A eye-tracking study performed by the good people at Bunnyfoot recently showed that on average 18 per cent of drivers spend their time not watching at the road at all. While this may seem startling (and perhaps enough to prompt you to check your motor insurance and go with Direct Line, the people commissioning the study), this statistic does not surprise me at all, and may not be as “frightening” as it seems – even for good drivers.
In fact, I’m surprised we’re not spending more time staring at the clouds when we’re driving.
I don’t have any of their raw data, but based personal and professional experience, I’ll attempt to explain why this is probably nothing to worry about.
More than meets the eye(-tracking)Eye-tracking technology, as (I am assuming) used in the study only tracks the foveal vision, the 1-degree or so field of sharp, conscious vision: the bit we “watch” with. It’s tiny and covers about 1mm of our retina, but takes up half our visual brainpower. This is why we read (or scan) pages rather than take in entire snapshots, and eye-tracking studies are great at analysing what you focus on (and not focus on), as well as other things like familiarity, cognition and even diagnosis.
What eye-tracking doesn’t track however, or more importantly interpret, is our peripheral vision. Though less sensitive than our central vision, is very good at detecting motion. And as I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s a lot of that in driving. Sadly though, studying peripheral vision objectively is very difficult, but it’s central to things like reaction times and critically, hazard avoidance. It can subconsciously draw our attention (and hence foveal vision) when needed.
Familiarity vs. fatigue
Just because you’re not spending a lot of time with your eyes looking at the road does not mean you’re ignoring it. You’re just familiar with it. When you’re reading a book, how much time do you spend reading the words you know vs trying to pronounce out the ones you don’t?Likewise, that black patch with lines in front and behind you? Generally speaking, you know what it is. It was there when you left, it’s there now, and it’s likely to still be there on your journey. Likewise with road signs. They’re designed to be familiar and scanned quickly because they have to be. Millions are spent on font design and international standardisation for this very reason.
Conversely, if you spent absolutely 100% consciously staring at the road, you’d get fatigued very easily. Try and stare at the full stop at the end of this sentence for more than a few seconds.
Your brain works
Your brain is surprisingly good at very rapidly interpreting visual information, processing and filtering hundreds of bits of information a second; alerting you to what’s important and discarding what isn’t. All without you having to “thinking about it”, per se. It’s like your own Personal Assistant (you’ve always wanted one right?).
Your brain’s subconsciously thinking: “Yep. That’s a 40 sign. I already know this. Next.” All done in a about a tenth of a second or so, rather than reading it like “Okay…that’s a four…then a zero…ooh…and look, it’s in a red circle! Hey conscience, look at this!”. Also, if it’s a familiar route, your memory part may add to this, you remember it’s a 40 zone. In fact, it may prompt you to check your speedo: again more time away from the road.
It’s normal to look around
So it’s the unfamiliar things combined with movement from our peripheral vision that draws our attention. That’s why we spend a lot of time not looking at the actual road. Your brain automatically prioritises information and tells you what you actually need. Like hazard avoidance, directions on your satnav and the 0% finance deal on a new Ford Mondeo.
Your brain is doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s normal, people. It’s okay to take in the sights.
So when driving, spending 3% of my time on what might be seen as turning my head to check out the scantily-clad pedestrian is actually a result of my peripheral vision which is interpreting movement and drawing my foveal vision’s attention to consciously process an unfamiliar piece of visual information.