People occasionally tell me how crazy it’s getting on the road. Whether using cars or bikes, they’re experiencing mounting levels of annoyance, frustration and even fear regarding the other (of course) drivers encountered on a daily basis. “These lunatics are driving me crazy,” they’ll say while shaking their heads.

The rise in distracted driving, particularly from texting, is probably a large part of this. I’ll always invite them to join me in asking legislators for tougher laws to stop DWT and other use of handheld devices while driving.

Other things can also have one inching towards road rage: people who cut you off with an aggressive and dangerous lane change, pass or turn. But along with demanding better enforcement, there’s another way to ameliorate much of the idiocy we encounter; things to help us be both safer and calmer. Here’s a suggestion for “driving yourself un-crazy.”

The basic way to achieve higher levels of driving safety and comfort is to “drive like an animal.” OK — that needs a bit of explanation, especially since I’ve previously referred to unpredictable motorists and bicyclists as “squirrel brains.” Think of almost any animal in the natural (undomesticated) world, either predator or prey. To survive, they need to be highly attuned to their surroundings; almost constantly taking in information about risks and/or opportunities and making an often rapid response. In biking vernacular, this is referred to as “situational awareness.”

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Think way back to your driver’s education class and recall that you were taught to “scan” — checking your mirrors, the side streets and driveways you approach and things that are going on adjacent to the lane directly in front of you. Driving “like an animal” is a lot like that, but goes further. Animals don’t fret or panic, even when fleeing for their lives; they observe and respond. They have no judgments, no ego or aggravation.

In the world of sports, athletes performing at their best often achieve a zen-like condition called “flow” or “being in the zone.” The score, a bad call by a ref, the mistake or brilliant play they just made is nowhere in their mind. There is only awareness of the things that matter, the ball and the locations/actions of teammates and defenders. They report feeling both energized and calm; the action on the field/court almost seems to be in slow motion — they never feel rushed.

Here’s an example of how “being in the zone” can make your experiences on the road safer and less crazy. On a two-lane street you’re approaching an intersection; the driver in the opposite lane is waiting to make a left turn. There’s really not enough space for them to safely turn in front of you. But will they do it anyhow? Along with Left Turn Person, you’re also aware of a string of cars behind you. So there’s a heightened chance Left Turn will shoot the gap in front of you than if the lane behind you was empty. Being the last line of defense to prevent a crash, you prepare (perhaps slowing with your foot hovering the brake) to accommodate his/her impatience and resultant unwise behavior.

You might think this kind of constant monitoring and analysis adds even more stress to driving. I’ve found it to be just the opposite; when you’re truly tuned in to the experience of driving, your time behind the wheel becomes more interesting (you get to play detective!) and far less boring. And you’ll greatly reduce your chances of a situation where you’re telling the officer “everything happened so fast” and/or “they just came from out of nowhere.”

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Gene Schmitz is a retired small-business owner and science teacher. He is a lifelong bicyclist and traffic safety advocate with a history of significant involvement in bicycling advocacy in Missoula and other communities. 

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