If you are like most of us, you probably catch yourself daydreaming at various places and times. But allowing your mind to wander while behind the wheel can prove deadly if you need to respond rapidly or to unexpected events on the road.
Of the more than 172,000 people killed in car crashes over the past five years, one in 10 were in crashes where at least one of the drivers was distracted. That’s according to data analyzed by Erie Insurance housed in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a nationwide census of fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The analysis found being “generally distracted” or “lost in thought” was the number-one distraction involved in fatal crashes.
Minds drift off
Some people see driving as a time to relax and unwind and let their minds drift off, but that’s actually one of the worst things you can do,” said Jon Bloom, vice president of personal auto, Erie Insurance. ”Most people know about the dangers of texting while driving, but daydreaming while driving is an almost invisible distraction — people do it automatically without realizing the risk.”
To help drivers avoid daydreaming while driving, Erie Insurance reached out to Paul Atchley, Ph.D., an internationally recognized cognitive behavioral researcher. Dr. Atchley has studied distracted driving and worked with numerous national safety organizations to reduce it.
Passive forms of engagement to keep alert
“One effective strategy to counteract daydreaming is to keep your mind alert with so-called passive forms of engagement, like listening to a radio show or a podcast,” said Dr. Atchley. “The beauty of passive engagement is that your mind will automatically tune it out when it needs to. So, if something out of the ordinary suddenly happens in your environment, your brain won’t even hear what’s on the radio anymore. It will be fully focused on the task at hand.”
Dr. Atchley offers these additional tips to help drivers keep their attention on the road:
- Don’t replace boredom with a distraction. For example, never send or read a text to alleviate boredom. Instead, play verbal road games that help you focus, like “I Spy.” Make it even more effective by saying “I Spy a Distracted Driver” which will help your mind focus even more on the road and defensive driving.
- Keep your hazard perception skills sharp. This means knowing where to look on the road ahead and watching for situations that may require you to take an action, such as changing speed or direction. Examples include a car entering an intersection or a pedestrian crossing the road.
- Consider carpooling with another experienced driver. Just as professional truck drivers sometimes enlist a partner to share the driving duties, Dr. Atchley says having a co-driver can also work for everyday people. Another experienced driver sitting in the passenger seat next to you can serve as a second set of eyes. And, engaging in light conversation while you’re both looking at the road ahead can help keep your mind alert.
Analysis of police data
The Erie Insurance analysis of police data from 2012-2016, showed the majority of drivers who were distracted were “generally distracted” (inattentive, careless, or distracted — details unknown) or “lost in thought,” all of which are interpreted as daydreaming. In fact, police report that 61% of distracted drivers were daydreaming at the time of a fatal crash, compared with 14% of drivers who were distracted by cell phone use.
Erie Insurance did a similar analysis five years ago and revisited the data to see if the types of distractions had changed over the years. The analysis found the distractions were largely the same.
Police officers’ judgment at time of crash
Bloom said that because FARS data on distraction is based largely on police officers’ judgment at the time of the crash, and because people involved in a crash may be reluctant to admit to distracted driving behaviors when being interviewed by police, the numbers are difficult to verify and may, in fact, under-represent the seriousness and prevalence of driving distractions.
Above are the top 10 distractions involved in fatal car crashes, according to Erie Insurance’s analysis.