The Number One Distraction While Driving May Surprise You

I remember several years ago when I was asked to give the commencement speech at my graduation from Drexel, and I tried to start the speech with some humor (full disclosure, this was for the graduate school, and they used to rotate the graduation speaker through the various colleges. The year I graduated, it happened to be the business school’s turn, and I was the only PhD student graduating that year from the Business School. In other words, they were stuck with me).

Anyway, my opening line was something like, “When I was asked to give this speech, like any good PhD student I immediately started doing some research on what makes for a good speech. The research said I had to know my audience, and this is what I found out about audiences at commencement exercises: only 5% of you are actually listening to what I’m saying, 5% will fall asleep, and the other 90% is thinking about what they want for lunch when this is over.” (At least one person laughed, my wife, but I think it was more of a pity laugh; she had heard the line at least 50 times the night before while I was practicing.)

While the stats were all made up, I’m sure the percent of people daydreaming makes up the vast majority of most audiences listening to a speech (and sitting in my accounting class).

Well apparently the same is true of people driving.

Erie Insurance Company analyzed data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a nationwide census of fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Erie Insurance also consulted with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in its analysis.

ERIE’s analysis found daydreaming or being “generally distracted” (being inattentive, careless, or distracted–details unknown) or “lost in thought” was the number one distraction associated with fatal crashes.

The Erie Insurance analysis of police data from 2012-2016 showed the majority of drivers who were distracted were “generally distracted” or “lost in thought.” In fact, police report that 61 percent of distracted drivers were daydreaming at the time of a fatal crash, compared with 14 percent of drivers who were distracted by cell phone use.

As to what you can do to avoid this type of dangerous daydreaming, Paul Atchley, Ph.D., an internationally recognized cognitive behavioral researcher, has studied distracted driving and offers the following recomendations:

  • Use passive forms of engagement. This would include things like listening to a radio show or a podcast. “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.” However, he recommends against listening to a playlist of songs you’ve heard again and again, which could actually encourage your mind to drift off.
  • 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, 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.

You can read more about this here.

And here is a video Erie has put together highlighting the type of daydreaming that people do while driving.

Personally, when I drive, I am constantly doing math calculations:

  • How many more minutes until we get to X
  • How many cars have passed me vs. how many have I passed
  • How many more miles can I go until I need to stop for gas
  • How many more years do I need to work until I can retire

I know, many of you are probably thinking that having such thoughts while driving would make it more likely that you would fall asleep.

But what can I say, The Count was always my favorite character on Sesame Street…

one final disclaimer – Erie is my insurance company for home and auto…

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