How do you react when you hear the words “road trip?” Do you get excited, inspired by the idea of being on the road and by the adventure of driving? Or do you immediately stretch into an apathetic yawn, anticipating the boredom of staring at ribbons of asphalt and the tail lights of the car in front of you for mile upon endless mile? Or, do your palms immediately begin to sweat as you dread the stress of maneuvering a two-ton vehicle through relentless freeway traffic or urban gridlock?
About a third of drivers fall into the second category, according to a survey conducted by researchers at Newcastle University in the UK. And if you think aggressive drivers are the most dangerous on the road, you might consider the hazards posed by bored ones. Led by Jane Harvey, the scientists found that boredom in their study subjects translated into riskier driving to make the on-road experience more exciting, leading them to have one and a half times more accidents than other drivers. Not surprisingly, these individuals were more likely to be young and less experienced behind the wheel. (More on Time.com: When Tragedy Strikes, Do You See Justice in the Suffering?)
“We found four clusters of drivers – those who we called nervous, dangerous, young and bored, those who were enthusiastic, those who disliked driving, and those who were slow and safe,” says Harvey. The young and bored drivers were more likely to report feeling rushed when driving, and generally more anxious behind the wheel. That nervous energy translated into a need to match their heightened sense of excitement and stimulation while on the road, something that they seem only able to do by speeding or driving recklessly. These drivers reported not only making more mistakes, such as driving with the parking brake on or taking off in the wrong manual gear, but also being in more accidents. In order to stimulate themselves, they also tended to speed in urban areas and adopt other accident-prone behaviors.
The other group that tended to drive fast included the enthusiastic drivers, who, Harvey says, unlike the bored and dangerous drivers found driving to be the perfect balance between excitement and relaxation. For these people, operating a vehicle was both challenge and pleasure, and while they tended to speed, they did so on freeways and were involved in the least number of accidents among the four groups.
While the results aren’t surprising, Harvey says the study sheds light on why accidents occur. In many cases, it seems, the drivers feel under-stimulated, and are easily distracted by anything else but the road. “When people who are highly likely to get bored feel understimulated, they do things in response to that, even behind the wheel,” says Harvey. “Their mind wanders, they daydream, and they lose concentration. They are not responding to stimuli in the same way as enthusiastic drivers are, and that could be a problem for road safety.” (More on Time.com: Photos: New Hybrid Cars for 2011)
Efforts to add complexity to the driving experience, either by installing islands or other medians that drivers have to navigate in between opposing lanes of traffic in urban areas, or by removing monotonous barriers along freeways, could help drivers to refocus their attention on the road. Driving is certainly no time for ennui.