People whose minds wander while they are driving are significantly more likely to be responsible for a crash, according to new research.
Researchers note that “mind-wandering,” which describes thinking that is unrelated to the task at hand, happens most often at rest or during repetitive tasks, such as driving. This temporary “zoning out” can dangerously distract drivers from the road, the researchers say.
A team of researchers from France interviewed 955 drivers injured in a motor vehicle crash attending the emergency department at Bordeaux University Hospital between April 2010 and August 2011. All participants, who were 18 years or older, were asked to describe their thoughts just before the crash. Researchers also assessed how disruptive or distracting the thought was.
Mitigating factors considered to reduce driver responsibility, such as road environment, traffic conditions, traffic rule obedience and difficulty of the driving task, were taken into account. Researchers also tested drivers’ blood alcohol levels and emotional state just before the crash.
This led them to classify 453 drivers — or 47 percent — as responsible for the crash, while the remaining 502 were deemed not responsible.
The researchers report that over half of the drivers — 52 percent — reported some mind-wandering just before the crash, and its content was highly disrupting or distracting — which they defined as intense mind wandering — in 121 incidences, or 13 percent.
Intense mind-wandering was associated with greater responsibility for a crash — 17 percent (78 of 453 crashes in which the driver was thought to be responsible) compared with 9 percent (43 of 502 crashes in which the driver was not thought to be responsible).
This association remained after adjusting for other factors that could have affected the results, the researchers said.
The scientists conclude that the association between intense mind-wandering and crashing “could stem from a risky decoupling of attention from online perception, making the driver prone to overlook hazards and to make more errors during driving.”
They add that this study could lead to new interventions to help drivers by detecting periods of inattention. “Detecting those lapses can therefore provide an opportunity to further decrease the toll of road injury,” they said in the study, published in the British Medical Journal.
Source: BMJ-British Medical Journal