Are you always attentive when driving? If not, you are not alone. A new study has found that mind wandering, which is potentially dangerous, is quite common among drivers.
Driver inattention is a major factor in road traffic crashes and fatalities. The most obvious sources of driver distraction are external, such as phones or other mobile devices, and scientists have extensively studied the role of these distractions in road accidents.
However, many traffic accidents occur without any obvious external distractions. Mind wandering is an understudied form of distraction, where drivers start daydreaming and shift their attention from driving to internal thoughts.
In this study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, scientists investigated during a driving simulation how frequent mind wandering is, and whether they could find tell-tale changes in brain patterns for a wandering mind.
The researchers asked a group of volunteers to use a driving simulator, while hooked up to an electrophysiological monitoring system, to measure electrical activity in their brains.
For five days in a row, the volunteers completed two 20-minute driving simulations along a monotonous stretch of straight highway at a constant speed, to mimic a commute to and from work.
Between the two “commutes”, they completed a written test to simulate the mentally draining effect of a day’s work.
“We found that during simulated driving, people’s minds wander a lot — some upwards of 70 per cent of the time,” said one of the researchers, Carryl Baldwin of George Mason University in Virginia, US.
Participants’ minds were more likely to wander on the second drive of the simulation (the drive home after work), and on average, they were aware of their mind wandering only 65 per cent of the time.
“We were able to detect periods of mind wandering through distinctive electrophysiological brain patterns,” Baldwin said.
“Mind wandering may be an essential part of human existence and unavoidable. It may be a way to restore the mind after a long day at the office,” Baldwin said.
To stay safe, drivers need to remain aware of other road users and respond rapidly to unexpected events, and mind wandering might reduce their ability to do so.
“In terms of improving safety in the future, one option could be autonomous transport systems, like self-driving cars, that allow people’s minds to wander when it is safe to do so, but re-engage when they need to pay attention,” Baldwin said.