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You might think you're a good driver. But you, like all other drivers, tend to daydream behind the wheel. Why? It has to do with the way nature wired your brain.
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?
• Keep your eyes moving. Change your gaze every 2 seconds. Any longer and you tend to stare, which induces mind wandering and narrowing of peripheral vision. Tiring? No. The eyes were designed to keep in motion.
• To keep alert, interact with your environs by imagining "what-if" scenarios. What if that oncoming car crosses over? What if that truck ahead suddenly stops? All those what-ifs you're visualizing feed your subconscious with some valuable data to reprogram your brain for your benefit. They may provide you with a better accident-evasion plan than the one you've imagined should a similar event actually happen.
• Chew something. Really. Crunchy foods will keep you alert. Even chewing gum works. One psychology professor advised drivers to chew peanut brittle, calories notwithstanding. Besides the noise made from crunching, he said that searching for the peanuts was oral therapy.
• Try different driving routes when possible. Driving the same long route is boring, and your mind is more prone to wander when it encounters the same repetitive conditions. It's called habituation. Perry Buffington, a medical columnist, says, "simply put, we get used to things, and when we do, they're no longer important to us." Daydreaming results. And you notice fewer things when you're bored, even if you're not daydreaming.
If you want to become more alert behind the wheel, you must first want to. But even with the best intentions, you still have to be on guard. Daydream driving will hit you when you least expect it.
[Related: Just How Dangerous Are America's Bridges?]