A nation on autopilot: The reality of switching off behind the wheel

A nation on autopilot: The reality of switching off behind the wheel

Have you ever left your house, driven to the local supermarket and then, once you’ve got there, not been able to recall the majority of the journey travelled? If your answer is yes, fret not, because you’re not alone.

We recently carried out a survey in conjunction with Censuswide1, which revealed that the vast majority of UK motorists, 83%, find themselves ‘switching off’ during routine journeys. A further two in five (41%) admitted that they struggle to remember details of these drives.

Highway hypnosis

You’d be forgiven for thinking that, by ‘switching off’, your brain is simply trying to save you the anguish of undertaking another painstakingly mundane trip. However, this is actually a form of hypnosis induced by the very monotony of the route. Duly named ‘Highway Hypnosis’, but commonly referred to as ‘driving on autopilot’, this phenomenon is described as:

A light hypnotic state induced by the monotony of driving a motor vehicle, usually on long, straight roads uninterrupted by crossings, municipalities or other visually distracting factors2.

While Highway Hypnosis is more likely to occur during long-haul journeys, driving familiar routes can also send motorists into a trance-like state.

As with most tasks in life, the more often motorists drive a certain route, the more comfortable they feel doing it and the easier it becomes. However, as driving the route becomes second nature, attention levels dip and driver distraction increases. This can result in motorists failing to perceive things that are right in front of them – such as updated street signs or warnings.

Richard Coteau from Brake, suggests that the very technology meant to aid drivers can also play a role in driver distraction. He mentions that “devices such as cruise control, aimed at reducing the driver’s workload, can have the unintended side-effect of making drivers less attentive and more susceptible to fatigue, and can cause slower reaction times.”

Where are motorists most susceptible to driving on autopilot?

Autopilot graph

The chart above indicates the routes that UK motorists undertake most often. Our survey revealed that, overall, travelling to and from work is the most common routine journey people make. However, this route can also be one of the most dangerous to drive. Coteau states that “at least a third of road deaths and a quarter of serious injuries are from crashes involving someone driving for work – whether it's a company car driver, a professional driver of a commercial vehicle, or someone driving their own vehicle on company business. Often, these journeys are seen as being familiar and “safe” causing a false sense of security and increasing risk.”

How does driving on autopilot impact road safety?

Considering the vast majority of UK motorists make routine journeys on a daily basis, and a large number admit to ‘switching off’ during these trips, at any given time a significant number of motorists could be lacking full focus on the road.

Adam Beckett, propositions director for Aviva, comments:

Many drivers make the same journey several times each week – or even every day – and become very familiar with the route. This can make it easy for drivers’ attention to drift elsewhere, which is dangerous given the unpredictable nature of the roads.

When undertaking less familiar drives, our research found that motorists tend to be a lot more careful behind the wheel. They’re not only more likely to plan their route in advance, but they also leave themselves more time to complete the trip. On the other hand, during routine trips, drivers are more likely to listen to music, talk to other passengers, gaze at things on the road and think about anything but driving – all of which can influence distraction levels.

And we all know that distracted driving can be dangerous. In fact, our survey revealed that the considerable majority, 93%, believe that road users are put at risk by motorists not giving the road their full attention. And they are completely right in thinking so. Overall, more than half of UK motorists (54%) have either been in a collision or have had a near miss due to not paying the road their full attention.

Can we really rely on autopilot?

While on some occasions our autopilot may be able to navigate obstacles effectively and get us safely from A to B, the likelihood of this regularly being the case is extremely slim. This isn’t merely the case during routine trips, longer journeys can be dangerous too. Coteau suggests that, when undertaking a long journey, “not only is there the probability of driving on auto pilot, there is a risk of fatigue setting in if regular breaks are not taken. Tired driver crashes kill at least 300 people on UK roads every year, although the true figure could be much higher as it can be hard to prove tiredness as the cause of any individual crash.”

Beckett comments that “it is important that drivers stay focused no matter how routine the journey is, not just for their own safety, but also for the safety of passengers and other road users. By staying focused, drivers can help to avoid preventable accidents, which in turn can help to keep premiums down.”

So next time you jump in the car, be it for a quick trip to the local supermarket or a routine early morning school run, bear in mind that it may be the very simplest of drives that could be the most risky.

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1Based on a nationally representative survey of 2,011 UK drivers aged 17 and over who drive at least once a week, carried out by Censuswide in June 2016
2www.medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/highway+hypnosis Brake

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