Driving was a mundane, everyday task for many of us, then March 2020 took our mundane everyday and threw it off a ledge. We spent that weird year of lockdown baking bread, binging television shows and, for some, forgetting how to drive.
The Washington Post recounted several anecdotes last week from folks who have found their driving skills have gone rustier than David Tracy’s fleet of cars. WaPo asked a couple of experts if you really can forget something like driving:
“There’s probably some refreshing necessary,” said Ronald C. Petersen, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He noted that memories are stored across a network in the brain, rather than in just one location. “These memory patterns probably haven’t been used for six months, eight months or a year. The behaviors that are associated with them have to be reinvigorated and restimulated, but they’re still there.”
Driving a car is an example of procedural memory, a type of long-term memory that involves motor and reflexive skills. Playing tennis is another example and so is tying your shoes — things you do without much, if any, thought. That’s compared to declarative memory, which includes the recollection of facts and events, such as remembering faces or places and events from your past.
“It’s much, much harder to forget” procedural memories, said Elizabeth Walshe, a research scientist with the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She studies the neuroscience of driving. “You’re not going to forget how to drive in a serious way,” she said. “But I do think there’s a collective rustiness — people aren’t feeling as familiar because they haven’t been practicing something they used to do two or more times a day.”
That sounds wild. How do you forget something that feels like second nature? Walshe went on to say that driving involves a ton of high-level thinking and critical decision-making that seems second nature when you’re doing it, but even a short break can make you hyper aware of everything your brain is doing, leading to mistakes. So, regular actions like key-turning and which pedal is which aren’t going to fall out of your brain, but maybe things like looking in the rearview to assess the risk of backing up might.
It’s not unheard of to get rusty quickly when it comes to tasks we take for granted. Earlier this year, CNN reported that pilots who were sidelined by lockdowns were having to relearn how to fly. Apparently, they were forgetting things like turning on critical anti-icing systems and requesting clearance to land after only three months outside of the cockpit. (Yikes! —ED)
I personally experienced this when I was going through cancer treatment and couldn’t drive for a few months. I got it back pretty quickly, but that first merge on to the freeway was nerve-racking. Such cognitive decay could explain why deadly crashes were up in 2020, despite miles-driven being down significantly. As Raph recently pointed out, it could also be that our stroads are so poorly designed that gridlock was the only thing keeping them reasonably safe. Either way, be careful out there!