Mellow for the Road – Tips for Driving Less Stressed

Idiot!”  Dave screams, leaning forward almost against the steering wheel as the driver who just cut in front of us waves an unwelcome, and probably unfelt, “thank you”.

Dave is driving me home from tennis.  He clobbered me today – how can such a large man move so fast?

“C’mon,” he says loudly, a couple minutes later, gesturing with his hand palm up.  “The light’s green and they’re just sitting there.”  Where we are, ten or so cars back, the line has not yet begun to move.  Finally the one just ahead starts up and Dave follows, almost riding the guy’s rear bumper.

“Take it easy, man,” I say, “Save your blood pressure.”

“I can’t believe they allow these people to drive,” Dave mutters.  Then, to the car in front, “Twenty miles an hour!  Come on!”

Driving can be super stressful.  Here are we, a few tens of pounds of very vulnerable flesh, blood, and bone operating a couple tons of metal machine in crowded conditions and often at high speeds, and we’re usually in a hurry and not always sure where we’re going.  And even though Dave grossly exaggerates, there are some bad drivers to watch out for out there.

And stress, especially when it is continual or repeated, damages us and distorts our lives, raising our blood pressure, making us anxious and depressed, causing us to overeat bad carbs and fatty foods and expand our waistlines1, and predisposing us to diabetes and heart disease – among other things.

Many of us spend a lot of our time driving, which can considerably add to your stress level – unless you know how to steer clear with a smile and stay merry and mellow in the driver’s seat.  Here are some cool tips that will help you do that:

1.    Give yourself extra time.  Pressure to get there on time may cause you to drive too fast (see below) and is a stress that you don’t need.  So leave five minutes early.  If you are driving to an unfamiliar destination, add in five or ten minutes “lost time” – you’ll get there on time even if you do get a little lost.  Heavy traffic? – figure that in.  And if you will need to find a parking place, add time for that.  Imagine how much more relaxed you will feel, knowing you don’t have to rush, that you will get there on time even if the traffic is heavy and you get lost and it’s hard to park.  Just imagine!

2.    Drive well below the limits of your reflexes.  Keep your distance from the car in front of you.  They taught you this when you learned to drive, but many of us tend to forget it.  If you tailgate you have to stay super-vigilant, primed to react instantly, should the car in front brake or do anything unexpected.  It is very stressful to drive that way – lay back a little, give yourself that extra second, smile, relax.Same goes for excessive speed – you give yourself less time (and less control) should anything unexpected happen, and that is stressful – you’re driving on edge.  Plus you have to worry about the cops.  Don’t worry; slow down; be happy!

3.    Understand the laws of traffic.  I don’t mean “traffic laws” here; what you need to understand is the laws of how traffic behaves.  For instance, when there is a line of cars behind a traffic light, it takes some time for the line to “unwind.”  Say the lead car starts right after the light turns green (best case).  The next car takes, say, a second and a half to start after she sees the first one go.  And the third car starts a second or two after that, and so on.  So by the time you get to the fifteenth car in line, it will be twenty-two to thirty-five seconds after the light turns green before it can move.  To you as driver, it looks like the other cars are just sitting there; actually, they are moving out at a steady pace, but the car-to-car delays are inevitable, so the line takes a while to “unwind."

Another “law” is, that on a choked freeway, the right-hand lanes tend to move faster.  I don’t know why that is, but it seems to be the case.  Take advantage of it.

When two lanes merge into one, there’s a “Law of Alternation” – cars from the two merging lanes alternate moving into the single lane.  (I think this must be partly because of a basic sense of fairness that most people have.)  As a consequence, if you are merging onto a freeway from an on-ramp, go to the end of the merge lane before moving into traffic.  Many drivers try to merge early, afraid the lane will run out.  But it doesn’t work that way – the “Law of Alteration” means that you will always get in, and you do, every time!  So relax and be confident of merging at the end of the merge lane.  Trying to merge early is stressful, and it slows down traffic as well. When two crowded lanes merge, the speed doubles after the merge.  (I think this is related to Bernoulli’s Law in physics.)  So if you are moving very slowly approaching a merge, know that your speed will double when the merge is complete.  Be patient and relax – the “law” is on your side.

The law of wave motion on a crowded highway: when traffic is close to the saturation point on a highway, it tends to move in waves.  What this means to you as a driver is that the traffic will slow down and speed up periodically: from a near stop you see the speedometer creep up to 20, 25, 30, maybe even 50, but soon you will see those red brake lights as you approach the trough of the wave and go back down to 10 miles an hour again.  Then the cycle repeats.  Knowing this, you can relax and just flow with the wave, not feeling frustrated when it slows or overly excited when it speeds up.

By understanding the “laws” of how traffic works, you can save yourself a lot of frustration, anger, and (yes) stress, and sometimes take advantage.

4.    People tend to drive rationally.  The main reason people drive slowly is that the car in front of them is driving slow.  Think about it – when the car in front of you is going 20, you do too – you have to.  Way up ahead there is a reason why the whole line is moving so slowly.  It may be an overly cautious driver or it may be something else – a closed off lane, an accident, or just too many cars on the road.  It is not because the road is full of idiots who are driving slow in order to frustrate you.The overwhelmingly majority of people drive rationally and safely – perhaps not quite as well as you do, but close.  That guy on the city street who’s going 15 miles an hour is probably looking for an address or a parking place.  You drive the same way in those circumstances – think about it.

5.    Let it go!  Understanding the laws of traffic can help: it’s not that the roads are full of idiots; this is how things work.  On the other hand, there are some terrible drivers out there and you will sometimes see amazingly horrendous things: right turns from the middle lane, people precipitously cutting you (or someone else) off, idiots (yes!) trying to do 85 on a busy freeway, bikers running red lights as though they don’t have to obey traffic laws.Instead of honking, yelling, and getting all upset and stressed when you see these things, let it go!  It may have been a close call, but by the time you see it, it’s over, you’re safe and so is everybody else, and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.  Take a deep breath and relax.  Say “Alriiight” or “Wow” or “Zoom zoom”; smile, laugh even.  The anger and outrage hurts only you.

6.    Listen to music.  Learn a language.  Listen to a recorded book.  If you are stuck in traffic or on a long drive, do something pleasurable or even constructive.  Hopefully you’ve allowed plenty of time.  Relax, look around at all the interesting things you can see.  Find ways to enjoy this time.

Driving stressed for many of us has become a habit.  If you follow these tips you can replace that habit with a new one: driving merry and mellow.  It doesn’t have to be a stressful time.  Imagine how your life would be different if at least this part of it were to become relaxed and easy instead of tense.

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