Driving to Distraction

At any given daylight moment, as many as 660,000 American drivers are using electronic devices. Twenty-three percent of all auto collisions involve mobile phones. Distracted drivers not only make for frightening statistics, author Jeff Greenwald asserts that they have become the mindful driving challenge du jour: How to cope with drivers so mindless that they are willing to put their lives—and others—at risk.

Illustrations by Andrew Holder

If you ask people about their main social activities, many will tell you they have dinner with friends a couple of times a week. A few might mention salsa class; others may get together to watch the latest episode of Mad Men. But the place we commune with our fellow humans the most is the place we engage with them the least: on the road.

Normally, I try to be mindful during my social encounters. But somehow, when I’m behind the wheel of my car—surrounded by people of every imaginable age, race, economic class, and gender—that part of my brain shuts down. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, during most of my drive time, I’m focused on everything but the moment I’m engaged in.

Except, of course, if someone cuts me off, wavers from their lane, or makes a left turn without signaling. At that point, 85 million years of primate posturing burst through my ennui.

I was brought up short by this phenomenon a few months ago, driving my sister to lunch on a busy street in West Palm Beach. We were chatting amiably about the meaning of “Octopus’s Garden” when the driver ahead of me signaled a right turn, then changed his mind and made a left. I lost it.

“Stupid #$*@! idiot!” I howled. “Learn your left from your right!”

My sister, a massage therapist, regarded me evenly. “It’s funny,” she remarked. “You can do almost anything in this world—drop a bottle of cognac at the store, step on a dog’s tail, bump into a baby in a stroller—and people will smile and forgive you. But make the tiniest mistake driving, and people treat you with complete hatred.”

Her comment woke me up to the strange paradox of driving. The average American spends one to two hours each day behind the wheel. This year alone, about 220 million U.S. drivers will travel approximately three trillion miles in their cars. You and I will surely be among them. Why is it so difficult, then, to bring the basic mindfulness we employ in almost every other community situation to the most social activity of all?

Drivers Anonymous

Part of the reason is that driving is a world of its own; a place where we are essentially anonymous, and the conventions of civil society do not come into play.

Being in our cars, writes Tim Vanderbilt in Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), “is like being in an online chat room under a pseudonym…The language is harsh, rude, and abbreviated. One faces no consequences for one’s speech: Chat room visitors aren’t speaking face-to-face, and do not even have to linger after making a negative comment. They can flame someone and sign off. Or give someone the finger, and leave them in a cloud of exhaust.”

Part of the problem while driving is the almost complete lack of the most humanizing social tool we have: eye contact. At speeds greater than 20 miles per hours, research shows, we lose the ability to make eye contact—not to mention that other drivers may not be able to see our faces at all. And this is convenient—because when we’re guarding our territory like hamadryas baboons, we may not want to be seen at all.

Part of the problem while driving is the almost complete lack of the most humanizing social tool we have: eye contact.

Dr. Raymond Novaco, professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California at Irvine, has spent 35 years studying the way driving affects health and personality. He’s found that the root of roadway stress may lie in the physiological “arousal” that accompanies driving—an act that involves over 1,500 psychomotor skills, and around 200 decisions per mile. These combine to put drivers in a highly reactive state, which can intensify when stress from work or home is along for the ride. In this fragile state, any sudden distraction can provoke an outraged response.

illustration multiple cars in traffic, some veering off road


To get a sense of how to become a less bored and reactive driver, I spent an afternoon riding with Daniel Hill, an officer with the California Highway Patrol. Officer Hill, who has a degree in psychology from University of California, Davis, is a three-year veteran who has done some thinking of his own about mindful driving.

“One thing I’ve noticed,” he said, piloting his patrol car along Interstate 80, “is that when I drive my own car, it’s routine and boring. But as soon as I’m in the patrol vehicle, my attitude changes. My posture changes. I’m alert, engaged, breathing, and mindfully watching the road—not just ahead of me, but into the distance and on all sides.”

It makes sense. When we’re charged with a sense of responsibility, and given  a  purpose, we become more mindful. This applies not just to driving, but to nearly everything: traveling, parenting, tutoring, playing poker, or proofreading  a friend’s essay.

Riding with Hill, I was astonished to see how many people were speeding, or tailgating, or changing lanes without signalling. He didn’t actually stop anyone during our ride. Once or twice he simply pulled up alongside a driver, and glanced at them. It was enough. “Most traffic problems,” he observed, “arise from people thinking that they, and wherever they need to be, are more important than anyone else on the road. They’re lost in their own worlds. Just knowing that I see them brings them back down to earth.”

I discovered that I could mimic Hill’s transformation by making a game out of driving. Every day, I decided, I would give five drivers the “right to be wrong”— the right to do something dumb, as humans sometimes will. Once that limit was reached, I could vent my spleen.

The result was wonderful, if predictable. After simply observing five traffic  incidents without bile, I discovered that the sixth, seventh, and fifteenth didn’t have much impact on me, either. Better still, it was fun. Like an eight-year-old playing “I Spy,” I was at one with my surroundings.

Keeping Your Mind on the Road

In 1988, before smartphones were a twinkle in Steve Job’s eye, two brothers named Todd and Kevin Berger—a psychotherapist and journalist, respectively—wrote a book called Zen Driving. They advocated a method called “moving meditation”—driving with relaxed concentration and total control.

What better place to practice Jedilike discipline than in your car? Just relax, take a few deep breaths, and settle in. Your Mini Cooper, like the zen archer’s bow, becomes an extension of yourself. Its tires become your shoes; the rear view mirror, your third eye.

The Berger brothers suggest a way of driving whereby “you drop what you were thinking about before—and you drop your destination. All that matters is what you’re doing right now.” Anything that gets in the way—like anger, fear, or tension—is calmly acknowledged. Then you let the emotion go, and return to the pure experience of driving. A guy in a Range Rover cuts you off. You calmly acknowledge the irritation. Then you go back to total awareness, feeling the car around you. (It also helps, I discovered, if you reward yourself with an M&M for each moment of mindfulness. But maybe that’s cheating.)

“Not everybody does aikido, or martial arts,” the Bergers note. “But everyone drives.” There’s no reason people can’t perform a kind of mindfulness practice every day, behind the wheel. “And if you can develop that kind of concentration in your car,” they posit, “it won’t end there. It’s going to affect your job, your daily life, and your relationships as well.”

Anger and aggression, of course, are just two facets of mindless driving. Another is slack-jawed distraction.

As a person who also rides a motorcycle, nothing is more terrifying than the sight of surrounding drivers thumbing into their smart phones as we hurtle along at 70 mph. At moments like those I recall the droll words of my hiking partner, just before we crossed a fast-moving river: “Remember: We’re all in this alone.”

At 60 mph, when you take your attention off the road for four seconds—and that’s how long it takes to read a short text, let alone write one—you travel 350 feet. Think about it: You’re driving blind the entire length of a football field.

At any given daylight moment across America, as many as 660,000 drivers are staring into, or manipulating, their electronic devices. In 2011, 23% of all auto collisions involved mobile phones. An informal 2009 study by Car and Driver magazine (for which they got their writers drunk, and put them on a course) showed that texting while driving is more dangerous than drinking while driving.

So what’s the difference between blasting music, listening to a podcast of Wait… Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, talking to a friend in the front seat, or texting? It’s all about your eyes. At 60 mph, when you take your attention off the road for four seconds—and that’s how long it takes to read a short text, let alone write one—you travel 350 feet. Think about it: You’re driving blind the entire length of a football field.

For me, this has become the mindful driving challenge du jour: coping with drivers so mindless that they are willing to threaten my life (or make me late for Mad Men) to satisfy a selfish impulse. During my ride-along with Officer Hill, I asked why the Highway Patrol doesn’t just round them all up and pillory them.

Hill appreciated the sentiment. But such offenders, he admitted sheepishly, are surprisingly difficult to catch in the act.

“As mindless as they may seem to be,” he told me, “they do seem mindful enough to notice a patrol car in their rear view mirrors.”



This article also appeared in the August 2014 issue of Mindful magazine.