Addicted to Speed? (Not the Drug)
Can individuals become addicted to the thrill and speed of driving?
Posted November 14, 2018
“Starting to question myself here. Am I totally addicted to speed (not the drug)? [I] am middle age, dabbled a bit with drugs in the past nothing much never found them addictive, but all the time I need to go faster, not in stupid places, schools etc., just country lanes and motorways. I’ve done track days, bit of single stage rallying…But it’s never enough always want more. Trouble is I don’t have the money to spend on loads of track days or rallying again. So where do I get kicks from? Must be loads [on this online forum] in the same boat. So what’s the answer. Is it addictive? And can anything stop it or do I wait for the inevitable conclusion?” (‘gsr8’ on pistonheads.com)
“There are many folks that love sports cars, super bikes and high speeds. It seems to be a growing trend in these decadent times we live in. I'm not ashamed to say, that I also have a bit of a fetish for exclusive Italian sports cars that I can barely afford. It's the obvious sex appeal combined with the adrenaline rush of driving at breakneck speeds through a neon-lit city. This is something that can turn from a mere addiction into a lifestyle choice, and an expensive one at that. Are fast cars and high speeds appealing to you? Do you feel that you could ever be addicted?” (Damien Lee on talk.drugabuse.com)
“I discovered something over the past week. I have been addicted to speeding. Like 80% of all other drivers on the road, I have this urge to go 5-10 mph over the limit as if that was the limit. Passing people, sneering at them because they are going the speed limit as if it was so lame to only go 55” (Suso)
These quotes found online raise the issue of whether "speeding" in cars can be addictive. There’s no shortage of the words "addiction," "addictive," and "addicted" in news articles, including the headlines themselves. Examples I found within 60 seconds of searching included ‘Why the US is addicted to fast cars and street racing?", "Finding a cure for motorists’ addiction to speed," "Driving ‘addict’ Shane Holmes led police car chase along Heworth footpaths," and "Car addict’s 90mph chase." This latter story reported the case of David Massey, a car salesman, a “banned driver with an ‘addiction’ to cars has been jailed after he led police on a high-speed chase. [He] was caught speeding through winding roads while banned for a fourth time”. The case highlights that even being banned and the threat of going to prison if he drove a car while banned was not enough to deter him from driving.
Another story, headlined "Company car drivers' speeding addiction," was based on a survey carried out by the UK RAC (Royal Automobile Club). The story asserted: “It’s been confirmed: company car drivers are addicted to speeding…they are more likely to exceed the 70mph motorway speed limit than private motorists. Almost 90 percent of company car drivers admitted to breaking the speed limit, compared with nearly 70 percent of people driving their own vehicle." Here, company car drivers are pathologized by the press and their "need for speed" is viewed as an addiction. It's almost used it as a mitigating circumstance for their behavior. In an article written for CNN, amateur car racer Brian Donovan wrote that:
“I'll never forget that day, back in the 1970s, when I first experienced the intense – and probably addictive – state of mind that would become a powerful force in my life. No, I'm not talking about some drug. I'm remembering the first day I drove a racing car and the new level of consciousness I experienced as I sped down the curvy hill at the old Bridgehampton Race Circuit on Long Island. The experience, some drivers say, can be highly addictive."
Donovan wrote a book Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story, a biography of NASCAR's first African-American stock car driver. According to an interview with Scott: “Racing cars gets to be about like being a drug addict or an alcoholic. The more you do it, the more you like to do it.” Larry Frank, another NASCAR driver claimed that car racing was “like an addiction...there was many years that you just didn't know anything existed outside this little racing circle." However, I would argue that the quote could be as much about addiction to work as it is addiction to speed.
Academically, there’s been little empirical research on the topic although quite a few scholars have claimed and/or made arguments that speeding can be addictive. (I ought to mention that I am not including academic research on joyriding being addictive as I reviewed this literature in a previous article. Here, the criminality of the activity rather than the speed appears to provide rewards and reinforcements that for a small minority may be addictive.) In 1997, René Diekstra (a clinical psychologist) and Martin Kroon (at the time senior policy advisor on Transport and Environment in the Dutch Ministry of the Environment) wrote a book chapter entitled "Cars and behaviour: Psychological barriers to car restraint and sustainable urban transport." They asserted that:
“The car—and the motorbike—allow the individual to expose himself to exactly the level of danger he wants. It is not an overstatement to say that, at these times, drivers are experiencing a kind of narcotic effect, which can produce the same addictive response as more conventional drugs. There is sometimes a very fine line between ‘speeding’ and ‘speeding’! This addiction to speed among some drivers is excellently expressed in the term ‘speedaholics.'"
Earlier this year, Gerry Forbes published a paper in the ITE Journal entitled "Is speeding an addiction? Saving lives through roadway planning and design." He noted that “speeders not only break the law, they imperil themselves and other road users. Moreover, people who speed generally know it is against the law, believe that the risk is only to themselves, and do so for personal gain rather than any sort of community good." For Forbes, this naturally begged the question: “Are chronic speeders addicted to speeding in the same way drug abusers are addicted to illicit drugs?” He went on to argue:
“Addiction is persistent behavior despite knowledge of adverse consequences. The public perceives speeding as more dangerous than driver distraction and drinking-driving, yet motorists frequently drive faster than the speed limit. Speeding appears to be a behavioral addiction similar to gambling. However, this does not mean motorists are addicted to speeding."
Forbes then went on to cite my criteria for behavioural addiction and said that if speeding is a genuine addiction, it would be an activity that dominates an individual’s daily life (salience), deliver a mood altering ‘high’ (mood modification), requires “greater doses over time” to achieve the same ‘high’ (tolerance), cause conflict in the individual’s life, and ceasing the activity would lead to withdrawal symptoms and/or relapses. He then argued that speeding met some of the criteria for addiction:
(i) “motorists select faster operating speeds as route familiarity increases” (tolerance); (ii) up to 20% of motorists “exhibit mood modification, stating they enjoy the feeling associated with driving fast and citing this as a reason for speeding” (mood modification), (iii) “speeders in residential areas create conflict with residents, and conflicts between motorists arise when speeders are impeded by slower-moving road users” (conflict); and (iv) over two-thirds of motorists have speeding relapses (relapse).
He went on to make some excellent comparisons between speeding and drug use in relation to the harm they cause on society (using the U.S. as his example):
“Speeders and drug addicts can be compared by using the rational scale of harm – a tool used to compare the harm (of drugs) when considering the physical harm to the individual, the effect of the drug on society, and the tendency for the drug to induce dependence. With respect to personal harm, in the United States in 2015 motor vehicle speed was a factor in 9,557 fatal crashes, whereas overdoses by heroin and cocaine accounted for 12,989 deaths, and 6,784 deaths, respectively. With respect to dependence, 23 percent of individuals who use heroin develop opioid addiction and about 20 percent of motorists enjoy the feeling associated with driving fast. Similarly, 40 to 60 percent of drug addicts relapse, which is comparable to the 69 percent recidivism rate for speeders. Given this, the dependence and personal harm associated with speeding is arguably the same order of magnitude as cocaine or heroin.”
However, based on the evidence cited, Forbes reached the same conclusion that I would have:
“Typical motorists are not dominated by a need for speed, precluding a clinical finding of speed addiction. Speeding, it seems, is a behavior that has addictive elements without being an addiction…In the end, while speeding is not necessarily an addiction, it is harmful to individuals and society. The harm produced by speeding is of the same order of magnitude as heroin and cocaine."
Finally, based on a news report I read (The need for speed: Is it an addiction?), there is a team of university researchers in Sydney who began a project a couple of years ago to investigate the concept of speed addiction but I was unable to find any papers that have been published from it yet. The research is being led by Sarah Redshaw of the University of Western Sydney who has been publishing research into driving for many years. She was quoted as saying: “[Individuals who speed are] talking in terms of something they can't control. That's why it needs investigating, because it could be an uncontrollable impulse. If there could be such a thing as speed addiction, it would need to be dealt with like other addictions.” Also interviewed for the article was someone whose research I know well (and who I’ve co-published gambling papers with), the psychologist Alex Blaszczynski, who in the article described himself as a “self-professed speed lover.” He was also quoted as saying that:
“The thrill of speeding comes from neurochemical changes in the brain as the result of adrenaline. The question then is whether this particular behaviour leads to an addictive process or whether people just enjoy doing it. Is [speed] fulfilling some need, or is it something he wants? I think it's something he wants."
Alexander, H. (2016). The need for speed: Is it an addiction? Drive.com, October 3. Located at: https://www.drive.com.au/motor-news/the-need-for-speed-is-it-an-addicti…
Diekstra, R., & Kroon, M. (1997). Cars and behaviour: Psychological barriers to car restraint and sustainable urban transport. In Tolley, R. (ed.) The Greening of Urban Transport (pp.147-157). Chichester: Wiley.
Donovan, B. (2008). Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press.
Evans, J. (2014). Company car drivers' speeding addiction. August 19. Located at: https://www.driving.co.uk/car-clinic/news-company-car-drivers-speeding-…
Forbes, G. (2018). Is speeding an addiction? Saving lives through roadway planning and design. ITE Journal, 88(6), 44-49.
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.
Husted, D.S., Gold, M.S., Frost-Pineda, K., Ferguson, M.A., Yang, M. C., & Shapira, N.A. (2006). Is speeding a form of gambling in adolescents? Journal of Gambling Studies, 22(2), 209-219.
Redshaw, S., & Nicoll, F. (2010). Gambling drivers: regulating cultural technologies, subjects, spaces and practices of mobility. Mobilities, 5(3), 409-430.