Driver 'mind-wandering' contributes to road traffic accidents, study finds

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

Have you ever driven somewhere while preoccupied and after arriving been unable to recall the route taken?

If so, you were probably experiencing “mind-wandering” and you were fortunate not to have caused a road traffic accident, according to research published in the British Medical Journal yesterday.

French researchers interviewed 955 drivers injured in crashes who attended the emergency department at Bordeaux University Hospital in 2010 and 2011.

The drivers were asked to describe their thought content just before the crash.

Researchers classified 47 per cent of the drivers as responsible for the crash, over half of whom reported some mind-wandering just before the accident. For 13 per cent of drivers the mind-wandering was intense with highly disruptive or distracting content.

The term “mind-wandering” has been coined to describe thinking unrelated to the task at hand. It happens most often at rest or during repetitive tasks. All drivers experience occasional drifting of their minds towards inwardly-directed thoughts, a temporary “zoning out” that might dangerously distract them from the road.

External distractions (such as from mobile phones) are known to be linked with crashes but inattention arising from internal distractions (such as worries) is still poorly understood in the context of road safety.

The study found intense mind-wandering was associated with greater responsibility for a crash in 17 per cent of crashes in which the driver was thought to be responsible, compared with 9 per cent in which the driver was not judged to be responsible.

This association remained after adjusting for other confounding factors that could have affected the results, such as blood alcohol levels.

The authors concluded 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 added 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.”

There were 212 deaths on Irish roads in 2010. There have been 155 road fatalities so far this year, according to Garda figures.