredibly dangerous—almost as dangerous as driving drunk.

“Next to impairment, distraction is the greatest detriment to driver safety,” co-author Mindy Buchanan-King wrote in an email to mental_floss. “Based on six seconds of pre-crash video examined by trained data analysts, more than 68 percent of the 905 injurious and property-damage crashes analyzed in our study involved some type of observable distraction.”

Using the video footage, the researchers were also able to measure which distractions are the most common, and which are the most dangerous.

There were some surprises. They found that driving while crying, sad, angry, or agitated can increase crash risk by 980 percent. Other behaviors that seemed risky were less of a problem than expected, as the authors note in the paper:

An interesting finding in the SHRP 2 NDS crashes is the absence of factors previously thought to increase driver risk. For example, media sources often talk about putting on makeup as a distracting activity, but no crashes in the SHRP 2 NDS occurred when such an activity was performed, probably due to a very low prevalence. Similarly, previous research, the media, and parents often talk about distraction associated with interacting with children in the back seat as a dangerous activity. However, the results of this study show that interacting with children in the rear seat has a protective effect … This may be because parents generally drive more safely with children in the car.

But texting while driving is just as risky as you might think. “Distractions that take the driver’s eyes away from the roadway the longest, such as visual-manual tasks that include texting or dialing on a handheld cell phone, greatly increase a driver’s crash risk,” Buchanan-King told mental_floss.

The researchers were also surprised to find just how distracted we are. “Drivers are engaging in distracting activities more than 50 percent of the time while they are driving,” they note in the paper, “resulting in a crash risk that is 2.0 times higher than model driving." (By model driving, they mean driving safely while alert, attentive, and sober.)

"These findings are important because we see a younger population of drivers, particularly teens, who are more prone to engaging in distracting activities while driving," lead author Tom Dingus said in a press release. "Our analysis shows that, if we take no steps in the near future to limit the number of distracting activities in a vehicle, those who represent the next generation of drivers will only continue to be at greater risk of a crash."

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New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
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Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

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A Pitless Avocado Wants to Keep You Safe From the Dreaded 'Avocado Hand'
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The humble avocado is a deceptively dangerous fruit. Some emergency room doctors have recently reported an uptick in a certain kind of injury—“avocado hand,” a knife injury caused by clumsily trying to get the pit out of an avocado with a knife. There are ways to safely pit an avocado (including the ones likely taught in your local knife skills class, or simply using a spoon), but there’s also another option. You could just buy one that doesn’t have a pit at all, as The Telegraph reports.

British retailer Marks & Spencer has started selling cocktail avocados, a skinny, almost zucchini-like type of avocado that doesn’t have a seed inside. Grown in Spain, they’re hard to find in stores (Marks & Spencer seems to be the only place in the UK to have them), and are only available during the month of December.

The avocados aren’t genetically modified, according to The Independent. They grow naturally from an unpollinated avocado blossom, and their growth is stunted by the lack of seed. Though you may not be able to find them in your local grocery, these “avocaditos” can grow wherever regular-sized Fuerte avocados grow, including Mexico and California, and some specialty producers already sell them in the U.S. Despite the elongated shape, they taste pretty much like any other avocado. But you don’t really need a knife to eat them, since the skin is edible, too.

If you insist on taking your life in your hand and pitting your own full-sized avocado, click here to let us guide you through the process. No one wants to go to the ER over a salad topping, no matter how delicious. Safety first!

[h/t The Telegraph]

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