Home' Horizons : Horizons Feb Mar 14 Contents 42 Horizons February / March 2014
During the group’s first experience
at the 24km journey – which included
country roads and a town – they found
the level of difficulty relatively high and
remained quite alert.
The second group used the simulator
20 times over three months, to familiarise
themselves with the same journey.
Participants were also asked to perform
certain tasks, such as beeping the horn
when they spotted a particular car, or
other hazards, such as road works.
Those doing the 20 sessions also
occasionally had sections of their course
changed – sometimes slightly, other times
more obviously – to gauge their reactions.
Driving on autopilot
The results showed familiarity reduces
the perceived difficulty of driving a road,
in turn reducing a driver’s concentration
levels. After six or seven sessions many
said they were going through the motions
and driving “on autopilot”, which the report
concluded points to a lack of awareness.
Once participants got used to the road
they reported fewer hazards or changes.
In one of the driving simulations
scientists changed the road surroundings
completely, including the vegetation,
buildings, tunnels and bridges. This
scenario was rated as the most difficult
by participants. Clearly it’s an unrealistic
scenario, although Mr Plunkett says
there are other factors in the road
environment that can refocus a
“One thing, for example, that
does refresh you is another
vehicle, particularly heavy
Towards the latter
sessions drivers were
less likely to notice
Most people have an image of fatigue
being someone falling asleep at the
wheel, but we’re talking about being so
familiar with the road and environment
that your mind simply starts zoning out.
ver get the impression
the drive home from
your favourite holiday
destination was quicker
than the trip there?
You’re not alone. Despite driving
the same route and taking roughly
the same time, the perception
that the homeward journey was
quicker than the outbound one is
very common and is known as the
Return Trip Effect.
On the way to your destination,
if the driving environment
is somewhat unfamiliar, the
processing demands on your brain
increase, which tends to slow down
the apparent passage of time, so
your subjective experience is that
the return trip is shorter.
Studies have reported estimates by
participants that the return
trip is perceived to be 17 per cent to
22 per cent shorter.
It may not be real, but it makes the
boring drive home at the end of
your holiday a little more bearable.
Why the trip
changes in the road markings or traffic
signs, but they were more likely to
notice new vehicles coming towards
them. However lane markings were
noticed when they were temporarily
removed from the simulation, suggesting
there was still a focus on the road itself.
The report concluded that attention
levels were significantly reduced once
a driver was familiar with a particular
road: “It is clear that with repeated
exposure many elements or familiar
visual environments are neglected or
not consciously processed”.
The good news
However, this doesn’t mean drivers
simply tune out. “The good news is that
efficient and rapid detection of a wide
range of road and traffic information
is possible, even when drivers are not
paying optimal attention.”
Which may explain why red lights,
intersections and unexpected obstacles
are generally quickly responded to by
drivers familiar with a road.
The report suggests road design
(including signs) and driver training could
be tailored to increase awareness and
concentration on the roads.
Mr Plunkett concurs that more can
be done to educate drivers and help
change the perception of inattention
and driver fatigue.
“Perhaps we’ve made a mistake
in the past by using the word
fatigue,” he says. “Most people
have an image of fatigue
being someone falling
asleep at the wheel, but
we’re talking about
being so familiar
with the road and
your mind simply starts zoning out.”
He also says it’s up to drivers to better
understand when they need to refresh
“As soon as your mind starts wandering,
pull over, reboot and refresh,” he says,
adding that even a very short break,
“as little as a minute” can be beneficial
in refocusing attention on the serious
task of driving. l
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