[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, November 2013]

    Like everybody, I don’t like dealing with traffic.  In fact, a huge chunk of my lifestyle revolves around finding ways to minimize automobile travel, walking when I can.  I think that when I started driving on my own, I learned my first hard lessons about the world, about people’s willingness to follow rules.  And I realized how easy it was to die for the silliest reasons.

    But in our post-recession economy, travel is unavoidable.  Our jobs and lifestyles require us to periodically take a deep breath and then submit ourselves to the blur of variables we don’t control, many of which can be frustrating at best, and lethal at worst.  Ergo, I’ll often try to remind myself of a few important lessons for reducing the stress of dealing with traffic:

1.  You never truly get anywhere faster.  Especially when driving in cities.  You might catch an extra green light or maybe you’ll squeak through one on yellow.  But almost invariably, you’ll either get caught at the next one, or you’ll end up behind someone who will hold you up about as much time as you saved before.  It all evens out.  We’ve had encounters with that one driver who insists on zipping between lanes, cutting off others and risking a collision for that extra car length of progress.  Watch next time, and you’ll notice how usually, you’ll roll up on them stopped at the same red light as you.  Maybe they’ll sometimes push their way a half mile ahead of you, but that brings us to our next lesson…

2.  Every minute is won by increased suffering.  The faster you try to drive, the slower and more bumbling is the rest of the traffic around you.  You get held back more often.  If speed, rather than timely arrival, is your goal, then you’re destined to be frustrated when you can’t go as fast as you want.  Even if you manage to shave off fifteen minutes on a lengthy trip, you’ll be more agitated by the time you get where you’re going.  Settling into the legal speed limit and letting go of the need for speed will help you with the next lesson, the ability to…

3.  Use the time instead of trying to save it.  We’re all in a hurry, and it seems so often like there aren’t enough hours in the day.  But investing in your mental health by leaving ten minutes earlier can be the difference between a decent trip, and hair-tearing frustration.  With a bit of cushion, you can shift your attention to plans upon arrival, rather than the next opportunity for a lane change.  Or, as I personally like to do, you can engage in learning opportunities with audio lectures or recorded books.  Learning or imagining while driving is made easier with the next lesson, which is to…

4.  Minimize Decision-Making.  When we have to react to the highway, it necessitates several exchanges between eyes, spinal cord, brain and muscles.  The human brain is able to send a neural impulse at about two feet per second.  By that time, a 65-mph vehicle has already covered at least 88 feet; enough distance to cause any number of problems for us.  To save your sanity, minimize changes in your driving circumstances as much as possible.  If you drive the same route to work every day, pick the lane you’ll need on arrival several miles out, and stick with it.  Don’t fall prey to the urge to jump lanes each time the traffic in front of you slows down.  The more decisions, the more you’ll have to react to other fast-moving bodies, at a rate that exceeds the human nervous system.

    Ultimately, don’t rely on luck to keep your peace of mind!  Take control of it yourself.  Stay put, enjoy your thoughts and play a few more seconds of your favorite tune.  You’ll feel better, I assure you.

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