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Mindful : August 2014
Purpose-Driven To get a sense of how to become a less bored and reactive driver, I spent an afternoon riding with Da niel Hill, an officer with the California Highway Patrol. Officer Hill, who has a degree in psychology from University of Califor- nia, 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 ca r along Interstate 80, “is that when I drive my own car, it’s routine a nd boring. But as soon as I’m in the patrol vehicle, my attitude changes. My posture changes. I’m a lert, 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. 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 tini- est 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 yea r 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 a re essen- tially anonymous, and the conventions of civil society do not come into play. Being in our cars, writes Tim Vander- bilt 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, a nd 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 some- one and sign off. Or give someone the fin- ger, and leave them in a cloud of exhaust.” Part of the problem while driving is the almost complete lack of the most huma nizing social tool we have: eye contact. At speeds g reater than 20 miles per hours, resea rch shows, we lose the ability to make eye contact—not to men- tion that other drivers may not be able to see our faces at all. And this is conve- nient—because when we’re gua rding our territory like ha madryas baboons, we may not want to be seen at all. 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 “a rousal” that accom- panies 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, a ny sudden distraction can provoke an outraged response. 62 mindful August 2014