Psychomotor Performance

Most behavioral tasks are complex processes in which information sampling and its processing, motor responses, and sensorimotor coordination are involved. A decrement in any part of this system leads to impaired performance. Numerous studies describe techniques used to assess the psychomotor functions of people under the influence of chemicals with the potential for impairing performance. The vastness of the range of behavioral activities, however, makes it unlikely that any one, or even a small number, of tests could completely describe the impairing properties of alcohol and other drugs under all conceivable circumstances.

A way to approach this problem is to isolate the main variables of performance into smaller entities and measure the effects separately with a set of relevant tests. Since psychomotor behavior consists of external stimuli and a rational response to them, a simplified chain of events can be divided into a sensory part (detection of stimulus), a central part (complex processing of the sensory information), and a motor part (overt behavior or motor reaction to the stimulus).

It is sometimes difficult to select the most sensitive, accurate psychomotor test for various agents that impair performance. Sets of tests have been used—for example, in studies on the likelihood of bus drivers to have traffic accidents. The capabilities that best characterized the drivers with low accident records were constant and keen attention, adequate information processing, and the absence of hasty reactions. Eye-to-hand coordination was less important, and simple reaction times represented the poorest correlation to safe driving. Although it is logical to choose a set of tests that cover the most important variables, in most tests there is an overlap among several skills. Alcohol, drugs, and their combinations, moreover, may impair these integrated variables to a varying extent in different individuals. Because of this, one cannot predict or give exact numerical data for the amount of impairment associated with a single variable of the system affected. Nor does impairment in one sensitive test mean that the overall performance is severely impaired. In practice, it may not be important to know whether the accident of a drunken driver resulted from impaired attention rather than from poor motor coordination or slowed reactions, when all these skills were more or less affected.

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