The Art of Mindful Driving

City Traffic (in Beijing) by Scott Meltzer

I have to drive quite a distance to the office I work in when I am not working at home. It may take me up to an hour and a half to make the journey. Fortunately it isn’t every day of the week, but it can still be tiring.

Much of this is due to the way people drive, and it can be easy to go along with the flow of traffic on a fast road or highway. It seems that on a commuting run, many drivers are far too aggressive and follow each other too closely. They seem to be in a great hurry to get to the office or get home.

After spending some time driving like this, I paid more attention to what people were doing. Behaviour gets even more strange in slow-moving traffic. Anyone who has been in slow moving traffic passing through a city knows there is a lot of stopping and starting, but how many have realised that this is because drivers rush to close any gap in front of them as fast as possible? This usually extends to any gaps left by a car directly in front. I have seen drivers execute risky manoeuvres in order to fill a gap of tens of metres in front of me, to continue at the same speed a few meters ahead of where they were before – these are often drivers that I pass later on.

That constant stopping and starting means extra strain on the legs – less so in cars with automatic transmission, but there is still breaking and accelerating. This is taken to extremes by some drivers who floor it when starting up and slam on the brakes to stop a short distance ahead. I watch the traffic and it is clear to see how it moves in waves as the cars bunch up creating a “blockage” which is only relieved once cars have moved off too the front.

This is just evidence that few drivers are thinking about what they are doing, and whether their behaviour actually does anything to facilitate them getting to where they are going quicker or is in fact positively dangerous.

I can slip into aggressive driving still, but there was one situation that I remembered where I finished a familiar journey of about an hour and realised that I felt somewhat less tired afterwards, and less stressed. On this particular day I had been forced to drive slower on single lane roads, and rarely went above 55mph.

I had demonstrated that driving fast, changing lanes a lot, overtaking and getting impatient with other drivers made me more tired and stressed. It was not the fact of driving on busy roads that led to exhaustion, it was the manner of driving that was to blame.

So what would mindful driving be like? One could start by considering the fact that you have your own personal machine that can propel you at high speed. Most people in the world do not have this luxury for a start (although some might say it’s more of a curse). There is also some responsibility to be careful with a heavy vehicle that can cause considerable damage and fatality when driven carelessly. Although serious collisions on the road are referred to as “accidents”, many of these are due to dangerous or inattentive driving.

Consider that driving fast costs you quite a lot of money. 85mph is considerably less efficient than 65mph. In the UK, where we pay about £1.40 per litre for fuel (that’s $5.30 a gallon, which I notice isn’t far off US prices now), driving fast all the time is getting to be expensive. I have a car that can do up to 60mpg – the drivers of V8 SUVs must be feeling the pinch at about 20mpg.

To improve mileage, and in fact reduce wear on the car and save on servicing bills you can slow down a bit (or a lot) on the highway and relax a bit. Controlling acceleration is another way to limit fuel consumption. Rather than using all your car’s power to speed up as quickly as possible, take some time to increase speed, and there will be reduced wear on the tyres of your drive wheels, so it will be longer until you have to replace them. Slow down gradually and save the wear on your brake pads and discs.

Think of the momentum your car has, and don’t accelerate so much when going downhill. It’s possible you can maintain speed without even touching the accelerator. There is usually no need to brake hard to stop your car, you can just let your foot off the accelerator and allow the car to stop with its engine braking. After a while of thinking like this it gets easier to judge how you can come to a stop with minimal braking.

If you just got out of work find a way to relax while driving. It’s possible to listen to an interesting interview or an audio book for example, and concentrate on that rather than the traffic jam you are creeping through.

Pay attention to what is happening on the road ahead so you can react to traffic in good time. Having to stand on the brakes too often can be stressful, as well as the stress of having to respond in less time. If you are aware of what is happening around you it is possible to react calmly and not feel like you have just avoided bumping into the car in front.

Try to get through slow moving traffic on a highway without stopping entirely. Although cars seem to stop and start, overall they all flow at an average speed. If you can judge what this average speed is, the gap in front of you may expand and contract but you will still get through in the same time, but without stopping, less gear changes (in a manual) and less braking and accelerating.

The goal is to prevent driving becoming unnecessarily tiring due to your own behaviour and anticipating what others might do on the road.

For my particular commute, I have noticed driving more mindfully has perhaps added 10-15 minutes to the journey time. Also because I listen to music I am interested in this is an extra 15 minutes that doesn’t bother me particularly. In some instances I am even looking forward to the drive because it is time I get to listen to my favourite music.

So I think I have managed to make a change of attitude transforming something that could be considered a chore to get over with as quickly as possible into something that is an exercise in mindfulness and finding a way to make the time in the car more valuable.