On a Sunday afternoon in early May, Robert Johnson backed out of his garage, preparing to visit his company’s office — a place he hasn’t driven to regularly since before the coronavirus pandemic. His wife screamed. Johnson slammed on the brakes. There, just behind the vehicle, was his dog.
“I think I forgot how to drive,” said Johnson, the founder of a woodworking shop in Stamford, Conn. And his dog — a “fat and long” pug-dachshund mix — is no longer accustomed to cars reversing out of the garage. The experience made Johnson anxious about resuming frequent driving, he says.
Jessica Pellien, a publicist in Yardley, Pa., is struggling similarly with parking. “Every time I park it’s slanted,” she said. “I’m working on it, but it’s been two weeks, and I’m still not back to where I was before the pandemic.”
In yet another example of the pandemic’s ripple effect across our lives, people are reporting that they’ve forgotten aspects of driving. Some no longer recall routes that were once muscle memories; others are nervous about driving in the dark or even operating at the speed limit.
It made us wonder: Can you really forget skills like driving, especially in a relatively short time span? What’s going on?
“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.”
At the peak of the pandemic, Walshe stopped riding her bike for about three weeks. When she resumed, the cars she was sharing the road with felt closer, which made her anxious. Biking, which she had previously done four times a day, suddenly felt like a “novelty,” she said, which is similar to what some drivers are experiencing now.
She compared this phenomenon to preparing to get your driver’s license for the first time, or going abroad and feeling awkward about driving on a different side of the road. “Everything is stressful and complicated, and your brain feels tired,” she said. “But once you get familiar with it, you don’t have to think about it — about controlling the pedals or the wheel or the stick shift. That becomes automated, and you just focus on what’s happening on the road.”
Cognitively, much is required to drive (or bike) safely: high-level thinking, decision-making, risk calculating and responding to hazards, for example. It requires coordination among our sensory, motor and cognitive systems. “That’s really complicated,” Walshe said. “Your brain is doing a lot that you may not even realize.”
While the basic skills involved with driving are likely still intact, tasks that require more attention (like driving at night), more precision (parking) or memories that aren’t so easily accessible (where an old haunt is located) may have eroded. That’s true “even after a short, strange, time away,” said Robert Kraft, a professor of cognitive psychology at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio.
He considers driving “an unnatural act.” “We haven’t evolved to go 70 miles an hour or to park a vehicle,” he said. “I think we become different selves in a car, and we’ve forgotten that self.”
Unfortunately, rusty drivers will be returning to roadways that have become more dangerous since the onset of the pandemic. The traffic fatality rate per mile jumped by 24 percent in 2020, according to the National Safety Council — despite a drop in miles driven.
In the early days of the pandemic, Texas transportation researcher Robert Wunderlich imagined that, with fewer drivers on the road, the state might log its first day without a traffic fatality in two decades. But that hasn’t been the case. People are driving faster and more carelessly than they did in the past, he said.
“People learned how to drive differently,” said Wunderlich, director of the Center for Transportation Safety at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Speed is one of the biggest factors in car crashes, and he theorizes that during the pandemic, when traffic was lighter, drivers felt liberated to accelerate. He’s not confident that behavior will shift post-pandemic, which means the roads could remain more dangerous than they once were, at least for the foreseeable future.
But for non-speedsters whose skills simply need a tuneup, practice should help driving feel natural again quickly. Yusuke Yamani, an associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, encourages wary drivers to focus on being situationally aware, which means constantly scanning the environment for potential hazards. Turn off the radio and don’t fiddle with your phone — it’s important to limit distractions.
“Driving is inherently complex,” he said, adding that his friends also have reported feeling like they forgot how to drive during the pandemic. “It takes time to regain these skills, but we also know that people who relearn cognitive skills will retain them longer than those learning them for the first time.”
And if you can help it, it’s best not to panic as you return to the road. Anxiety could worsen your brain’s ability to recall those old skills, Petersen said.
Once you sit down in a car and start an engine, that will “stimulate the rest of the car-driving behaviors,” he says. Then, relax. “It’s not gone,” he says. “You haven’t lost it.”