Cognitive Distractions While Driving and Why Daydreaming is So Dangerous

Posted: April 23, 2021

We all daydream. Whether it’s thinking about what you need at the grocery store or that vacation you’re taking next month, it’s a part of everyday life. But what does it do to our focus while driving? Unfortunately, cognitive distractions are almost unavoidable these days. With technology being a huge part of our modern society, it is natural for our brains to be overstimulated, causing us to zone out. Driving on “autopilot” or being distracted while driving puts ourselves and others at risk. It is our responsibility to be aware of these risks and make conscious efforts to pay more attention behind the wheel.

Cognitive Distractions occur when a driver diverts their attention to another mentally demanding task while behind the wheel. One of the most prevalent cognitive distractions include being fatigued while driving. “Colorado ranks high in the percentage of people killed by motorists who fell asleep while driving. … The federal government has conservatively estimated that about 100,000 crashes a year are caused by driver fatigue, resulting in 71,000 people being injured and 1,500 fatalities.” (Safemotorist.com)

Some of the most common cognitive distractions are:

  • Fatigue
  • Listening to a podcast or audio book
  • Talking on a hands-free cell phone
  • Engaging in a heated or passionate conversation with a passenger in the car
  • Daydreaming or replaying the day’s events in our heads
  • Road rage
  • Strong emotions such as excitement or grief
  • Mentally preparing for a presentation or meeting

The dangers of cognitive distractions can involve reduced reaction times, poor judgement, and loss of activity in the brain that helps us function while driving. Important decisions are constantly having to be made while driving such as keeping a safe distance behind the car in front of you, switching lanes, putting on blinkers, and deciding what speed to adjust to according to the law. When you add in the events that can happen without warning, such as a pedestrian crossing the street or a car stopping suddenly in front of you, it is unnerving to think how many people are not thinking about the road ahead of them.

Have you ever gotten to work in the morning and thought “how did I get here?” That is your brain working on autopilot. During that drive you were likely thinking about things like being on time, getting that first cup of coffee, or what time you will need to leave to pick your kids up from school. Luckily you got there safely, but do you remember how many left turns you took? Or how many red lights you hit? Thinking in retrospect, would you have been prepared to brake if a car pulled out in front of you?

To practice mindful driving, set your destination in your GPS and start your playlist before you start driving, ask a passenger to help navigate or change the music, and save heated conversations for when you arrive at your destination. If you are overwhelmed with emotions, ask if someone else can drive. To avoid autopilot, try taking a new route to your destination or reading street signs out loud. If you are a passenger in a car with a distracted driver, offer to help in any way that allows the driver to focus on the road.

The task of driving deserves 100% of your attention, 100% of the time. Challenge yourself to not to zone out next time you are driving.