Change detection in urban and rural driving scenes: Effects of target type and safety relevance on change blindness


The ability to detect changes is crucial for safe driving. Previous research has demonstrated that drivers often experience change blindness, which refers to failed or delayed change detection. The current study explored how susceptibility to change blindness varies as a function of the driving environment, type of object changed, and safety relevance of the change. Twenty-six fully-licenced drivers completed a driving-related change detection task. Changes occurred to seven target objects (road signs, cars, motorcycles, traffic lights, pedestrians, animals, or roadside trees) across two environments (urban or rural). The contextual safety relevance of the change was systematically manipulated within each object category, ranging from high safety relevance (i.e., requiring a response by the driver) to low safety relevance (i.e., requiring no response). When viewing rural scenes, compared with urban scenes, participants were significantly faster and more accurate at detecting changes, and were less susceptible to ‘looked-but-failed-to-see’ errors. Interestingly, safety relevance of the change differentially affected performance in urban and rural environments. In urban scenes, participants were more efficient at detecting changes with higher safety relevance, whereas in rural scenes the effect of safety relevance has marginal to no effect on change detection. Finally, even after accounting for safety relevance, change blindness varied significantly between target types. Overall the results suggest that drivers are less susceptible to change blindness for objects that are likely to change or move (e.g., traffic lights vs. road signs), and for moving objects that pose greater danger (e.g., wild animals vs. pedestrians).

Accident Analysis & Prevention