Before learning driving, I had concerns that sensory overload can affect safety when driving.
Even before I drove a car, I felt that the lack of alertness from sensory overload may be a concern in terns of safety. I found out that it may actually be valid when I started driving lessons!
In cars, the noise sources include engines, traffic, vibrations, wind, fans, radios, and conversations. Even with the windows closed, it can still be loud enough to trigger sensory overload in autistic people. I measured at least 80 dBC with a Scoche decibel meter in cars. That’s comparable to a vacuum cleaner! With the windows open, it can get even louder.
When I had driving lessons, I seem to need reminders from supervisors even though I had more than few months of lessons. The reminders include shoulder checking, 360° scanning, mirror checking, signalling, and turning off the signal lights. In the first few lessons, the instructor was happy with my performance. After more lessons, there was a lack of progress.
In today’s driving lesson, I learned something new about my sensory overload. Thankfully, my instructor noted improved performance when the windows were closed even though they were open at least 10 minutes ago.
Signs of sensory overload in driving may include
- Not noticing the clicks from turn signals which can make the driver seem forgetful when the turn signal is left on after turning or changing lanes
- Not driving confidently
- The need for excessive double checking
- Loss of interest
- Difficulties staying in the lane
- Slower reaction times
- Driving more slowly so that there’s more time to react
- Forgetting safety procedures such as mirror checks, shoulder checks, and signalling
- The need for more reminders from the supervisor
- Lack of improvement in performance
- Variability in performance
- Not noticing that noise sources are distracting or noisy
- Reduced performance in other areas such as socializing, work performance, and school performance
- Other autism symptoms becoming more serious
From the symptoms, you might see how dangerous driving may be with sensory overload. With driving, since it tends to be at higher speeds, alertness is very important. At high speeds, a small change of time means a large change of distance. It can also make it harder to pass road tests. I agree that we should only drive when we are fit to do so for the safety of the driver, passengers, and other road users.
I don’t know how sensory overload can be prevented while driving since ear plugs and ear muffs aren’t options as we need to be able to hear car horns and sirens. Some motorcyclists use them to protect their hearing. It makes sense for them because they’re not in an enclosed space. Closing the windows, turning down the fan, and turning off the radio can reduce but may not eliminate it. Would it make driving safe for the driver?
It would seem like autistic drivers need restrictions such as noise levels to be able to drive safely. I think predictable performance is important for our road safety. Maybe they should look for safety features when shopping for a car or if it’s still unsafe, use a self-driving car instead.
I can’t conclude that my sensory overload is less serious than in other people on the autism spectrum. I’ve personally met autistic people who drive and are sensitive to noise. They wear hearing protection most of the time at work. I don’t know how much it affects their driving.
I think if a person zones out, distracting noises are less noticeable. That doesn’t mean the person became immune to them. It’s possible that since it’s too subtle, the need for accommodations are easier to be overlooked. It might be mistaken for a lack of sleep, not having the natural ability to learn driving, a lack of interest, and daydreaming instead when the performance suffers. The person may need reminders to use hearing protection or cover the ears.
I think even if an autistic person doesn’t seem too sensitive to noise, it should still be checked out especially when the performance is unsatisfactory. The person should still be allowed hearing protection. We should look for subtle signs of partial shutdowns too. Not just the more obvious meltdowns or ears being covered. Not all autistic people are very expressive and their symptoms may be different from those listed above.
Do you know how autism or sensory overload affects driving? Please feel free to comment below.