How to be a better driver

by phil on Saturday Feb 5, 2011 6:59 PM

It's Saturday and 60+ degrees. It snowed the past two days here in Austin, TX. I fishtailed while driving on one of the bridges. I worry a lot about my driving. Perhaps its because I totaled my car twice before I was 18. Typically you lose your drivers license with that many accidents, but on the second accident the other person didn't report it. Which is weird. I was in my minivan (my parents) and him in a pick-up truck, and it just bumped his bumper, lunging his car forward, while as the whole front of my car collapsed. He was leasing his car, and so he didn't want to report it. I, on the other hand, had $10,000+ damage on my car, which my insurance picked up, thankfully.

Since then—knock on wood—I haven't been in any car accidents, but I definitely have some programs I run to keep me safe while driving. I own a breathalyzer for example. I'm part of the small minority of breathalyzer owners who hasn't had a DWI. A couple years ago, a regularly occuring event for me would be waking up on a Saturday or Sunday morning, replaying my drive from the night-before obsessively, questioning myself, "I wasn't drunk was I?" I'd wrack my brain in regret and self-doubt, and so I bought a little breathalyzer online for $39.99. What I learned is that the level of intoxication that most everybody I know thinks they're okay to drive at is about .20. The legal limit is .08, and everybody that says, "Don't worry about me man, I'm good," is at .20. You don't really feel "tipsy" or "buzzed" until .22, and so most of the time you can't tell you're not okay to drive.

After my second car accident (when I was 17), I vowed to never get in a car accident again. But how was I supposed to do that? Could I force myself to be alert for the rest of my life? That seems like a New Years Resolution Fail: "Today I promise to be a better driver." That's impossible.

My first attempt was to make a routine, where any time I put the keys in the ignition, I would pause and think about my car accidents, so that it would stir me up with some fear, and thus ensure alert driving. This was good for the first week or so, but after awhile, I couldn't make those same thoughts. I couldn't sit there and repeat the mantra and get any feeling. The mantra was "satiated," as they say in psychology.

But I think I have a system that works right now. It's in two parts. The first one is to always drive the speed limit. I once got a speeding ticket, and to clear it, I had to go to comedy driving school. The instructor had two related ideas that have stuck in my mind ever since, "I haven't gotten a ticket in 25 years. You want to know how? I always drive the speed limit." That's one. And the second thing he said was, "The number one preventable factor in car accidents is speed." Since that day, I've driven the speed limit or slower 99% of the time.

But why not drive 5-10 miles above the speed limit, and leave it at that? I could probably go 25 years without a speeding ticket if I was consistently 7 miles or less above all speed limits. The problem with that system is that you can't keep it. It won't stick. You won't do the math every single time you see the speed limit posted, and you'll lapse often. Your plus-7 mph rule will become more of a general range to follow, like to be somewhere in the vicinity of the single digits above the speed limit. And then you'll forget, and wham you'll be going 60mph in a 40mph zone.

So always drive the speed limit. That's one rule. The second part of my program is something similar to my initial program. I try to imagine scary scenarios while driving, so as to force me to compensate. I have a checklist of common situations where I felt like I had a close-call or had a major oversight, and I've organized them into groups. While I'm driving, I will go through these questions, and notice that there's always at least one or two that will be lacking in me due to my state of mind:

  • Will I always yield on every left-turn?
  • Will I always look fully when making a lane-change?
  • Is it possible I may cut corners because I'm in a rush?
  • Is it possible I may cut corners because I'm feeling like a over-confident or cavalier?
  • Is there a multi-tasking risk, where I'm liable to grab my iPhone or fiddle with my A/C?
  • Am I seeing all lights clearly?
  • Am I seeing all cars clearly?
  • Am I aware of any environmental risks, such as slippery roads or drunk drivers?
  • Am I in a state of mind where I'll make a cognitive goof, like thinking I'm good while backing up in a parking lot?
For example, when I haven't had much sleep, I notice I don't see cars or lights as well as I feel like I should. Or if I'm flustered, I find I'm more likely to play with my iPhone or fiddle with the A/C or stereo. The reason why this program has stuck, and hasn't satiated, is because the stimulus always leads to action. If I ask myself, "Am I not seeing lights clearly?" and notice I'm not, I will then imagine myself screeching to a halt in front of red lights, or missing another cars' brake lights. This will create a source of anxiety, which will then convert easily into me perking up and focusing.

In order words, I've installed sustainable triggers for these risk-factors. The way your brain processes mistakes is by trying to associate a negative feeling (usually regret), with the events that led up to the mistake. Then, when the same situation comes up, that association lights up, and I think about that mistake and hopefully, the remedy.

How far can this trigger-idea work, though? Can you make triggers, for social risk factors, when you're about to make some social gaffe? Could I make a similar in-flight checklist while talking to people to make socializing smoother? No, you can't. I've tried to and it doesn't work. But it works with driving.

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