If you’re a daydreamer, you’ll know just how absorbed you can get in your daydreams. When you’re daydreaming, it’s as if time stands still and, for a while, the outside world doesn’t exist. If you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you might be wondering whether it’s safe for you to drive. Is there a risk you might zone out behind the wheel and cause an accident?
Most people who drive will have had the experience of reaching their destination and realising they remember very little about the journey. They were listening to the radio, or thinking about their day, and they don’t remember paying attention to the road. This is very common, and most of the time it’s perfectly OK. You are paying attention subconsciously, and if something happened that required you to act – if a pedestrian stepped out in front of you, for example – you would snap back into awareness in an instant and respond appropriately. Just because you’re doing something automatically and subconsciously doesn’t mean you’re not doing it well.
So is daydreaming while driving a problem? I think it depends on your daydreaming and the relationship you have with it. If you have good control over your daydreaming – if you can start and stop it at will without too much difficulty – then you’re probably OK. I sometimes daydream when I’m driving on a quiet or familiar road, because I know I can put the plot on hold for a minute if the traffic ahead suddenly slows down or if I’m approaching a tricky junction. Subconsciously, I’m constantly assessing the road and deciding whether or not it’s safe to zone out a little. And when my subconscious decides that I need to focus on my driving, I’ll suddenly be fully present and able to concentrate. For me, daydreaming while driving is no more distracting than talking to my passenger, listening to the radio, or deciding what to have for dinner.
But if you have doubts about your ability to drive safely while daydreaming, listen to your instincts. It’s always better to err on the side of caution. But that doesn’t mean you can’t drive; it just means you can’t drive while daydreaming. Unless your daydreaming really is very intrusive and out of control, you should be able to resist it while driving. It’s no different from any other task that requires your full attention. If you can have a conversation with a real person without daydreaming, or if you can concentrate on a mentally demanding task for several minutes without daydreaming, then you can potentially drive without daydreaming.
Also, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood that you’ll start daydreaming while driving. If boredom is a trigger for you, as it is for me, then the issue may not be your daydreaming stealing your focus, so much as your mind needing more stimulation. Much of driving, particularly on a straight quiet road, can be very monotonous. It’s hard for anyone to stay focussed when there’s very little to focus on. So make your driving more interesting. If you drive to work, try taking a different route occasionally. And don’t use cruise control – the more things you have to do yourself, the more chance you have of staying focussed. And, obviously, if you’re triggered by music, don’t listen to your daydreaming playlist in the car; try a podcast or audiobook instead.
In addition, remember that a long journey on a monotonous motorway is very different from a five-minute drive to the shops through busy urban traffic. You might not be able to manage the former, while the latter is just fine. As with everything else in life, what’s important is that you know your limits, you take responsibility and you only do what you know you can do safely.
If you have maladaptive daydreaming disorder, you have to make a personal and carefully considered choice about whether it’s safe and appropriate for you to be driving. But I don’t believe that maladaptive daydreamers are necessarily unsafe drivers. Everyone zones out behind the wheel sometimes. Daydreaming doesn’t have to be any different from talking on the phone, listening to the radio or reflecting on your day. We all have other thoughts in our heads while we’re driving – just because yours might revolve around people and places that don’t really exist doesn’t inherently make those thoughts any more distracting than any other thoughts. So if you believe you can drive safely even though you’re a daydreamer, go ahead, and don’t feel guilty about it.