The Psychology of a Safe Driver

What makes a safe driver safe? We’d certainly agree experience helps, but what does safe driving have to do with the way our brains are wired?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,142 car accidents ended in fatalities because of distracted driving in 2019 alone. That is 15% of annual vehicular crashes attributed to simply not paying attention. 

We call these events “accidents” because they weren’t intended, but the end result is the same. So how do we avoid accidents while driving? Reducing distractions and watching your speed boils down to being more intentional. Let’s take a look at the psychology of safe driving.

The human brain has three parts: the cerebrum, which controls higher cognitive functions such as language and emotions; the cerebellum, which manages your muscle movements and balance; and the brainstem, which controls all the body’s automatic functions, like as breathing or digesting.

Between the three parts, your brain takes in thousands of pieces of information every day—from registering the smell of your breakfast cooking to reading a street sign to remembering directions to work.

Since so much information comes in each day, the brain is constantly evaluating what to focus on. As much as we think we can multitask, the brain likes to focus on a chief task to execute. Essentially, to make sure it’s not overwhelmed, the brain discards information we don’t immediately need.

When our attention is set on more than one task, eyes that gravitate between a phone and the road for example, will force the brain to make a decision: focus on one and disregard the other. This appears sometimes unconsciously, like when you turn down the radio to focus on finding an exit. While it may seem like a funny means to an end, it reorders our brain to focus on the road rather than the radio.  

Intentionality, then, could play a bigger part in avoiding an accident than any other factor. Science tells us focusing on one task with all our energy makes us better at the task, simply by using more of our brains.

Therefore, eliminating distractions, like powering off your cell phone while driving, lends more brain power to your safe driving record.