Understanding and reducing stress at the wheel

Posted on November 5th, 2013 by James Luckhurst

Screen Shot 2013-10-18 at 06.33.11Driving can be a miserable experience these days.We may find many drivers to be too aggressive, too fast, too impatient and just plain rude.

So what can WE do about it if we want to stay safe? How can we spot the early danger signs, so that we can hopefully avoid getting into a situations we have no idea how to get out of?

Researchers from the United States recently produced a paper that examined ways of dealing with stress and pressure in vehicles. First, they identified how driving routinely involves events and incidents. Events, they said, are normal manoeuvres such as stopping for traffic lights, changing lanes, or putting on the brakes. Incidents are frequent but unpredictable events. Some of these are dangerous and frightening, like near-misses, while others are merely annoying or depressing, like missing a turn or being insulted by another motorist.

But there are two components of driving – one is predictability, the other is unpredictability, and they’re both present all the time. Predictability creates safety and protects us from danger. Unpredictability creates danger, stress and collisions.  Cars bring us freedom and independence, but going along with them are restrictions – speed limits, roadworks, accidents, tailbacks, all of which prevent us from driving as we might wish.

Let’s now look at as many different sources of stress as we can. First of all, when you’re in the car you have to sit still for long periods – tension can build when your body is physically restricted. Next, think how limited you are as to where you can go. Narrow streets with lots of traffic to stop you going forward as you would want to. Small wonder you feel the stress levels rising in your desire to escape the congestion – and before long you might be tempted to take a few risks just to get out.

Driving is regulated. That means other people get to tell you how to drive and at what speeds. You’re responsible for obeying the law and you’re punished if you violate.No wonder there’s an urge to rebel – to disregard the rules if they don’t suit the mood or the moment.

Your car is your castle. The space inside it is your domain, the space around it is your territory. But that space is invaded on every journey. No wonder you experience hostile thoughts so often. No wonder you’re tempted to react when someone cuts you up or follows too close. No wonder a routine occurrence seems more like a conflict or duel.

Now think who’s out there on the road with you. There are more than 30 million licensed drivers in the UK. More to the point most of them will not react to a situation in the way YOU might react. And anything unpredictable will spoil your journey and add to your stress.

There’s no such thing as the perfect driver. Anyone can make an error on the road. But too many of us exaggerate our skill level and refuse to acknowledge our mistakes or errors of judgment. If as drivers we do something wrong, stupid or dangerous and end up exposing another road user to unnecessary risk, we’re not good at holding up our hands to admit it, are we. We prefer to deny any wrong-doing and become indignant – consequently the stress levels go up another notch.

When something does go wrong on the road, it’s us versus the other driver, isn’t it. There’s no chance of looking objectively at what happened, there’s nothing neutral. Besides, the culprit is never us. Our brains cleverly ensure that our memory of an event – even one that has only just happened – pushes any guilt in someone else’s direction. Stress levels increase because we are the innocent party, wronged by someone else’s actions.

Now think what was involved when we learnt to drive. OK, we could do a three-point turn with our eyes closed, and the hill start offered no great challenge. But there wasn’t much in the way of help on offer for how to keep calm, how to cool off or how to demonstrate super-size emotional self-control.  So much for identifying those causes of stress on the road. How are we going to equip ourselves with the strength and the sense to rise above all the petty bother, anger, irritation and conflict that seem to occupy far too big a part in our driving?

It’s important to remember that behaviour breeds behaviour … aggressive responses generate aggression or sulking but pleasant objective responses usually generate similar.  So let’s actively think about the other driver or drivers around us.  Forcing ourselves to ask questions and wondering why someone else is being as irritating as they are ensures we are thinking and not reacting.  The two things are mutually exclusive so this simple technique really works. WE’RE in control if we can stay calm and simply wonder what sort of day or life the other driver has that leads to them thinking that sort of behaviour is acceptable. Self control maximises our safety.