7 tips to become more mindful on the road

Have you ever arrived somewhere and, as you’ve stepped out of the car, reflected that you can’t actually remember how you got there? Following a familiar route, perhaps a daily commute, without even realising it you slipped onto auto-pilot? Caught up, perhaps, in other, more immediately demanding thoughts or conversations?

According to a recent study in the USA which analysed over 42,000 hours of driving, 78% of crashes and 68% of near crashes unsurprisingly had some form of distraction or inattention as a contributing factor.

In recent years, the use of mobile phones – without hands-free - has become public enemy number 1, as far as many people are concerned. You present a threat to your fellow drivers, and yourself, if you attempt to drive with only one hand, while holding a phone or texting with the other. It’s a level of distraction from the road which most of us seem to agree is unacceptable.

But this begs more interesting questions: what other kinds of distractions do we typically experience? And could it be somewhat arbitrary to single out mobile phone use?

According to UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, there are four main areas of distraction: visual, cognitive, bio-mechanical and auditory. Quoting from research by America’s AAA Foundation for Road Safety, during an average three hours of driving, 97% of drivers experienced bio-mechanical distraction through things like reaching, leaning and manipulating audio controls; 85% were visually distracted by something outside their vehicle unrelated to where they were going; and 77% were distracted by the conversations they were having (auditory and cognitive). By comparison, mobile phone use distraction was quite a lot lower: 30% of drivers were distracted by talking on their mobile.

Cognitive distraction is a tough one to measure. But separate research by Harvard University’s Psychology Department showed that approximately 47% of the time we are not thinking about what we are doing – we are thinking about something else. This especially applies to routine chores like washing dishes, cleaning the house … and driving. During these moments, our subconscious minds take over, freeing up our conscious mind to think about whatever we like. Which is exactly why we can get out of our car at the end of a journey and have little recollection of how we got there – in reality, we spent most of the trip planning our emails, mulling over something in our work or personal life, or re-hashing an argument we just had.

All this suggests that using your mobile phone – without hands free – is only one of many examples of potentially dangerous distractions. We can just as easily drive without paying attention to the here and now by being so caught up in our thoughts that we’re not alert to what’s happening on the road – until it’s too late.

So what tips are there to become more mindful drivers? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. If you do have to make a phone call on your car journey, or want to listen to an audio track, try to dial up, or set up the track, before you set off, to minimise distraction along the way;
  2. Try simply to drive when you drive. If you find yourself becoming absorbed in thoughts, use the time-honoured technique to acknowledge you are thinking, accept you have been thinking and let go of your thoughts. Don’t try to suppress or become absorbed in your thoughts, and don’t compulsively engage with every thought that comes along. Just acknowledge, accept, let go.
  3. Put a Post-It note or something similar on your dashboard. Use it as a reminder simply to ask yourself: what am I thinking? If you discover you are absorbed in your thoughts, especially in negative cognition, simple acknowledge, accept and let go. Return your focus to the here and now.
  4. Experiment with the idea of driving without distraction. See what it’s like to make regular journeys and not turn on the radio. Without changing what you do – i.e. making a routine trip – by changing the way you do it, you can create a sense of greater space and peacefulness in your day, which helps combat stress and enhance productivity;
  5. Rather than allowing long waits at the traffic lights or slow-moving traffic to make you agitated or angry, consider these as enforced opportunities to practice mindfulness! Relax perhaps by counting your breaths in cycles of four, or if your concentration is good, ten. Focus on the rise and fall of your rib cage as you inhale and exhale while remaining calmly aware of the world around you. You will feel so much better for it.
  6. Reframe your experience of shoddy driving on the part of other motorists as an opportunity to practice patience. Think how much nicer it would be if you were never upset by other people. In order to achieve this worthy goal you need to practice patience. Think of the roads as your mental laboratory to cultivate equanimity no matter how utterly incompetent and outrageous your fellow drivers are!
  7. Don’t beat yourself up if you find you keep getting lost in cognition – being a mindful driver takes practice!

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Categories: Driving Tips, Safety
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