Dangerous Day-Dreaming Drivers

Mind wandering linked to car crashes

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) It's not uncommon to "get into the zone" while driving or doing another common activity. It's also common to "zone out." But zoning out while driving can be dangerous.

A recent study actually looked at how frequently the driver causing a car crash had his mind wandering at the time of the crash.

The researchers found that having your mind wandering while driving made it twice as likely that you would cause an accident.

"Don't daydream while driving."

The study, led by Cédric Galéra, PhD, from the epidemiology department at the University of Bordeaux in France, looked at how much car crashes might be related to a driver's mind wandering.

The researchers invested the circumstances of 955 drivers who had been injured in a motor vehicle crash and brought to the emergency department in France.

They determined who had been responsible for the crash and then considered whether mind wandering, an external distraction, alcohol use, psychotropic drug use, sleep deprivation or stress/negative mood were involved.

Determination of responsibility for the crash was based on a standard assessment that takes into consideration the road environment, vehicle-related factors, traffic conditions, the type of accident, traffic rule obedience and the difficulty of the driving task.

The researchers found that in 17 percent of the crashes, the mind of the person responsible was wandering at the time of the crash. This accounted for 78 of 453 crashes.

Only in 9 percent of the cases was the mind wandering of the driver who was not responsible for the crash.

Whether someone's mind was wandering was determined using two questions related to what the individual was thinking just before the crash. The question was asked in two different ways at two points during the interview to offer less of a chance for a biased or inaccurately recalled answer.

Over half of the drivers interviewed for the study reported some form of mind wandering before the crash, but only in 121 cases was the mind wandering determined to be highly disrupting or distracting.

The researchers estimated that a person is twice as likely to be the cause of an accident if their mind is wandering while driving. The researchers took into account the social and demographic factors of the drivers (age, race/ethnicity and income) and the characteristics of the crash in their analysis.

When a person's mind wanders, they are basically no longer paying attention to the task at hand. Their attention is separated from the auditory and visual cues that might let them know what action they need to take as a driver.

The researchers acknowledged that mind wandering is a normal human activity but that it is dangerous when paired with driving.

"Detecting those lapses [in sustained attention] can therefore provide an opportunity to further decrease the toll of road injury," they wrote.

The study was published December 13 in the journal BMJ. The research was funded by the French National Research Agency. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 30, 2012
Last Updated:
April 11, 2013