Why driving on mental auto-pilot is incredibly dangerous

Most people who commute for 20 minutes or more every day will have experienced the unnerving situation of arriving at a destination and not remembering the drive there. The more frequently someone takes a certain route and the more habitual the drive itself is, the more likely it is for someone to zone out while driving.

Although many people think of cellphones as the most dangerous form of distraction, the truth is that internal distraction, such as lack of focus, is also a dangerous kind of distraction. Understanding why you might lose focus while driving can help you prevent it from happening to you in the future and possibly help you avoid causing a distraction-related collision.

Habitual actions can activate an old part of the brain

Scientists have determined the exact cause of this lack of conscious awareness at the wheel, and it all has to do with how the human brain has developed and become more complex. When you zone out, it’s because of the so-called lizard brain, which is the oldest part of the human brain. It is made up of the brainstem and the basal ganglia.

The lizard brain can sometimes take over when you drive a habitual route with no real need to focus on anything happening at the moment because it is in charge of procedural memory. That means you will drive without being really aware of it. For those who are sick of a long commute, the idea of getting home on mental autopilot my actually seem kind of nice.

Unfortunately, road conditions can and do change with little warning. That could mean that you aren’t paying close enough attention to changing environmental factors and make a mistake that could cause a crash.

Changing things up can help you stay safe and focused

Always driving the same route and allowing yourself to mentally drift while driving can contribute to the risk of zoning out while driving. Making it a practice to mentally check in with yourself and verify your surroundings every minute or so while driving is a mindful way to keep yourself focused. You may also want to try taking unusual routes home in order to keep the experience as novel and unpredictable for your brain as possible.