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August 31, 2017

Study finds daydreaming while driving is common and dangerous

Research Driving
Freedom Taxi in traffic near 30th Street Station Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

A cab operated by Freedom Taxi waits in a line of traffic on the JFK Boulevard Bridge near 30th Street Station in Philadelphia.

We've all let our minds wander behind the wheel at one point or another.

But recent research found that daydreaming on the road could account for a significant number of accidents and driving deaths.

A study published Aug. 8 and funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found, unsurprisingly, that mind-wandering affects driving performance.

Across five days, researchers studied five men and four women from George Mason University with a driving simulator and an electrophysiological monitoring system that measured electrical activity in their brains. Those who took part were 24 years old on average and had eight years of driving experience.

For five days straight, researchers had participants take two 20-minute driving simulations along a straight stretch of highway to resemble a drive to work. They also had to stay in the right lane, keep one hand on the wheel at all times and keep a constant speed of 65 mph.

Volunteers would hear buzzers at random, which would prompt them to indicate on a touchscreen whether their mind had been wondering or not right before the probe sounded. If so, they were asked whether they were aware or unaware of their daydreaming.

Researchers said their subjects were often aware that they were mind-wandering during the study.

"We were able to detect periods of mind wandering through distinctive electrophysiological brain patterns, some of which indicated that the drivers were likely less receptive to external stimuli," researcher Carryl Baldwin said in a statement.

Identifying mind-wandering, researchers said, "could serve as a useful research tool for assessment of driver attention, and could potentially lead to future in-vehicle safety countermeasures."

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