How did I lose my common sense and run this red light?
March 27, 2012 5:32 PM   Subscribe

Freaked out like crazy: I ran a red light and put myself and others in very real danger. How did I forget how to drive safely for 10 seconds?

Ok, this is real bad. In my commute home from a work shift this morning I ran a red light and I'm not even sure how. I'm really freaked out because I probably should be dead right now, but thank God, I didn't have any sort of accident. I don't know if I was just like seriously absent minded and need to do some serious work on my attention or if there is some sort of major medical psychological reason for this. The more I think about it, the more I feel there was something messed up going on in my head. Lemme' explain and please tell me if you have any insights, also, I'd really love to know if this sort of thing has happened to anyone else before. Ok so here is what happened:

I leave my job and am driving. I was thinking/daydreaming which I do a lot while driving - being alone with my music and my thoughts for about 40 minutes. So anyways, I am thinking, and coming up to a light - I can't remember now whether I noticed there was a light coming up, but I think I did. There are quite a few lights spread out over this stretch of road, so I kind of had to realize there was one soon. So once I get almost to the intersection, I have this really bizarre thought process, which is what is scaring me the most about this whole deal. I come to the intersection, and see that cars from the cross road are turning, going across the intersection and I think... "Why are they trying to turn when our lane is going?" Instead of slowing down to at least see if they would realize and stop, I just keep going full speed (really dumb even if I had a green light). Well so I keep going and end up part way into the intersection when I look and realize that the light is red. It was this strange, all of the sudden - "oh crap" moment. There was a car that had started to turn and the driver must have been the best driver in the world, because we avoided each other and didn't crash, but it could have Easily happened. That was when I was realizing what was going on, I swerved a bit to avoid them, and they slowed down. Also, the road I was on was several lanes wide, which is what kept me from getting totally swiped by a oncoming car as soon as I went through the intersection.

So then, I was extremely freaked out I kept going because I didn't want to cause a crash then or anything. But at the next intersection I turned and ended up retracing my path to be sure no one was stopped or anything back by where I ran the light. Right after it happened I was kind of like ok, so I get pulled over now right, so at first it was weird to keep driving, but at that point it seemed all my wits had returned to me and I knew I couldn't stop in the middle of the road. So I went back just to be sure everything was ok and also I wanted to be sure I hadn't caused someone behind me to wreck or something.

So I don't think the light had just turned red when I went through, I actually have no idea how long it had been red. What ever car was in front of me had gone through. And part of me thinks I was paying attention to them and just going because they were going. But they might have been a ways in front of me. Any way it's just bizarre to me that I actually pulled out into the intersection. I feel like something was going way wrong in my brain at this moment. If I had actually realized the situation - that the light was red - I would have never attempted to go through. If it had actually clicked in my head I wouldn't have been careless with my life and the lives of the other people on the road. Which is why it terrified me so bad after it happened. It made no sense.

Obviously I noticed that there were cars turning, why didn't I put the pieces together that they weren't just going to stop for me, even if I didn't know there was a light there? It is like the normal thought processes, that would assess my surroundings and put together what they meant, were not working - or more like they were working in slow motion, like it took me too long to put 2 and 2 together.

As far as how I normally drive, I'm not the world's best driver, but I've never done something this so stupid. I've never run a red that I've seen before crossing the intersection! Is it possible that simply because I was distracted with what I was thinking that I missed what was going on? But I noticed the cars turning and made a mental note of it, I just didn't come to the right conclusion immediately from that fact like I should have in a properly functioning state. I wasn't too distracted to notice the road, my noticing just didn't inform my reaction very well. I wasn't doing anything to the radio, or looking at my phone, or focused on anything inside the car. I was looking ahead at the road. Part of me wondered if it would have possible to have some sort of 1 second seizure or something - but it's not like I didn't know where I was because, as I said, I can recall the thought process I had as going through the light.

Only other things I can think of that might help explain what the heck could make me be so dumb are that I didn't sleep a ton last night. Probably just a few hours. But I was not exhausted or falling asleep. And I had been awake and functioning at my job for a few hours already before this. The only other thing is I do deal with anxiety issues at times, and I've been severely PMSing the last few days, which always makes my anxiety worse. But at that time, while I was driving, I wasn't really very anxious about anything. I'd be really surprised if just anxiety could cause me to go to that level of blanking out, and I've also functioned over serious levels of anxiety, and like I said during my commute (at least before this incident) I had very low levels of anxiety if any, but I'm just throwing it out there so you have some info to work with.

YANMD, but what's up, do I have some major issue? Is my brain failing me? Was I seriously distracted enough that it incapacitated me enough to forget that you don't cross an intersection when there is oncoming traffic and a red light?!?! Is that possible? Please let me know what you think and if you've ever had this kind of experience. I hope I didn't overload with details, I'm just hoping there's a clue as to what was happening here, because I'm seriously spooked.

I hope this makes sense and hits the relevant points. I'm really freaked out still, so I'm probably not writing in the best style. Thanks in advance for the help.
posted by chocolatemilkshakes to Health & Fitness (48 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You're a human being. You can make mistakes. It could have been much worse. Unless you have other symptoms going on, such as being unable to recall names or places, or strange tics, etc. just chalk it up to a life lesson and keep your eyes open next time.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:37 PM on March 27, 2012

Have you had any other experiences in the last little while that are like this? Brief mental tune-outs?
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:37 PM on March 27, 2012

You were tired, not paying attention, and you ran a light. People do it every day. I’ve done it more than once. That’s what all those accidents you see were about.
posted by bongo_x at 5:38 PM on March 27, 2012 [19 favorites]


It's happened to anyone who has been driving for a while. I drove through a stop sign a month ago, I've never done that before, I'll probably never do it again.

It was an outlier, you were distracted/tired/thoughtful. Learn from it.
posted by HuronBob at 5:38 PM on March 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Before I got past your third paragraph, I was prepared to ask if you had been sleep deprived lately. A couple of paragraphs later I said to myself "Aha!"

Even if you didn't feel like you were exhausted, sleep deprivation can indeed lead your brain to skip a gear in the manner you described. When I was younger, I spent a couple of years following a schedule that had me chronically sleep-deprived. In retrospect, I'm really lucky that I didn't kill myself or someone else while driving. There were times I was literally dreaming with my eyes open behind the wheel.

If you don't have a history of spacing out this way in other circumstances, it's entirely likely that the problem is just that you need more rest. It's also possible that you were being absent minded anyway, but that the sleep-deprivation magnified what would normally have been a one-second distraction into a major situation.
posted by tdismukes at 5:45 PM on March 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

My husband, who is a really good driver and not at all absent-minded, does this once every few years. You were thinking about something else.

Maybe driving without music so you can concentrate fully on driving would be a good idea until you felt confident again.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:46 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had this happen once. It was late at night, so luckily there wasn't much traffic around, but I wasn't tired. I hadn't had a drink. I was driving along a familiar route and just completely thought that the light was green. I pulled over and sat for a while and ever since then whenever I try to be particularly careful whenever I am driving familiar routes, as I find that is the easiest place to zone out.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 5:47 PM on March 27, 2012

I think this is more likely if it is a regular drive (but have no data on this at all). Can you mix up the route a little to stop yourself getting too complacent? Force yourself to think about the drive home.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 5:48 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Driving becomes such second-nature to drivers that we take for granted just how complicated it is. It actually takes a tremendous amount of concentration to stay on the appropriate side of the road, avoid obstacles, keep a consistent and legal speed, check the dashboard readouts, pay attention to signs, and remember the directions to your destination. Add in work stress, the radio, a possible phone call, etc., and every once in awhile, you lose focus.

Most of the time, that focus is lost on a long stretch where there's no danger. Try to recount a long highway trip. There are definitely areas where you're just not paying enough attention. It's only when you've narrowly avoided disaster that this comes into relief.

Count this as a blessing and try to pay more attention. Eventually, you'll be less freaked-out by this, but a great number of accidents are caused because driving is complicated, and people aren't perfect.
posted by xingcat at 5:52 PM on March 27, 2012

I'm guessing that you drive the same route every day. When that happens, and when you do something the same every day, you tend to not pay as much attention. After all, you do it every day. You should be pretty good at it. Right?

So you're not paying attention, and there's this red light. And you go through it. Or you're watching the car behind you. Or the one beside because they're going into your lane. Or you know there's a fire station up ahead and you're watching for those.

In the giant scheme of things, it's not a big deal. Yeah, this one time sucked and you're lucky nothing really bad happened. But people run lights and go the old speed limit and start to drive to the old house all the time. It happens.

Going back for my junior or senior year of college I went right through a stop sign going onto campus because it had always been a yield sign. I wasn't looking at the sign at all because I knew it was a yield sign. As far as I knew it had always been that way. I'd probably gone through it hundreds, if not thousands of times. Luckily I was getting there earlier than everyone else so the road was totally empty.

Another time one of my friends from work passed me on the entrance ramp getting onto the highway (Let's ignore how stupid that was.). Somehow I didn't see him drive right off the road.

We pay attention to things that we deem to be important. For some reason that light wasn't important enough to pay attention to.
posted by theichibun at 5:54 PM on March 27, 2012

I am nthing the sleep deprived hypothesis, I make errors like this all the time when I'm sleep-deprived. Not driving errors, necessarily, but brief moments of unfathomable stupidity. That's why it's really important to get enough sleep!

I've never run a red light, but I've run a stop sign before. I didn't see anyone coming and I just forgot what you're supposed to do at an intersection (i.e., look for signs). Studies have shown that drivers go into a trance-like state when they're driving familiar territory, so it's unreasonable to expect yourself to be 100% vigilant at every moment of your daily commute. Horrifying if you dwell on it (which is why my anxiety makes me a terrible driver), but it's the way our brains are wired.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:55 PM on March 27, 2012

I'm with the people who say this is normal. If this has never happened to you before - which, considering your level of freak out, it hasn't - then you've unconsciously begun thinking it will never happen and acting accordingly.

I daydream a ton while I'm driving, but I've never had any accidents due to this (I did cause a fender-bender once...six years ago? but that was be being in a rush and being TOO intent on traffic, lol). I've run a red light accidentally all of once in my life.

But seriously RELAX - I don't want you to think it's awesome to run red lights, but you weren't being "careless" with other people's lives.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 5:55 PM on March 27, 2012

I have done this a couple of times -- well, done it once, almost done it three or four other times. In every case, I was looking down the road at the NEXT traffic light, which had just turned green, and which somehow set the "OK go" switch in my head.
posted by KathrynT at 5:57 PM on March 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

(Yeah, oops, I should have emphasized that our brains automatically tune out routine information, so attempting to pay attention and failing is the status quo, not just deciding not to pay attention. Everybody pay attention!)
posted by stoneandstar at 5:58 PM on March 27, 2012

You really don't need to freak out as much as you are over this. If this kind of thing doesn't happen often, then don't worry. I'd say this was just a result of being a bit sleep deprived and absent minded. Get more sleep or be especially vigilant while driving on less sleep.

I ran a red light this past weekend, and in my case it was just that I saw the light was yellow, tuned out for a couple of seconds thinking I had enough time, and ended up running the red light when the yellow light wasn't as long as I thought it would be. I spent a few minutes frantically looking for the cop who would inevitably pull me over and wondering how I could have just run the red light, and then I got over it after feeling appropriately thankful that I didn't cause an accident.

As terrifying as it can be to consider, literally anyone who has ever driven a car has had moments like this where they lost focus and ran a red light or ran a stop sign or cut someone off.
posted by yasaman at 5:58 PM on March 27, 2012

Calm down. You were on auto-pilot and you messed up. It's not a good thing and not something you want to take too lightly, but it happens. Happily, the stars aligned in your favor and there were no serious consequences.

So you'll get some more rest tonight and you'll pay more attention tomorrow. And maybe you'll be a bit more forgiving of the next person who cuts you off or stops short in front of you.

We all screw up sometimes. And anyone who says they never have, probably sailed on along without ever even realizing what they did. You noticed. Good for you. Now forgive yourself, learn from it and go on.
posted by peakcomm at 6:02 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

You mention that there are a few lights in a stretch where this happened. Near where I live there are three lights in close succession and even though I know what the deal is, it can be very difficult for my brain to figure out which light it is I'm supposed to be paying attention to first. Even if they're all red, my brain can get stuck for a moment on which light is important before it gets to whether it's red. We've trained ourselves to respond to a very, very specific stimulus and if that's disrupted for any reason, we just don't know what to do.

For me it's compounded exponentially with any distraction like it being night time, or more especially, sleep deprivation.
posted by cmoj at 6:03 PM on March 27, 2012

Ran a red today... sigh. :) Course, I coulda been the car ~8 ones back from the light who thumped the NOT MOVInG car in front of her pretty much as soon as the light turned green.

Anyway, nthing road hypnosis + lack of sleep. Though, if you want to get even more nervous, look up how shockingly narrow human vision focus truly is :)
posted by Jacen at 6:05 PM on March 27, 2012

It usually takes two people to cause an accident. One person to fuck up, and another not to notice. I always assume every car approaching me is going to run a red light and every car in the lane next to me is going to cut me off. On the rare occasion it happens they get to trade their life for the small payment of a dirty look and a head shake.
posted by any major dude at 6:08 PM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Highway hypnosis
posted by empath at 6:09 PM on March 27, 2012

Everyone saying this is totally normal? Completely correct. In my twenty-some years of legal driving, I've driven through more than a few red lights and stop signs. I've turned the wrong way onto one-way streets. I've pulled out in front of people. Just this very morning I came to a stop at a red light, and turned right immediately after reading the "no turns on red" sign.

People are imperfect, and far more so when they are sleep deprived, even very slightly sick, stressed, or otherwise suffering from poor reactions and inattention. Forgive yourself, and take it as a cheap lesson about the importance of trying to drive more safely.
posted by Forktine at 6:11 PM on March 27, 2012

Also, you should never assume that other people are paying attention while you are driving. I am almost always making sure I have room to move and plenty of time to stop, if I can.
posted by empath at 6:11 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would totally freak out if this happened to me too, so I get where you are coming from. I suspect that the key point is that the car in front of you had gone through, even if it was a while ago.

I suspect that due to tiredness, daydreaming, and familiarity with your route, you have got into a mental habit of not paying much attention to the lights, but using what the traffic in front of you is doing as a proxy. It's easy to do.

If the car in front of you goes through a light, it's usually green, or just turning orange. If the car stops, you stop. These simple rules work the vast majority of the time, so it's easy to slip into relying on them too much.

I guess what happened here is that the car in front of you ran through on orange/turning red, then there was enough gap that other traffic started to move through, but you were still using your heuristic (subconsciously) of copying the car in front. The tiredness meant your brain didn't overrule this quickly enough.

I imagine the fright it gave you will mean you DO pay close attention to the actual lights and signs for the next little while, which will probably retrain your brain well enough.
posted by lollusc at 6:15 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Had this happen once. I lived a mile from work and managed to hit a bus by running a red light. I had overslept because I was so sleep-deprived so was still groggy, and they had changed the light's timing recently, but the point is, I ran a red light and ran into a bus. If I didn't see the red light, how did I not see the bus?

This was followed by the most painful body shop experience ever, where I was without my car for three weeks and it was a shoddy job that looked like crap within six months.
posted by kindall at 6:19 PM on March 27, 2012

Running red lights while deprived of sleep is dangerous and should always be avoided, but is also 100% normal. One morning about a year and a half ago, I was stopped for a red, but then the green turn arrow turned on, and my brain just somehow decided that meant I should pull forward. I accelerated into the intersection, and only by inches avoided being T-boned... by a cop. He was pissed. I was damn lucky he only wrote me a ticket for running the red; he could well have charged me with much worse.

So yeah, it happens. Try to get more sleep. There's nothing seriously wrong with you.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:23 PM on March 27, 2012

Gene Weingarten wrote a piece very close in subject to this a few years ago -

"Memory is a machine," [Warschauer] says, "and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you're capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child."

Diamond is a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida and a consultant to the veterans hospital in Tampa. He's here for a national science conference to give a speech about his research, which involves the intersection of emotion, stress and memory. What he's found is that under some circumstances, the most sophisticated part of our thought-processing center can be held hostage to a competing memory system, a primitive portion of the brain that is -- by a design as old as the dinosaur's -- inattentive, pigheaded, nonanalytical, stupid.

Diamond is the memory expert with a lousy memory, the one who recently realized, while driving to the mall, that his infant granddaughter was asleep in the back of the car. He remembered only because his wife, sitting beside him, mentioned the baby. He understands what could have happened had he been alone with the child. Almost worse, he understands exactly why.

The human brain, he says, is a magnificent but jury-rigged device in which newer and more sophisticated structures sit atop a junk heap of prototype brains still used by lower species. At the top of the device are the smartest and most nimble parts: the prefrontal cortex, which thinks and analyzes, and the hippocampus, which makes and holds on to our immediate memories. At the bottom is the basal ganglia, nearly identical to the brains of lizards, controlling voluntary but barely conscious actions.

Diamond says that in situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw.

(Emphasis mine). Don't be too hard on yourself, as others have pointed out - focus less on the fact that you didn't do something right once, and instead marvel at the fact that 99% of the time your brain effortlessly handles 30 competing things at the same time, with nothing but sugar, water, proteins and oxygen. And just make an extra promise to yourself to be extra alert while driving.
posted by spatula at 6:36 PM on March 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

Chiming in with reassurance that this happens, and for a variety of reasons all of which you named. I am a very conservative driver. Knock wood, but I haven't had a ticket in fifteen years, and am careful primarily because I hate to waste money on things like tickets and I'm a mom driving with my ever-loving family in the car. That said, this past weekend due to stress, sleep-deprivation, listening to good music and familiarity with the route home from Buffalo to Toronto, I completely blanked on a part of the highway. I mean, I proceeded from point A to point C safely, but at some point, drove through point B with no memory or idea of the time passing. I just looked at a sign and was all "Hey - I must have spaced out through Beamsville! Woah, scary." (And on preview - thank you spatula! That was it exactly!)
posted by peagood at 6:38 PM on March 27, 2012

OP: this is normal.

While knowing this won't reassure you, I am sure that you, like everyone else, make a lot of mistakes while driving - only you don't notice it, because most mistakes made while driving don't result in any consequence at all.

Say you turn into an intersection every day, and you're supposed to do a brief head check for cyclists. That's 365 times a year, for 10 years, so a total of 3650 times. Do you REALLY know that you've done this check 3650 times? The human brain is very selective at remembering things, especially while you are multitasking. Even if you had a 99% conformance rate - that means you forgot to check 36 times - can you pinpoint exactly when on which days those happened? Your brain never commited it to memory, thus you would assume it never happened, and you would be absolutely convinced that yes, you're a safe driver and of COURSE you do a headcheck at every intersection. Then these drivers run over a cyclist and go, omg, I do a headcheck every single time, I just messed up this one time, I've been a safe driver for 10 years.

It's possible that we've run many red lights that we weren't even aware about - if you never noticed the light was red in the first place, and sailed through an empty intersection - it would never be flagged in your brain as a memory.


I would make the point about human fallibility in competitive sports. These are athletes - competing at the peak of their career - with 100% concentration and a lifetime of training and muscle memory... yet it is so rare that they will actually play a 1 hour game "perfectly" with no mistakes.

To assume that one normally drives "well" everyday, and thinking that making a big mistake like this is somehow an outlier or bizarre occurence is rather arrogant in this context.
posted by xdvesper at 6:39 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Every now and then, I get a brain fart and think I can make a left on red the same way you can make a right on red. (I mean across traffic, not with two one way streets.) After those occurrences, I have the same freakout. Because I didn't just space out, I literally believed the wrong thing for a moment, the same way you believed the light was green.

I'd also bet good money that the lights in that stretch are timed out in such a way that you normally end up getting a green light at that intersection.

One morning about a year and a half ago, I was stopped for a red, but then the green turn arrow turned on, and my brain just somehow decided that meant I should pull forward.

To turn into my neighborhood, I have to wait to turn left at one of these lights. What you describe happens with regularity. At least once a week someone will lurch forward and catch themselves. Once every couple of months, however, someone goes blasting right through.
posted by gjc at 6:41 PM on March 27, 2012

I am here to second what everyone else is saying - this is probably nothing.

It has totally happened to me in the context of a list of things I have brought to the attention of my mental health team - but notice I said list of things. If you had a growing compendium of "I blanked out for seconds or minutes at a time when I absolutely should not have been" incidents, you would want to include this in the list, of course.

But you don't, so it's probably just a fluke. Take it from someone who has serious medical, psychological problems. ;)

And relax: it's when I'm stressing out, not taking care of myself, etc., that this kind of thing is more likely to happen to me. Chances are you're the same way, and so the best thing you can possibly do to avoid this situation in the future is to get over the last time it happened.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 6:44 PM on March 27, 2012

I did this exact same thing once, driving to work -- in fact, I looked at the light, registered that it was red, and without thinking, drove right on through anyway. Scared the socks off me when I realized what I'd done. That was about 20 years ago, and I've never done anything like it again. It happens.
posted by sarcasticah at 6:55 PM on March 27, 2012

I've been in a car twice with people who've done something very similar. One of them is epileptic and had just taken medication to prevent the seizure he felt was coming. Since he felt okay, we weren't worried to have him drive us the three miles to home. Except that he completely blew through a red light, turning left, at one of the hairiest intersections in town. When I pointed out what he had just done, he hadn't even noticed. Later, he realized the medicine had made him spacey, so that's probably what happened.

Another time, I was with a friend who left-turned through a red light at a much less scary intersection. She was oblivious to what she had just done, and I didn't mention it. At the time, she had three jobs and got no sleep.

And several years ago, I drove right past a stop sign that was in a place that I didn't consider it intuitive to have to stop. Just la di da-ed my way through the intersection and into a big stupid ticket.

So i agree with everyone you didn't do anything that you should freak out about! It's not ideal, but it happens. No one got hurt, and you're probably going to be more careful from now on. Don't be so hard on yourself.
posted by Coatlicue at 6:56 PM on March 27, 2012

This recently happened to me, a studious user of turn signals and complete stops. I chalked it up to the law of averages.

Coincidentally, I also saw someone else do it, just burning through the intersection without a scratch, obliviously and not doing it on purpose (no brake lights or swerves or anything). I think there's a peripheral vision factor here, where losing track of the light is one thing, but if there's no danger, there's no danger. If there had been closer traffic (in my case at least), that may have interrupted them as to the status of the light.
posted by rhizome at 7:02 PM on March 27, 2012

It usually takes two people to cause an accident. One person to fuck up, and another not to notice.

Quoted for truth.

I've run two red lights in 11 years of driving; one was at night, and I just wasn't paying enough attention (no cars), and one I didn't see and another car had to compensate for my error. I've also come to a full stop at a green light 3-4 times over the years for absolutely no reason; this one isn't dangerous like running a red light, but it goes to show that this kind of thing happens

I've also avoided countless accidents by compensating for bad drivers who ran red lights, merged poorly, etc. Drivers compensate for each other; that's how driving works. You grumble and maybe yell at the stupid car for the stupid thing they stupidly did, but you get out of the way and avoid the accident when they make a mistake, and they do the same for you.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:13 PM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I just noticed your seizure tags. If you're worried, I'd call your doctor tomorrow during business hours and describe the episode, and ask if it's worth coming in for an evaluation and/or a referral to a neurologist.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:17 PM on March 27, 2012

The upside to what could've been an even scarier scenario is that you're most likely never going to do this again, now that you're aware of how easy it is to accidentally do this. And the other upside is that I'll be driving a little more carefully than usual tomorrow, which is what happens every time I hear about a scary accident or near-accident.
posted by at 7:47 PM on March 27, 2012

One day, many years ago, when about to cross a busy street, I picked up my three-year-old daughter, looked to the left, saw that the traffic was clear, and walked across.

I realized what I had done by the time I got to the other curb. Luckily for both of us, no vehicle was coming from the right. Never happened before or since. But it did happen, one sunny morning, and I have no idea why.
posted by yclipse at 7:57 PM on March 27, 2012

If folks want to know more about why our brains sometimes short circuit while driving, I highly recommend Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us). It is an easy, engaging read that really digs into the psychology and physiology of driving.
posted by postel's law at 8:08 PM on March 27, 2012

OP: If this is a one-time occurrence, then be thankful that you are lucky and let it go.

Let me add my share to the pool of mistakes we have collectively made here ;)

I was once exiting the highway and instead of taking a far left, I took the immediate left and ended up in the wrong lane. Cars saw me and stopped gently (they did not honk for which I am eternally grateful for) and I did a roundabout and went up the highway again. It took a couple of days to get off the shock, as I had been driving for years and this has never happened (although I come from a driving-on-the-left-side-of-the-road country so this may be an unconscious process).
posted by theobserver at 8:29 PM on March 27, 2012

I've brainfarted about this and accidentally performed a moving violation. I have never been caught. You are definitely not alone in this; it's happened to me three times. I've also been on the 'receiving' end of someone forgetting basic traffic laws, and I've tried to not be too harsh on someone mentally for what could be an equal brainfart on someone else's part.

My way of 'atoning' for it, especially in light of effectively getting away with it, is to donate an amount of money to a local charity equal to the fine I would have received if I had been caught. (Part of the reason I do this is I tend to have panic attacks involving a completely unfounded fear of getting in a car accident.)

You doublechecked that everyone was okay, which is a very good thing for you to do. Try to calm your mind, perhaps pay a little extra attention to the road for a while. Don't forget to breathe.

(And reading the other comments, yes I too have stopped at a green light, or on the right-of-way at a two-way stop. It's not just near-miss brainfarts that happen, but some are more amusing than others.)
posted by Heretical at 9:04 PM on March 27, 2012

Holy crap, as a pedestrian, I have to say all you drivers confessing to all your missed red lights are scaring the fuck out of me.

That said, I have done similar things as a pedestrian. I remember once almost walking my child and I into four lanes of very fast moving traffic because I was looking at the walk signal going in the opposite direction and even though it clearly wasn't meant for me, by brain just went "Oh. Walk." So my feet did.

As for the weird though-process and how you're feeling about it, it sounds to me like it was one of those things where--on some level--you knew you were making a driving mistake and your mind was sending you all kinds of signals telling you to stop, but you weren't reading the signal the right way. It's a kind of cognitive dissonance, like when you know there is something not right with a scene, but you just can't put your finger on what is out of place. That little part of your brain is still screaming IT'S THE LIGHT! THE LIGHT! IT'S RED!
posted by looli at 9:22 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sleep deprivation can be as bad as drunk driving for screwing up your reflexes and thinking. At its worst it can kill, if you fall asleep at the wheel as happened to my son's good friend. Being preoccupied while driving adds to the problem. I was once stressed out about a fight I had with someone and was driving the same route to school I always took, and suddenly realized I had made a wrong turn and had no idea where I was. It was like the way you zone out and drive automatically on a long highway drive, but this was a short drive on familiar roads. It was scary. But things like that happen to everyone once in a while.

Just try to be aware when you drive, and don't push yourself when tired or stressed. You were lucky this time, but everyone who drives has had close calls. Try to relax and maybe talk to your doctor if this keeps bothering you.
posted by mermayd at 3:45 AM on March 28, 2012

The fact that you are aware that it happened and are freaked-out about it probably portends that you'll be extra-vigilant in the future.

I've not ever run a red light before (that I know of) but I've had the experience where you're traveling down the interstate and you're approaching, say, a bridge over the road. Then, the next thing you are aware of is you are a mile down the highway and you have no recollection of ever passing under that bridge. None. That's a scary moment.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:54 AM on March 28, 2012

Nthing fatigue. I'm a reasonably good driver, but my brain starts to go off the rails in very similar ways if I'm driving while extremely exhausted: Failure of awareness and incorrect interpretations of normal situations. If you're on any powerful medication, you should bring this up with your doctor in case it's related.

It's perfectly normal and healthy that you're freaked out about it. It would be a lot more disconcerting if you weren't.

Incidentally, I witnessed from the sidewalk what your accident could have been two weeks ago. A PT Cruiser ran a red light, and a small pickup truck slammed into her at 30mph. No one was hurt. I'm an atheist, so instead of thanking God I'll thank strict auto safety standards.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 5:18 AM on March 28, 2012

It's probably because you were tired. Driving tired is effectively similar to driving drunk.

Having said that, it's an easy mistake to make. I made this mistake once, a few years ago, when there was no traffic or pedestrians around whatsoever, and I was just as freaked.

I don't get behind the wheel if I've had less than seven hours' sleep, six at the outside, and I don't talk about it because people are very judgemental about that. It's either "look at Miss Fancypants, too good to do what everyone else has to do" or "ZOMG if you are SO INCOHERENT that you can't even do a simple thing like DRIVE you CERTAINLY don't deserve to have this JOB" - then they drive around putting themselves and others at risk, because it's socially normal. That doesn't mean it's safe.
posted by tel3path at 7:40 AM on March 28, 2012

Oh, and you probably didn't have a "1 second seizure" but you could have had a "microsleep" - where you actually do fall asleep for a second or two. This happens a lot to people who drive tired.
posted by tel3path at 7:41 AM on March 28, 2012

It's not quite the same thing, but I remember driving on the highway near my parents' house maybe six or seven years ago, on a route I had driven a zillion times, just listening to an audio book and tuned out, driving completely by muscle memory, and all of a sudden, it was like I snapped to consciousness, and I couldn't remember where I was going and didn't immediately recognize where I was (because all the highways look alike in the area and there were no landmarks). I absolutely FREAKED OUT and thought I was losing my mind. It took maybe five or six seconds to reorient myself ("Wait ... I'm on 494, going toward the exit to Mom and Dad's"), but I convinced myself it was the first step in an inevitable mental decline. Absolutely panicked.

It has never happened again, and other people have told me they've had the same experience. Brains are weird. They don't work the way we think they do, and it's easy to lose track of what you're doing. Which is why I agree with those who have said it's important to try to maintain your focus on what you're doing and not to drive too tired. Take care that you're taking care, but don't assume it means some specific thing is wrong, other than fallibility we're all wise to keep in mind.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 1:35 PM on March 28, 2012

Brains are weird. They don't work the way we think they do, and it's easy to lose track of what you're doing.

Indeed, indeed. I think many problems come about when people don’t realize that, and think they’re more in control than they are.
posted by bongo_x at 4:21 PM on March 28, 2012

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