The Reality of Reaction Times

Photo credit: Richard Masoner

Photo credit: Richard Masoner

With the summer road toll climbing, we’re hearing constant reminders for Kiwi drivers to watch their speed and following distances.

The New Zealand Road Code recommends a 2 second following distance during normal conditions. Next time you’re on the motorway, check out how many drivers actually follow this recommendation. We’ve all seen tail-gaters travelling at 100km/hr with only 5 metres of stopping distance between the car in front.

Perhaps what gives some drivers such little disregard for their own and others safety is an over-estimation of the capabilities of their own brain. If the driver in the car ahead can brake suddenly, then why can’t they?

The time it takes you to respond to an emergency road incident is based on many external factors, including the weather conditions, and the responsiveness of your vehicle. The recent example of the 100+ car pile up in Michigan during icy weather conditions is an unfortunate example. There are also biological factors that influence your reaction time. You attentiveness, age, and neurological disorders can all slow your ability to react to a hazardous situation.

But no matter how ‘lightning fast’ you think your reflexes are, there’s no beating basic brain biology. The light rays that hit your eyes are coded into electrical signals that travel along the length of your neurons, diffusing across the gaps between neurons, until they reach the visual areas of the brain. In fact, it can take around 80 milliseconds before a visual stimulus in front of you reaches your conscious perception – about the blink of an eye. This doesn’t sound like much time, but if you are tail-gating someone at 100km/hr, then at least 2.2 metres of following distance are wasted before reality catches up with you.

For those drivers who disregard the recommended following distances, don’t forget that your reality of your brain biology!

If you have some time on your hands, check out how fast your reaction times are.


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