Featureless roads, dull cars, endless traffic: boredom is killing American drivers.

It's been a few years now that we've been hearing ceaseless warnings against distracted driving, the New Big Threat against Americans at the wheel. These warnings have pretty much all been about cellphones. When you hear the term 'distracted driving,' you automatically think of someone texting at the wheel, or chatting away not watching the road.

As it turns out, boredom is significantly deadlier.

The NHTSA just put out this official solicitation to study "Effects of Internal Distractions on Driving." Here's the key nugget of info in the synopsis.

According to an analysis of 2010-2011 Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data by Erie Insurance and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (Press Release: April 3, 2012), the number-one cause of distracted driving fatalities was not, as might be expected, talking on a cellular phone or texting; unspecified internal distraction, more commonly termed "mind wandering" in the psychological literature, was the prime culprit. In fact, Erie's analysis found that 62% of all FARS cases involving distracted driving could be attributed to mind wandering. The second deadliest source of distraction, cell phone use, accounted for 12% of fatalities.

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That Erie study (you can see the whole thing right here) claims one in ten fatal accidents involve somebody who's distracted. We're talking thousands of people a year.

The NHTSA does not try and pinpoint any specific root cause for 'mind wandering', but I think anyone who's driven a new car on an American highway could pretty easily make a good guess or two.

Our highways are long, straight, featureless and dull. The newer ones you see are often walled in, trying to keep the din of road noise out of suburban developments but turning highways into unchanging beige canyons. When you're not on a flat, long highway you're often stuck in traffic.

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And no matter what the circumstance of the road, you're strapped into a modern vehicle. You are as distanced from the driving experience as possible, trapped in a grey or black cocoon, no feel from the steering wheel or from any of the pedals. Not that you use the pedals, because you're riding with cruise control.

How tragic is it that the more cars try to isolate you from dangers on the road, the more they bore you to death?

(Hat tip to Juan Barnett!)

Photo Credit: Toyota