Driving Even Mellower (Mellow for the Road III)

Driving is one of the most stressful things many of us do. Or to put it in a better way, for many of us, driving is a big stressor.


What’s the difference? Stress is something we experience, a physiological reaction in the body: the adrenal glands put out cortisol and adrenaline, the heart speeds up, the breath comes faster.  You might have an uncomfortable, “pressured” feeling. (This is the bad kind of stress, distress – I’m not talking about the good kind, eustress; the physical symptoms are the same, though the experience is very different.)

A stressor, on the other hand, is something – a person, a situation, an activity – that we perceive as evoking the stress. So driving would be a stressor, not the stress itself.

Fortunately, we have a choice in the matter: what is, or is not, a stressor is in the mind of the beholder – what stresses me out may not bother you, and vice versa. Here are some things you can do to take driving out of your stressor category so you can drive even mellower than you were after reading the first two articles in this series (Mellow for the road, Tips for driving less stressed and Mellow for the road II).

Behaviors you can change

1. Hang back – keep a comfortable distance.

Following too closely is a huge source of stress while driving – and it’s dangerous as well. I recommend you form the habit of hanging back even further than the familiar 3-second rule: a comfortable distance that is even more than the safe distance. You sit back, blithely uninvolved in the tailgating and games that are going on in front of you. When the car ahead hits the brakes, you coast along, braking gently only as the distance starts to get uncomfortable. This alone allows you to drive much more relaxed.

2. Drive within your comfort limits

If you are pushing your limits, in terms of speed, follow distance, road conditions, or visibility, you are going to be one stressed out driver! Yes, perhaps you can do it – but do you really want to? Driving at or near one of your limits means you have to maintain constant vigilance, ready to brake or swerve on an instant’s notice. Not the way you want to be, I don’t think.

3. Use your cruise control to keep your speed in check

You are blissfully enjoying the weather, your music, a conversation; you happen to look at the speedometer and realize you are tooling along 15 miles over the speed limit. So you slow down a little, then, a few minutes later, the same thing. Or worse, you get pulled. Using cruise control can relieve you of all that: just set it one mile per hour under what you want your maximum speed to be, and forget about it.

This does not work so well on a crowded highway, but then you don’t need it. Cruise control is even useful on city streets, where it is so easy to let your speed creep up and get you a ticket. I set mine and – one less thing I have to think about.

4. Leave early

If you leave ten minutes early you won’t have to stress about being late; you won’t feel the need to speed or follow too closely or keep switching lanes in order to get there on time. This goes double if you are uncertain about how much traffic there’s going to be or how long it’s going to take to find a parking place.

5. Use a GPS

If you have a smart phone, you have a good GPS. If you can, set it up so it will talk to you. One more thing you don’t have to stress over.

6. Don’t try to intimidate

Some drivers try to intimidate, even bully other drivers whom they think are not going fast enough. They drive almost on top of the victim’s rear bumper; sometimes they flash their lights or even blow the horn. In addition to being dangerous, these behaviors are extremely stressful, both for the would-be intimidator and his or her prey.

And often, it doesn’t even work – the other driver may be going slower because of the car in front of him, or for some other reason (see tip 11, below).

If you find yourself intimidating, or tempted, back off. If it really is just a one slow driver, wait your turn and when you can safely do so, change lanes and go around. But in many cases it is the overall traffic that is moving slower than you would like, and there is nothing you can do about it (see tip 14, below).

7. Anticipate traffic “friction”

What I call “friction” is what happens on highways before and after exits, when cars are changing lanes and coming on and off the highway, or when lanes are closed off. It usually affects the right lane and the lane next to it; it happens also in the right lanes of city streets. Spare yourself aggravation: anticipate “friction” ahead of time, moving into middle or left lanes, so it will affect you less.

Things you can do in your own mind to eliminate driving as a stressor.

8. Be kind

Let someone in who is trying to merge or change lanes. On a city street, slow down to let a driver get out of a driveway. Do favors for other drivers. And notice when someone are being kind to you – it happens perhaps more than you realize. And when you do this, smile.

9. Understand traffic flow: waves and “friction”

On a crowded highway, traffic often flows in “waves”: you are driving along and suddenly you see a bank of red brakelights ahead of you, and soon you are creeping along at 20 miles per hour or less (or even stopped). Then it begins to pick up and you are sailing along, only to encounter another slowdown a mile or two down the road. And this pattern repeats, over and over again. Traffic engineers have their models for why this happens; all you need to know is that it does happen, that it is part of the natural dynamics of traffic flow, and that there is absolutely nothing you or anyone else can do about it (especially right now).  See tips 1 and 10.

10. Enjoy being where you are, rather than wanting to be somewhere else.

You are stuck in traffic. You are bored; maybe you’re late. You don’t want to be here; you sit there thinking about being at your destination, or at least moving, and how good that’s going to feel. Stop it! You are only making yourself feel bad. You are here now – enjoy it. Listen to music or the news, or to a recorded book. Look around you, at all the different types of cars, the different kinds of tail lights. When you can’t be somewhere else, find a way to enjoy being where you are. See also tip 14.

11. Realize and understand that other drivers have reasons, sometimes good ones, for doing what they are doing.

It is not helpful to think about (or say out loud) how stupid those other drivers are. They have reasons, sometimes good, sometimes not, for driving the way they are. They are following their own goals and intentions, not yours, just as you are following your goals and intentions, not theirs. The reason the driver ahead of you is slow might be because the car ahead of her is driving slowly. Or he may be aware of something that you are not. The person driving very slowly along a residential street is probably looking for an address.
If somebody is doing something really dumb or dangerous, see tips 12, 13, and 15.

12. If someone is intimidating you, let them (and it) go.

Yes, I know, they are trying to bully you, to intimidate you, and your first reaction is to stand up to them, to not let them get away with it, even to punish them. But what they are doing is very dangerous, to them, to you, and to everyone nearby. It’s like a person waving a gun around. The best thing you can do is pull into the next lane, as soon as it’s safe, and let them pass on by. They’ll get theirs in the next life (which may be soon). Let it go – one more stressor dissolved.

13. Forgive perceived transgressions.

Your anger does not hurt the other driver – it affects only you. Let out a low whistle (or whatever you do) and let it go. Anger is stressful – you do not need it. Let it go.

14. Stop caring.

You are approaching a green light, and of course you would like to make it through. Stop caring about it! Cultivate a mental attitude of “I don’t care one way or another.” The light will stay green or turn red according to its timer, which you cannot influence. Caring about it would be a stressor – you don’t need it.

In general, on the road, you are not obligated to care about what other drivers do, about whether you are going to be late (there’s nothing you can do now), about the other way you wish you had gone. Let it go!

15. Breathe!

Deep, slow breaths relax you and help you to just be during what might have been, way back then, a stressful time.

Comments: 1
  • #1

    Arthur Eaton (Friday, 18 December 2015 07:59)

    Thank you. I do some of the things you recommend but not all. Very good advice.sc