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Mind wandering during driving, dangerous
September 12, 2017, 11:50 am
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Many people are not able to remain attentive all the time while driving, especially when it is a daily drive along the same route, for example, while driving to and from work each day. But driver inattention is a major factor in road traffic crashes and fatalities.

Some of the most obvious sources of driver distraction are external, such as talking on the phone or engaging with passengers in the vehicle. However, many traffic accidents occur without any obvious external distractions, such as allowing the mind to wander while driving.

Mind wandering is an understudied form of distraction, where drivers start daydreaming and shift their attention from driving to internal thoughts. To stay safe, drivers need to remain aware of other road users and respond rapidly to unexpected events, and mind wandering might reduce their ability to do so. Because drivers may not be explicitly aware that their mind is wandering, it can be difficult to quantify it.

Researchers at George Mason University in the US have now studied a group of volunteers using a driving simulator, and while hooked up to an electrophysiological monitoring system, which could identify specific changes in brain patterns of drivers when their minds wandered. 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, and if so, if they had been explicitly aware of their mind wandering or not.

Researchers found that the volunteers’ minds wandered a lot, in some cases up to 70 percent of the time, especially during the second drive which corresponded to the drive home from work. Also, the participants reported that they were aware that their minds had wandered during the driving only 65 percent of the time. Using the electrophysiological system, the scientists could also directly detect mind wandering from the volunteers' brain activity.

Mind wandering may be an essential part of human existence and unavoidable. It may be a way to restore the mind after a long day at the office. The researchers add that 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.

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