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The Danger of Daydreaming Drivers

A new study has shown that mind-wandering, or daydreaming, while driving is very common, with volunteers reporting mind-wandering 70 percent of the time.

Using electrophysiological measurements, the researchers said they could identify specific changes in brain patterns when the volunteers were mind-wandering.

Driver inattention is a major factor in road traffic crashes and fatalities. The most obvious sources of distraction are external, such as phones or other mobile devices, but many accidents occur without any obvious external distractions, the researchers noted.

Mind-wandering is an understudied form of distraction, where drivers start daydreaming and shift their attention from driving to internal thoughts. But to stay safe, drivers need to remain aware of other drivers and hazards on the road and be able to respond rapidly to unexpected events.

For the new study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 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.

Throughout the experiment, the volunteers heard a buzzer at random intervals, and every time the buzzer sounded they used a tablet computer to indicate if their mind had been wandering right before they heard the buzzer, the researchers explained. If their minds had been wandering, they were asked if they were aware of it.

“We found that during simulated driving, people’s minds wander a lot — some upwards of 70 percent of the time,” said Dr. Carryl Baldwin of George Mason University, who was involved in the study.

Participants’ minds were more likely to wander on the second drive of the simulation, the drive home after work, the study discovered.

On average, the drivers were aware of their minds wandering only 65 percent of the time, according to the findings.

Researchers reported they could also directly detect mind-wandering from the volunteers’ brain activity.

“We were able to detect periods of mind wandering through distinctive electrophysiological brain patterns, some of which indicated that the drivers were likely less receptive to external stimuli,” Baldwin said.

So, what does this mean? Is mind-wandering dangerous, and if so, can we stop doing it?

“Mind-wandering may be an essential part of human existence and unavoidable,” she said. “It may be a way to restore the mind after a long day at the office. What we are not sure about yet is how dangerous it is during driving. We need additional research to figure this out.

“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,” she concluded.

Source: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

The Danger of Daydreaming Drivers

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). The Danger of Daydreaming Drivers. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 3 Sep 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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