Lovers' tiffs lead to dangerous driving

Driving with your loved one in the car could prove dangerous if the conversation turns sour, according to new research by Terry Lansdown, Senior Lecturer in the School of Life Sciences.

Drivers having contentious conversations with their partners who are sitting 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.

Research carried out with Edinburgh couples

Dr Lansdown recruited couples from across Edinburgh to assist with his research, which was carried out in a simulator based at Heriot-Watt's Edinburgh 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.

Research findings

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.

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.

Terry Lansdown, Heriot-Watt University

"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.

Want to take part?

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: