Study shows that “zoning out” is the biggest driving distraction

tesla dashboard
© Tesla Dashboard/ no distractions here.

But let's keep talking about distracted walking.

In Saskatchewan, Canada, a truck driver was recently sentenced to three years in prison for killing three teenagers at a construction zone. The flagman had stopped traffic but the trucker just ploughed right into the rear of the car with the kids in it. The driver told police that he wasn’t asleep, but that he was in "la la land, basically — I'm there behind the wheel but I'm not." He continued: "With it being Saskatchewan, it's flat and [you] kind of just go into autopilot."

The really unusual thing here is that the truck driver is actually going to prison for what his lawyer calls a “mistake”. Because, in fact, being in La La Land is incredibly common. We have noted previously a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, finding that a whopping “84 percent of distracted-driving-related fatalities in the US were tied to the general classification of carelessness or inattentiveness”.

Now a new study, Detecting and Quantifying Mind Wandering during Simulated Driving, confirms experimentally that, indeed, our minds tend to wander into la la land.

The purpose of this research was to investigate the frequency of mind wandering over repeated exposure to the same driving route, as well as to identify the relationship between mind wandering and both driver behavior and electrophysiology.

It’s tough to measure; even the definition is vague. The experimenters told the subjects:

Please note that for the purposes of this experiment, the words mind wandering, daydreaming and zoning-out are all synonymous. These are popular terms for which there is no official definition.

They explain the problem:

For most people, driving is a highly-overlearned task. Consequently, many of the tasks of everyday driving—lane and speed maintenance, stopping at signaled intersections, etc.—tend to occur relatively automatically. In addition, many trips are routinized with drivers taking the same routes back and forth to work, the grocery store, or other frequently visited locations, which further promotes automaticity, allowing attention to be devoted to other activities. The routine nature of the driving task, particularly along familiar or monotonous routes, creates an environment ripe for internal distraction or mind wandering.

The researchers used both beeping tones and subjective responses, as well as EEG probes that measured changes in the brain. They found that subjects reported “mind wandering” 70.1 percent of the time. The programmed route, however, was pretty boring. “The high frequency of mind wandering in the present experiment would likely be lessened if the driving scenarios were made to be more demanding.”

These results are largely in line with previous studies on mind wandering during driving, and on attentional processes as assessed with EEG, and support that mind wandering has an impact on both driving performance and the driver’s underlying physiology.

In another article from Canada, an Ontario woman explains how she gets through her 200 km (124 mile) commute to Toronto every day.

"I really enjoy the time in the car to be reflective," she said."I get to really zone out and just be me in the car, thinking about life and or just listening to music or whatever.”

In an earlier post, I suggested that perhaps cars shouldn’t be designed like comfortable rolling living rooms, but should be “more like machines, with harder seats to keep you alert, less insulation to keep out exterior noise, and perhaps even standard transmissions that require a lot more attention.“ I concluded:

…the shocking statistics on how many people are driving around in a daze, on another planet, should be trotted out every time a driver complains about pedestrians not paying attention or wearing headphones. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.


This study adds more evidence that drivers are off in la la land much of the time. It really is time to fix the cars, or fix the drivers, instead of dressing up the pedestrians.

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