Just how dangerous is daydreaming while driving?
(Photo: Thomas Anderson | Flickr)
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Because millions of sensations bombard us every second, the brain sorts through them to allow only the most important ones to become conscious—for instance, you don't notice what's in your peripheral vision unless something moves there. It's just the way the brain evolved to protect it from self-destructing. If it allowed too many sensations to get through, we would be paralyzed by the massive sensory overload. The downside to this is that your mind has a narrow attention span, so it likes to wander—a lot. That beer you're thinking about having when you get home from work could distract you long enough to expose you to danger while behind the wheel. Daydreaming can't be eliminated, only minimized.
Just how dangerous is daydreaming while driving? When the Erie Insurance Group studied 65,000 fatal crashes over a two-year span (2010–11), its researchers found that one in 10 were attributed to driver distraction, and 62 percent were blamed on daydreaming—five times as many as talking or texting on a mobile phone. The study was based on a nationwide database, kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, called the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, that tracks all vehicle deaths. "The results were disturbing," says Erie senior vice president Doug Smith.
What's sneaky about daydream driving is that you may feel totally aware of your environment but be out of conscious contact with it. You're not really seeing what you're looking at. For example, most of us know the sensation of suddenly snapping to attention during a long stretch of highway or getting home from a drive and not remembering parts of the trip.
While your conscious mind wanders off, your subconscious takes over the wheel. Yes, an emergency can jar you back to full awareness, but your reaction time and sense of perception will suffer when you're not paying full attention.
If you can't eliminate daydream driving, how can you minimize it?