Study Says Mind Wandering Is a New, Growing Driver Distraction

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Researchers at North Carolina State University are studying a form of distracted driving that's all too common — but does not involve smartphones. 

Instead, researchers are examining how "zoning out" can serve as a driver distraction. Michal Geden, a Ph.D. candidate at NC State and lead author of the study's research paper, says that as autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies take over some driving tasks, drivers are likely to experience increased boredom as they have little to do behind the wheel. 

“This study tells us that mind wandering affects how variable the driving speed is when people drive, which has safety implications,” Geden says. “It also tells us that perceptual load affects mind wandering.”

Perceptual load refers to the amount of information in the environment that the driver needs to process. Driving through a downtown environment offers a higher perceptual load than, say, driving through rural farmland would.

Researchers examined 40 drivers using a driving simulator. During low perceptual load conditions, drivers reported that their minds were wandering 50 percent of the time. But during high perceptual load conditions, drivers reported mind wandering only 41 percent of the time. Researchers also saw an increased variability in driving speeds during times when drivers reported mind wandering.

“There is a great deal of research on external distractions, such as talking on your phone while driving,” says Jing Feng, an assistant professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the paper. “However, not much work has been done on allowing one’s mind to wander while driving. As technologies take over more driving tasks, we may become more likely to let our minds wander. We should know what that might mean for vehicle safety, and this study is one step in that direction.”

Read the study's full paper on ScienceDirect

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