Over The Pond in America lies the glorious state of Oregon within the boundaries of which nestles the small city Of Boring. There is nothing exceptional about the place at all, except perhaps its name and the fact that it is twinned with the village of Dull, in Scotland. No doubt, by virtue of the grid method that American towns tend to be laid out, some of the roads are boring too. Fortunately, Oregon is a scenic area so there’s often something beautiful to look at on the very long drives necessary along the arrow straight highways that criss-cross the continent. Driving in America can get very boring indeed.
As a contrast to this, many countries of the world have highly dangerous roads with names that loosely translate as ‘Road of Death’. In southern Spain for example the N340 coast road used to be lethal to those not experienced on it, although these days a major trunk road replaces it for through traffic. Nevertheless, driving along it today is still a lively experience courtesy of the locals, and one thing that can be said is that the drive is never boring.
Meanwhile, the M4 into London has a split personality as it is both boring and dangerous, largely due to the rush hours at either end of the working day. Of course all roads are dangerous by nature of the traffic and standards of driving upon them. Roads that seem perfectly innocuous can still produce unpleasant surprises from time to time. It could be argued though that boring roads present their own special brand of peril.
There’s a motoring phenomenon that can best be described as ‘auto-pilot’. The road stretches ahead, a featureless ribbon of tarmac, and the human mind begins to wander. Ultimately, the driver arrives at the destination with only a vague sense of what occurred in between. This is not uncommon; data suggests that mind-wandering is a real danger on the behind the wheel. Research has clearly shown that being lost in thought is common, affecting driving behaviour in a number of ways.
Simulated experiments have demonstrated that motorists’ minds wandered most frequently on boring roads. Without oncoming cars or junctions or roundabouts, those drivers tested acknowledged that their minds were wandering more often than when they drove on busier, but otherwise identical, routes.
Minds, we learn, wander comparatively less during the first few minutes of a drive when we are engaged and on the ball but after ten minutes or so once drivers have settled into the task, off they went to the land of make-believe. Now, most sensible motorists are by now aware of the more usual distractions; difficult driving conditions, mobile phones or chatty passengers and the like and respond unconsciously by automatically slowing down.
This held true on more boring routes: Drivers were slower while their minds wandered. But in more demanding driving situations, the data showed that drivers actually inadvertently increased their speed when their thoughts were off with the fairies. The research suggests that this might be due to what is described as ‘high cognitive load’; that is to say, the distraction-slowing mechanism mentioned above didn’t kick in on complex routes because mind wandering and driving take up disproportionate mental resources. In other words, not keeping our minds on the job is as dangerous a distraction as fiddling with an infotainment centre on the move.
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