You’re driving along merrily, obeying all the rules of the road like a good citizen. You arrive at a traffic circle. An oncoming driver to your right enters the circle and turns right in front of you without indicating. You brake, and give a little warning signal. They offer a rude gesture back, while driving with kids in the car.
Situations like these and worse happen every day. While this was a minor incident where an accident is avoided because a circle slows down travelling speed, and because you exercised defensive driving, behaviours such as what the driver displayed can still lead to anger and stress.
Anxiety – a cause of bad driver behaviour?
Driving is a stressful activity because it involves high risk and unpredictability. When there is a level of predictability on the road, like maintaining steady speed in one's lane, we feel safer because we’re more able to escape from disaster. Unpredictability, like impulsive lane changes without signalling, creates danger, stress, and accidents.
In this report, hostility and over-aggression has been identified as one of the domains of anxious driving behaviour. They explain that anxious driving behaviour, roughly speaking, is a general disorganisation of a behaviour due to anxiety while operating a vehicle.
Anxiety can cause aggressive behaviour such as gesturing, yelling, or hooting which results in riskier driving and higher incidents of accidents. Interestingly but not surprisingly, life stresses are often the cause of the anxiety in the first place. Stress and fatigue are two major contributors to driver mental well-being and can be related to both personal or work, which in turn has a negative effect on your sleep quality. This then causes further fatigue, which, in turn, can heighten feelings of stress.
Of course, we don’t have to mention the situations we may commonly find ourselves in such as traffic congestion or running late for a meeting.
Ultimately, anxiety and driver stress is a perpetual and vicious cycle. While stress should not be an excuse for bad driver behaviour, research shows that driver stress has increased after a year of lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Why we become stressed during driving
A study on dealing with stress and anxiety in a vehicle identifies numerous factors that induce stress in drivers which result in hostility and aggression on the road:
- Physical constriction and immobility – Our bodies are meant to move and be active, but when behind the wheel, tension builds up in our bodies because we are still and passive.
- Feeling restricted – In a highly-congested traffic situation, we’re constantly battling to move forward, stopping and starting makes us feel restricted, and brings on a strong desire to escape.
- Lack of control – Traffic flow is dictated by the spaces between vehicles. In congested traffic, there’s no freedom of flow, which causes frustration and stress.
- Invasion of territory – Motorists may think of the space around their car as their territory that must be defended by keeping a safe distance from other vehicles. This mental attitude can make them feel invaded or insulted at another driver’s inconsiderate actions, such as failing to keep their distance or cutting in sharply.
- Diversity of drivers – Every motorist on the road is at a different level of experience and driving skills with different behaviours. This diversity creates more unexpected situations, adding complexities to the driving experience, and thus increasing stress levels.
- Self-righteousness and indignation – Besides putting lives in danger, motorists who don’t obey road rules or make a mistake and then still deny that they are at fault causes emotional stress for other road users.
- Venting – Venting in anger, if uncontrolled, promotes aggression, impaired judgement, and irrational actions. Repeated venting eventually takes its toll on the immune system, acts as physiological stress, and is bad for heart health.
- Driving environment – Roads have a level of danger and uncertainty, it’s an environment with unnatural noises and smells, all this can aggravate stress levels.
- Lack of emotional intelligence – Obtaining a driver’s licence doesn’t deem one a good driver, because unfortunately driving lessons do not teach the important habits of thinking, judgement, and attitude. This lack of coping skills or the ability to cooperate with traffic causes high stress for most drivers.
The best way to manage driver-stress and anxiety
There are hundreds of articles available that suggest ways to manage stress and anxiety while driving. Yes, deep breathing, listening to calming music, leaving earlier for your destination, will all help to a certain extent, but the right attitude will make a world of difference.
Attitude – Rational, calm, positive
Without the right attitude before you get behind the wheel, it’s easy for negativity to creep in. Remember that you cannot control the vehicles around you, but you can control your feelings and your reactions towards them.
Learn how to keep a calm, positive attitude and detach any emotions from a situation, no matter how frustrating. Also understand that people make mistakes sometimes, and rather than jumping to conclusions that they’re intentionally making a malicious move, let it go. What do you do when they’re intentionally rude? Breathe deep, and let it go. You gain nothing, (except high blood pressure or a collision down the road) by letting it stress you out.
Tolerance is being willing or able to accept an opinion or behaviour whether one agrees with it or not. Stress-free driving begins with tolerance on the road. If everyone learnt to tolerate and have patience, then naturally all road users will be less anxious and stressed.
The road is a public space and is for all to use. Use road etiquette and show respect to other motorists and road users. Respect is such a simple and basic exercise – obey the road rules, indicate when you’re supposed to, be cognisant of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists, etc. In a nutshell, it’s about demonstrating good manners towards others.
The path to mastering a positive attitude begins the next time you get behind the wheel. Everyone gets there in their own time, but it’s important not to lose momentum. If you find yourself driving and feeling stressed, anxious, or emotionally upset, rather pull over at a safe place, calm yourself down with some deep breathing, then put any negative thoughts and feelings into a big balloon, and let it go.
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