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What is mindfulness and how can we apply it to our driving?
Being mindful means purposefully paying attention, bringing our thoughts back to the present and self-regulating our minds toward conscious awareness, acceptance and curiosity.
It’s all about keeping our attention in the ‘right now’ rather than in the past or future.
It means waking up from the automatic pilot (unconscious thinking) our brain likes to default to and taking ownership of where our attention is focused.
In a thought leadership on mindfulness by the NRSPP, Associate Professor Craig Hassed from Monash University says, “If we’re busy doing something, distracted driving or multitasking, or we’re just operating on automatic pilot and something happens, there is a significant lag time in responding to that event that doesn’t happen if our attention is on the road.”
“That time lag can be the difference between not crashing or having a crash at 10kmh instead of 50kmh,” says Hassed.
Distraction is a huge issue for Australian drivers.
We can be physically preoccupied (fiddling with our phones or radio, rubbernecking at an accident, turning around to chastise unruly children, etc.) or we can be mentally preoccupied with internal dialogue or stress.
Anger and road rage
When the mind is dwelling on past injustices or worrying about upcoming events, we drift away from the present.
These largely negative thoughts can make us more predisposed to getting angry. On the road, anger and the resultant loss of focus can turn deadly.
Indeed, anger is one of the most dangerous forms of driver distraction. The more it builds, the less we’re able to calmly assess traffic conditions and make sensible decisions that keep everyone safe.
As the results of our road-rage survey show, more than a quarter of Aussies surveyed who drive regularly report being involved in a road-rage incident, either as perpetrator or victim.
Around two-thirds of those drivers say another road user had shouted, cursed or made rude gestures at them; ; nearly half say they’ve subjected other road users to this treatment.
The driving situations most likely to anger those surveyed are:
- potentially dangerous behavior by other road users (93%)
- rudeness or discourtesy from other road users (93%)
- travel delays (90%)
- direct aggression from other road users (86%).
Looking at these stats, it’s clear that a bit more self-control, mental focus and acceptance of the unchangeable could benefit us all.
The dangers of distraction
Let’s say you’re cruising along at 60km/h and take your eyes off the road for a couple of seconds. What can happen?
Well, quite a lot, since your car has just moved more than 33 metres during those two fleeting seconds — a distance equivalent to nearly two cricket pitches.
Now, let’s assume you possess the typical human reaction time to a sudden and unexpected event, which is around 1.8 seconds.
This means that if you’re distracted while driving, nearly four seconds can go by before you even start to react to a new hazard.
Four seconds is an awful long time on the open road, not to mention that the risk of a serious accident is increased even further as your speed goes up.
Can you meditate while driving? It may sound like a strange concept, but the answer is yes.
Naturally, this form of meditation will be different to the eyes-closed, wrists-on-the-knees, face-turned-toward-the-sun activity we generally associate with the word.
If you Google ‘driver meditation app’ or ‘guided meditation for driving anxiety’ you’ll find that, yes, this really is a thing; there are even podcasts about meditation while driving.
It’s amazing how often our brains wander away from the present and gravitate toward future fantasies or memories.
For the human mind, reliving yesterday’s disconcerting events or worrying about what tomorrow might bring is a normal habit.
We tend to replay our negative emotions on a constant loop.
Training your mind
What driving meditation really comes down to is dragging your mind back from its natural inclination to drift toward unconscious fretting and other distractions.
This must be done purposefully in order to succeed. Over time, you can train your mind to:
- truly notice what you see in front of you
- be more attuned to the physical sensation of driving (the feel of your hands on the wheel, your foot on the pedal, your eyes scanning the road and mirrors, how you’re controlling speed and direction, etc.)
- be more aware of your tension level during the whole commute — is it going up, coming down or staying about the same?
- have a heightened awareness of the car’s movement
- hear the road, wind and traffic with more clarity
- embrace the fact that getting stressed about things you can’t alter — traffic jams, other drivers’ behavior, inconvenient stoplight changes, etc.) is both pointless and detrimental to your ability to drive safely
Whether you call it driving meditation, purposeful relaxation or mindfulness, the aim is the same: To do your very best to stay calmly alert and 100% present for your entire commute.
Your daily trips to and from work offer an ideal opportunity to practice mindfulness.
Faced with a set time span behind the wheel and a powerful incentive to keep your mind on the task (road safety), you’re in a perfect position to train your mind to react optimally to driving situations and develop the self-discipline to keep negative and distracting emotions at bay.
Practice, practice, practice
Boosting your level of mindfulness comes with practice. You can’t stop your thoughts from wandering, but you can change the way you react when you realise it’s happening.
Take a deep breath, pay attention to what you see, feel and hear in the present moment and gently guide your mind back to the job of safe driving.
You get more stressed when your mind controls you. When you control your mind, relaxed focus and concentration come much more easily.
One clue about your state of mind is how tightly you’re gripping the wheel. If you find your hands getting achier than usual, it might be the result of internal tension.
The first step toward relaxation is recognizing when you’re not relaxed.
Acceptance is a large part of mindfulness. No amount of anxiety or agitation is going to change your car, the amount of traffic, the disposition of other drivers or the number of red lights you encounter.
If you commit to practicing mindfulness and driving with awareness and kindness toward all road users, you’re doing the best you can.
If you’d like to learn more about road rage and distracted driving, please check out this free webinar from the 5th November 2020.
It’s called Road Rage and Aggressive Driving and was organised by the NRSPP (National Road Safety Partnership Program).
The webinar discusses the origins of driver aggression, dissects the findings of motorist surveys relating to driver aggression, and provides evidence-based solutions to the growing problem known as driver distraction in Australia.
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