What you need to know about distressed driving — and how to avoid it
We’ve all been warned about the dangers of driving while intoxicated or driving while texting. But what about getting behind the wheel moments after having a heated argument or learning of the death of a loved one?
You may not realize it, but your body’s chemical response to an emotional situation can be every bit as hazardous to a driver as downing a few martinis.
In a recent study from Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, researcher Ides Wong studied drivers dealing with anxiety. Wong found that their response times were significantly slower than those of normal drivers. As a result, drivers in distress are far more likely to become involved in car accidents. And those accidents can cause higher auto insurance premiums.
Driving while stressed is one form of distracted driving, along with activities such as talking on a cellphone or talking to passengers. Inattentive driving habits were cited in 20 percent of injury accidents in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
|One driver was so distressed about the death of a friend that he ran into the car in front of him during the procession to the cemetery.|
Debbie Mandel, a stress management expert from New York City, recommends that if you’re distressed by the death of a loved one, for instance, you should monitor yourself for signs of stress before getting behind the wheel. Those signs often include shallow breathing, a rapid heartbeat, irritability and anger.
“You’ll probably feel it in your body,” Mandel says. “Some people have stress in the lower back. We all have our own stress points.”
She adds: “Although one feels hyper-vigilant while stressed, a person is not really in focus. The mind is distracted by the stressor, and so accidents are likely to occur. Defensive driving falls by the wayside.”
Driving in distress
Josh Barnett, a 30-year-old communications director at a church in Bloomington, Ill., still regrets an incident more than a decade ago when his poor emotional state led to a car accident.
When Barnett was 19, he lost a close friend named Pat. “He died in a fire, and I was really shaken up about it,” he says. He attended Pat’s funeral, and planned to drive his car in the procession to the cemetery on the other side of town to attend the burial.
After the funeral, one of Barnett’s friends asked whether he’d like a ride to the cemetery, but he refused. “I knew I shouldn’t be driving, but I swallowed that feeling and told myself I’d be fine.”
More than 50 cars were in the procession to the cemetery; Barnett was right in the middle.
“It was a long stretch of road with no stoplights,” he recalls. “I started thinking about my friend and becoming very upset. I allowed myself to go into a place of grieving, and even though I was watching the road, I wasn’t really concentrating.”
When the cars in front of Barnett slowed down to make a turn, he didn’t notice. He slammed right into the car in front of him at 45 miles an hour. Although no one was seriously injured, the accident stopped traffic, so none of the cars behind Barnett were able to make it to the cemetery. “I should have listened to myself to begin with and taken that ride,” Barnett says.
When to give up the keys
So, how can you tell when you’re too distraught to drive?
|Experts recommend that if you’re distressed, you should engage in calming activities — such as listening to music or walking — before getting behind the wheel.|
An emotional event like a funeral may be a trigger for stress. Other culprits could include a serious fight with a loved one or a piece of bad news concerning your own well-being or financial security. No matter what is causing the stress, take the situation seriously and consider whether you’re truly fit to drive.
“Ask yourself how you’re doing emotionally,” Barnett says. “If you’ve just gotten into an argument with someone, or something traumatic has happened, you need to think through your emotional outlook before getting in a car.”
“When to avoid getting behind the wheel is different for everyone,” says Vicki Harper, a driving safety expert at State Farm Insurance. “Regardless of the situation, if you are heading out in your car and don’t feel like you can devote your full attention to driving and not worrying about your circumstances, you shouldn’t be driving.”
Relieving the stress
If you find yourself too stressed to drive somewhere that you urgently need to go, ask a friend or family member for a ride, call a cab or take public transportation. If that’s not possible, focus on relaxation techniques that will ease your mind.
Before getting behind the wheel, spend a few minutes walking, listening to music, doing yoga or tai chi, or meditating. The Mayo Clinic has endorsed all of these activities as proven stress-relief techniques. Wait for your head to clear before you start thinking about driving.
“If you’re already in the car when you realize you’re not in good shape to drive, pull over to the side of the road and begin breathing deeply to your body’s natural rhythm,” says Mandel, the stress management expert. “You could also call a friend who has a positive mind-set and will help you reframe the situation so that you can verbally reason with yourself.”
Harper says: “Distressed drivers should take a break, calm down, and remind themselves that nothing is more important than arriving at their destination safely. When they can remember that and are sure that they can drive without problems, then can consider getting back in the car.”