By Art Liggio, President and CEO, Driving Dynamics
“Two more days and I’m free, free, free! A whole week sitting on the beach in Aruba. Hmmm, should I start with a Pina Colada or maybe a Rum Runner when I get there? Decisions, decisions. Jeez, I forgot to notify the post office to hold the mail. Better not forget to get that done. Yep, a whole week in Aruba, and no boss to looking over my shoulder. Can’t wait. Oh heck, I forgot to give her my monthly territory report. I better get that done tonight when I get home, or I’ll be persona non grata! Hey, look at this, I’m already here at my next stop. Wow, that’s funny. Can’t even remember the drive over. Oh well, better get this service call started. Hope the next stop is as easy to get to.”
Be honest. Just admit it. We all daydream from time to time; maybe a bit more than we realize. Can be kind of fun, sometimes relaxing, perhaps good for our mental health but the truth be told, it can also be a deadly activity when we operate a vehicle.
Just how dangerous is daydreaming while driving? In an April 2018 press release, the Erie Insurance Group provided insight related to this phenomenon. According to data analyzed by Erie Insurance which is housed in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a nationwide census of fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 172,000 people were killed in car crashes over the past five years; one in 10 were in crashes where at least one of the drivers was distracted.
The interesting conclusion found in this study showed being “generally distracted” or “lost in thought” as the number-one distraction involved in fatal crashes. Not cell phone use or texting which is generally associated with distracted driving. Here are the top ten distractions involved in fatal vehicle crashes: (click on chart to enlarge)
In a recent study (August 2017), published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, scientists investigated how frequent mind wandering, commonly called daydreaming, occurred in test subjects during two twenty-minute driving simulations. The researchers designed the simulations to mimic typical work day commutes.
“We found that during simulated driving, people’s minds wander a lot―some upward of 70 percent of the time,” says Carryl Baldwin, of George Mason University, who was involved in the study. The test subjects were more likely to let their minds wander on the second drive (the drive home after work) and, on average, they were aware of this condition about 65 percent of the time.
“We were able to detect periods of mind wandering through distinctive electrophysiological brain patterns, some of which indicated that the drivers were likely less receptive to external stimuli,” says Baldwin.
One of the triggers for daydreaming while driving is a phenomenon called habituation. Think of people who regularly commute, drive the same route schedules or have extended periods of highway driving. As we get used to things, the environment we’re driving in; they become commonplace and no longer important to us or top of mind. Daydreaming results. And we notice fewer things about our surroundings when bored, even if we’re not daydreaming.
Another trigger is sensory overload. While driving, people are inundated with thousands upon thousands of details every second. The brain determines the most important details and moves those to the front of our consciousness; blocking what is not relevant to the prime activity of driving. If the brain was not filtering all of these massive detail inputs, drivers would quickly become paralyzed by the enormous sensory overload. But In addition to filtering, another defensive mechanism the brain employs to protect it from overloading is daydreaming.
So, when your conscious mind wanders away from its job to safely operate your vehicle, who is really driving? Well, it’s your subconscious mind that takes over and now, as you read in the chart above, you are at risk. Just as the driver in the beginning of this article was daydreaming about their upcoming vacation, this type of distraction may be sustained long enough to expose you to serious consequences. When a hazard presents itself, the subconscious mind may or may not alert your conscious mind of the danger but even when it does, your reaction time and sense of perception suffers.
The fact is daydreaming can’t be entirely eliminated but it can certainly be minimized. Here are ideas that will help you do this.
Practice using a 360 degree view: look farther ahead, look where you want to go, regularly check details through the side windows and mirrors. Safe drivers employ this scanning technique to constantly monitor what is happening around them. Keeping your eyes in motion provides situational awareness to identify and avoid hazards but it also keeps the brain focused on its key responsibility―safe driving. By changing your view every few seconds, you avoid staring which eventually narrows your peripheral vision and induces daydreaming.
If you routinely take the same routes every day, mix it up: Make it interesting and be an explorer. You may discover alternate routes that are safer and more interesting to travel. Keep on mixing it up so your commute does not become boring and mind numbing. These activities will help you to avoid the habituation phenomenon.
Taking long drives? Use that smart phone for something good. Have it make an audible beep every 5 minutes to remind you to stay focused on the road ahead and not your vacation plans.
For more details on this topic, check out an excellent video produced by Erie Insurance. And get a copy of, “Detecting and Quantifying Mind Wandering during Simulated Driving” published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
Safety & Risk is presented by Driving Dynamics an accomplished provider of impactful driver safety training and risk management services. Continually building and delivering programs based on sound research, proven learning methodologies and expert instruction, we are dedicated to improving drivers’ abilities to stay safe by leveraging risk management tools, principle-based learning and applied techniques. The One Second Advantage™ safety training principle developed by Driving Dynamics is rooted in research that shows 90 percent of all traffic crashes can be avoided when the driver has just one more second to react and knows what to do with that additional second. Driving Dynamics encourages all drivers to Steer Toward Safety™
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