Getting in a vehicle and driving seems so simple that we forget that it’s also the single most dangerous activity we do routinely. We also tend to operate under the influence of reflexive, almost subconscious habits that sometimes erode our margins of safety. When you get behind the wheel, are you really mentally prepared to drive safely?
Before You Set Out
Think about when you get into your vehicle to go to work. What’s going through your mind? I have a meeting at 10 and I’m just not ready! When I get into the office, I must remember to ask my assistant to get that report for me. Wait, did I forget to turn off the coffeepot in the kitchen? Did I remember to give Lila her lunch money for school?
Scattered and jumbled, your mind is abuzz as you start the engine. You probably haven’t considered all that might be going on beyond your driveway because you’re still thinking about your internal world and are not yet fully paying attention to the external one.
Then you put your vehicle in reverse gear and start pulling out of your driveway into the street. Then you think to turn around and look, and the next thing you know, a vehicle or bicyclist zips past you that you didn’t even see. You slam on your brakes and wonder what just happened.
You weren’t quite ready to take on the complex task of driving. And it took lucky timing and possibly a close call to awaken you to this fact.
Did you really remember to thoroughly check that everything was clear in all directions before you started moving? Did you get surprised by something that you weren’t expecting to see? (And remember that if you’re not expecting to see something, you’re less likely to cognitively register it even if it is actually present.) If another person on your street was also departing, did you notice them before they nearly crossed your path? (And were they ready to see you coming?)
Now, as you prepare to leave your neighbourhood, are you ready for the rest of your drive? Or for what might happen—and at higher speeds? You probably are now, but nonetheless, some bad things could have happened in those first few minutes because you weren’t yet in the mindset of being ready to drive.
When You’re in a Hurry or You’re Anxious
The situation worsens exponentially when we’re in a hurry or stressed. Police officers, ambulance drivers, and road ragers are keenly familiar with “red mist,” a phenomenon when drivers become so fixated on pursuing something or achieving a nondriving-related goal that they can no longer properly assess risk or consequence. When this happens, the amygdala (the so-called reptilian part of our brain that controls our emotions) takes over before the cortex (the thinking part of the brain) can rationally process the situation. In extreme situations, we can literally lose our peripheral vision as well as our mental capacity to anticipate and respond to hazards.
While most of us hopefully won’t ever be chasing a fleeing criminal or rushing to a medical emergency, we are prone to “mini-red mists”—that is, moments when we’re extremely distracted, emotional, or anxious while driving. I’m running so late to this important meeting. I need to deliver fourteen more packages in the next half hour before my shift gets over, and I’m not going to make it with this stupid traffic. If I don’t answer this text right now, my boss is going to be really upset with me.
Regardless of the cause, the result is the same: Our cognitive world narrows and along with it our ability to fully perceive, plan, and process our interaction with our environment in real-time. It can happen at the worst times, with possibly tragic, costly results. You might not see a child stepping out in front of you. Or you might speed up without realizing it. You might follow the vehicle ahead too closely and not be as quick to react if they stop suddenly.
It’s also not just you. Chances are somewhat good that someone else driving near you may also be in this impaired state. What happens if you both encounter each other? Your odds are a lot better if at least one of you is paying full attention.
The 27-Second Factor
The science of distraction has long been studied in safety-critical fields such as aviation, transportation, and manufacturing. My last article mentioned how we assume we competently multitask when the opposite is true, and recent neuroscience research proves that we can take a surprisingly long time to mentally switch from one task to another. In 2015, Dr. David Strayer of the University of Utah found that drivers took an average up to 27 seconds to fully regain awareness of their external surroundings after disconnecting from their smartphones and car voice-command systems.
This is why some states have laws prohibiting drivers from talking on their phones when stopped at a traffic light—the intersection is one of the most dangerous spots you’ll ever cross.
Even if you don’t talk or text on a smartphone while driving, similar impairment from task switching can arise in other situations, such as when you’re in a deep conversation with a passenger, being preoccupied emotionally, or in a hurry. Fatigue, drugs (including prescription ones), and alcohol can also compound these effects.
What Can You Do to Refocus?
It’s perfectly normal for us to not quite have all our mental pistons firing right away when we first get behind the wheel. We do need a little time to acclimatize as we switch to this different task, and the first step is to be aware of this fact and act on it.
Our impulse is often just to start the engine and get underway as quickly as possible. (Ever watch people leave a parking lot?) But, before you begin moving, first clear out your mental white noise to get yourself ready:
Slowly inhale and exhale deeply several times. It’s physically impossible to hold tension in your body and exhale at the same time. Plus, deep breathing gets much-needed oxygen to your brain, helping you think better.
Take a moment to look out your side window, windshield, and rear window and look at your surroundings with your full attention. What’s happening around you? Is it quiet, busy, calm, congested? Note any hazards or potentially tricky situations around you.
Remind yourself: The only task I need to pay attention to right now is driving safely to my next destination. That’s it. Everything else can wait—and it’ll be just fine.
As you start the engine and get ready to drive away, remind yourself: Don’t hurry. I will take the time to check properly for hazards and not skip any steps.
Over the course of your day, every time you get in your vehicle, repeat this process. Don’t be tempted to skip it or any of its steps. It may feel a little foolish at first, but it’s important to make it an automatic habit. You can also use this process to refocus your mind while you’re driving.
The very act of doing this gives you the transition time you need to leave whatever internal world you were in and prepare to enter a new external one. In time, it will become a routine as natural as driving itself, and it could save a life.