The moment we get behind the wheel of a car and start driving we become involved in a series of events that take a toll on our stress levels. Even predictable events such as maintaining a steady speed, braking and pulling away at the lights or just sitting in traffic increases stress. Add other issues such as being followed too closely by another vehicle, being cut up, having to break hard to avoid a collision and it soon becomes clear why driving can rate as one of the most stressful activities.
We tend to view driving as some natural extension of daily activity but actually there are quite a few differences. People will do things in a car they simply wouldn’t consider in another context. The subtle norms we acquire during normal development, and that allow us to operate cooperatively as social animals, appear to fragment. Driving is a risky, error prone endeavor that is too often associated with a lack of emotional control. So, exactly what are the issues that cause so much stress in drivers?
Our bodies are designed around a simple fight-or-flight mechanism; ideally we use one or the other to dissipate stress when it occurs. Sitting in a car is incompatible with stress build up. There is no physical outlet. We can’t fight and we can’t run, so tension simply builds with no obvious outlet. When an outlet does present itself, for example when we perceive another driver to be taking advantage or not paying due attention, there’s a danger of reacting aggressively (so-called road rage).
In studies of driver behavior and driver stress certain things emerge as typical causes of tension. They include:
- Being stuck in traffic or start-stop driving associated with congestion.
- Being caught in traffic flow where all the driver can do is join in.
- Perceived over-regulation involving traffic signs, road works and speed restrictions on roads that appear open and largely free of traffic.
- Impatient or aggressive driving by other road users.
- Unpredictable events resulting in increased danger.
- Perceiving that the concentration of other drivers is being affected by equipment in their car.
- Lack of signaling.
- Jumping lights.
- Being the victim of abuse by other road users.
- Being pressured to drive faster by vehicles following.
- Drivers forgetting to put on lights, or lights incorrectly set.
- Being forced to brake hard for various reasons.
- Inconsiderate parking.
Actually the list is a lot longer but a point here is such frustrations lead to a lack of objectivity and the venting of anger where the other person is invariably seen to be at fault. The fact that we feel protected within the confines of a vehicle may explain why some drivers shout and gesture at other road users. There is a notion that it’s better to get stress out of the system than bottle it up. This may have an element of truth in it but the evidence actually tells us that repeated venting takes a toll on the heart and the immune system. This is because venting is rather like an iceberg; the physical component (the tip) may only last a second or two but the negative thoughts and anger below the surface tend to hang around. This in turn can impair judgment, lead to verbal and physical conflict, and rash decisions.
I took my driving test around 40 years ago: my daughter took hers around three years ago. It’s a more demanding test but despite the change in traffic volume and traffic conditions it surprises me that the emphasis is still almost exclusively on the mechanism of driving and the rules of the road. The real craft of driving is something we have to learn over time, but I wonder if we should be paying more attention to the psychology of driver behavior and how best to cope with the stresses of driving?
We have a good level of personal control over driver stress and it’s important to acknowledge this. Allowing extra time on the commute to work reduces the risk of unforeseen hold-ups. A little relaxing music can help. Driving is as much a state of mind as anything else. If you can accept that there are limits to the amount of control you can exert as a driver it helps. Otherwise the same rules for driver stress apply to other aspects of your life. Exercise, good diet, low or no alcohol and regular sleep will all contribute to an overall sense of health and well-being.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.