If you’re a driving instructor or work in the traffic safety industry, no doubt you’ve run up against the specter of Grand Apathy. Just how on earth do you motivate people to be actually interested in driving safely? Keep improving at it? It’s one thing to teach driving as a mechanical series of prudent procedures, visual scanning, and dry traffic rules, but entirely another to change people’s behavior and bad habits at its root causes.
If you work as a driving instructor, never underestimate your role as a positive teacher and mentor. Often you are the first and only line of defense in terms of actual road training, because unfortunately Americans generally don’t get driver training after their teen years. And what you teach—and how you frame it—may literally someday save a life.
That’s a heavy responsibility, but it’s also an exciting challenge, and a great opportunity that should not be missed. I cannot tell you the number of times when I have talked with people about their formative driving experiences, that they have told me about a single thing their instructor told them that formed an ah-ha moment, an epiphany, that they have remembered ever since.
One of my interests is exploring what truly motivates people. One strategy is to give them something they can apply to other parts of their life. And I have a dangerous idea. What if you could teach driving as self-help? It’s an $11 billion industry in America alone!
After all, the skills to make you a better driver make you a better person.
Driving is truly a metaphor for how we go through life. And if you don’t believe me, just go to Costco on a Saturday morning and you’ll see an exact microcosm of what’s on the street—the dawdlers, the left-lane hoggers, the people yakking on their cell phones slowing down in the aisles, the speeders-around-the-corner, the ones who are situationally aware and courteous about letting you go by, and the ones who are just plumb oblivious.
It’s no secret that we drive exactly as our personalities, character traits, and habits dictate. There are numerous published and academic studies quantifying this, and it’s a foundation for the GDE Matrix (Goals for Driver Education), which was pioneered in Finland and is used in driving curricula in Sweden and other European countries. For more information on the GDE and its context, see these links:
Part of the foundation behind GDE is that a person’s own life goals and values profoundly affect their level of risk-taking and ability on the road, as well as their ability to be situationally aware and honestly self-assess. We drive exactly how we are as people, in terms of our personality, ego, habits, life values, ability to plan, confidence levels, social skills, and general outlook. People who are bad at planning in their personal and work life are often not good at anticipating situations on the road. People who feel very confident, feel entitled, and are used to getting their way tend to speed, take more risks, and cut off others. And drivers who are more prudent, careful, and good in relationship-building tend to be more courteous to other road users.
So here are some skills for the road … and for life.
Looking up far ahead.
Of the many different types of driving—street, high-performance, evasive, autocross, racing, offroad, rally—the one technique they all share is that their drivers must look ahead as far as possible to scan upcoming situations. If drivers look only at the spaces directly in front of them, they don’t see the big picture; they get “behind” and catching up may be difficult or downright dangerous. Looking up far ahead is crucial to see hazards, assess risk, and have the space and time to plan for evolving or unexpected situations. The same thing is true for life—for exactly the same reasons.
Learn to let go.
Too many of us feel our hackles go up when a thoughtless driver cuts us off, drifts while yakking on a cell phone, or gives us a provocative finger gesture. And what’s our first reaction? We feel hurt and violated, and boy do we want to show them, dispense a little revenge.
A lot of what happens on the road really has nothing to do with us—other drivers may have had arguments with their boss or spouse, and they just happen to be taking it out on others in the anonymity of their vehicles. They may be on drugs, medication, or alcohol. They may be running late or under other stress. They might even be confused tourists just trying to find their way around, or plain unaware that they got in someone’s way or did a doe-headed thing.
And it doesn’t mean that we should act out in turn. In fact, in this age of drugs, guns, and mind-altering antidepressants, retaliating these days can be very dangerous indeed. It’s just not worth it.
People waste a lot of time getting wrapped up in things that really don’t matter. They are easily threatened and they take things way too personally. They feel the need to bolster their ego by defending themselves offensively. And this happens not just on the road, but at work and at home with the family, spouses, friends, and colleagues.
In both driving and in life, there’s huge value in learning to relax, letting a lot of battles go, being constructive about dealing with conflict, not becoming combative, and also not getting caught up in the drama that others want to suck us into. It’s not our responsibility.
There’s a saying: “Expectation equals premeditated resentment.” When you lower your expectations, life really does get a whole lot easier and less stressful.
Give yourself room—literally.
What’s a leading cause of collisions? Drivers following too closely! We all know that not leaving enough distance between one another causes drivers to be reactive, not proactive. You need a big enough safety cushion to allow for contingencies and absorb the movements of others without disrupting traffic flow. It’s a form of spatial insurance.
And that translates to off the road as well: Too often we don’t leave enough padding in our own lives. It might be that 5 or 10 extra minutes beyond what we expect to get to a meeting, or not having enough savings in our bank accounts or insurance coverage for emergencies, or always pushing ourselves right to the limits of our time and energy. We’re often pretty poor about not giving ourselves enough clearance in life, and that frequently compounds itself into bigger problems, partly because of another thing—not looking far enough ahead.
Be courteous to others.
This is so obvious that it may seem not worth mentioning, but it’s true. Driving is one of the few major daily activities where showing courtesy, respect, and cooperation are absolutely essential for the safety and efficiency of us all.
When we’re on the road, asking nicely, giving a little, letting someone in, and just being patient and empathetic makes all of the difference in the world between a good safe drive and a dangerous one.
When it comes to life, we’re always going to have a harder time if we’re always cutting others off, pushing the hot buttons of others, and being rude and presumptive. And we all know somebody who is like that and wonders why things don’t go well for them.
Many people view driving as a passive activity where they’re the victim: “This person’s tailgating me,” “I got cut off,” “She ran the red light and almost hit me.”
Much of what driving has become in America is people pressuring others to do something or conforming to what they want them to be. Maybe they want us to go faster or get out of their way. They’ll tailgate us on the freeway, or honk if they think we’re a nanosecond too slow off the line to accelerate from a light. Or they’ll bully us by cutting us off or be passive-aggressive about speed.
Everyone’s got a story about being a victim.
We live in a society that breeds blame, judgment, competition, finger-pointing, irrational argument, and frustration. We see it on the road every day through aggressive driving, road rage, the use of alcohol and drugs while driving, and just plain impatience and rudeness.
And you can see this negativity reflected in much of our society—our political leaders, TV reality shows, news media, social media, and Internet user comments. It’s epidemic and constantly being accepted in our society as new levels of “normal.”
The neat thing about all of this is that while you can’t always control what others do on the road, we can take charge of not putting ourselves in a bad situation!
- On the road, we can manage the space around us by treating everyone like they have the plague, and building a space bubble around us.
- We can gently slow our speed to get others to back off. It’s surprising just how often it works.
- Look in all directions for red-light runners before we go.
- Let others who want to go faster get around us safely.
- Don’t put ourselves in unnecessary risk (i.e., making several right turns instead of making a dangerous left turn, or not lingering in someone’s blind spot).
- Be situationally aware, scan ahead, and at the ready at all times for anything to happen.
The same is true in other parts of life—we can’t necessarily control what everyone else does, but we always have the power to choose how we handle ourselves.
Again, much of this is not getting sucked into someone’s else drama, or, as they say in racing, driving someone else’s line. With practice, we can scan for signs of possible issues, avoid putting ourselves into potential paths of conflict in the first place, and respond more constructively to challenges.
Improve for the future, not obsess about the past.
Driving well, whether it’s on the street or the racetrack, means continually focusing on doing better for the future, not getting stuck on what went wrong in the past. It is not that we shouldn’t recognize when we’ve done something wrong—we should acknowledge, examine what happened, and identify what we need to to correct it for the future—but then we need to move on.
People spend way too much time beating themselves up and regretting things throughout their entire lives—in a looping “could’a–would’a–should’a” syndrome. We should channel that energy to positively change, instead.
The great thing about driving is that there’s always another fantastic opportunity to improve your skills.
The bestselling book The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is about a dog whose owner is an aspiring racecar driver, told from the dog’s point of view. If you haven’t read it, you definitely should—you’ll learn a surprising lot about driving, life, love, and loyalty. And also the mantra, “That which you manifest is before you.”
The road can teach us great lessons in moving forward!
Thoughts? Ideas? Questions? I’d love to hear from you. Please continue the conversation by leaving a comment below, or emailing me directly at [email protected].