Drive Slower for Better Health

I should be the last one writing an article like this.

When I was 19 years old I was a parking ticket away from getting my license taken away.  

I drove like an idiot.

I went as fast as I could go, regardless the road or the speed limit.  I was once clocked at 94 in a 65.  I remember the cop cautiously approaching the car with his hand on his gun, wondering what moron could be driving like that at 1am.

I used to pass people constantly on the right, tailgait so close that I could be considered a backseat driver, and even once used my E-brake to make a turn.  

I was “that guy”, driving like I was in the Fast and the Furious.  It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.  I’m lucky to not only have my license, but also my life.

But now I’m older.  And fortunately a little wiser too.

There are many reasons why I don’t drive like a speed demon anymore.  It started with safety and common sense.  But now there’s many more reasons why I go with the flow.

I’ll explain more below.

Moving to NASCAR Land

I had been living in NYC for the prior 8 years.   I didn’t have a lot of car experience during that epoch.  My commute was either on the train or riding my bike.  And when I did drive, it was only for a laid back weekend trip.

Then I moved to metro-Atlanta…

 The only thing weird about this picture of Atlanta is the lack of traffic going into the city ( image source )

The only thing weird about this picture of Atlanta is the lack of traffic going into the city (image source)

It was a shock.

My former young and stupid shenanigans seemed to be the current standard driving method.  But instead of speeding for a quicker commute, people are dangerously speeding with rage.

It was not uncommon to be going 80 mph on I-75 and have someone ride your bumper, waiting for you to move over.  And many times, as they pass they look at you as if you’ve insulted their mother.  Then they would move on to the next car with their anger.

Because of this stressed-out, aggressive driving, there were accidents ALL THE TIME.  And because there were so many accidents, there was a ridiculous amount of traffic in metro-Atlanta.

But it’s not just Atlanta (although it might be overtaking LA for the #1 spot).  Even in laid back Asheville there is constantly traffic on I-26 because of accidents. 

So I started to wonder why this was the case?

Maybe people are bad at time management?  Maybe people aren’t leaving early enough?  Maybe it’s a complementary behavior, as if it’s the cultural norm?  Maybe they’re so focused on their destination that they forget about where they are now?  Maybe they’re not thinking about the consequences that it has on themselves or others?

Or maybe they're bad at math?   

Yes, math.  Because if we do the math, we’ll realize starting and ending our work day in a full fight-or-flight state isn’t worth saving 5 minutes.

And if people are driving fast because they're just trying to save 5 minutes...then there are bigger problems at hand.

Why Driving NASCAR Everyday is Bad for Our Health

Driver Health

Driving in a full fight-or-flight mode isn’t good for our health.  Especially when it’s done in a prolonged seated position where our bodies can’t discharge some of the sympathetic nervous system build up (although some try by using their horn).

When we drive in a stressed-out and hurried state a ton of bad things happen (mainly due to rise in stress hormones/glucocorticoids):

  • High Blood Pressure
  • Increase in Visceral Fat
  • Decrease in Bone Growth (osteoporosis)
  • Mood Dysregulation (depression, anger, anxiety, etc.)
  • Increased Pain / Sensitization
  • Decreased Happiness
  • Decreased Social Awareness
  • Impaired Internal Focus & Regulation
  • Decreased Immunity
  • Increased Cardiovascular Risk
  • Increased Neurodegenerative Risk (Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, etc.)
  • Increased Tissue Damage
  • Fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal Disorders 

Based on this alone we can drastically improve our health if we take become easy riders.

Another consideration is the arousal transfer of our stressed-out driving.  Arousal transfer is when we take a physical and mental state from one activity (angry driving) and transfer it to the next (angry work discussion).

If we’re not careful, we can transfer this aggressive and angry driving into a lifestyle.  We drive stressed and angry, get to work stressed and angry and have a poor performance, come home stressed and angry and treat our loved ones unfairly.  It’s like a country song where we total our car, lose our jobs, our dog runs away, and our significant others leave us.  All because we were trying to save 5 minutes...

Ok, maybe that's a stretch.  But it should be clear that by changing our driving habits we can significantly reduce our stress and improve our health.

Other Drivers

Driving in an aggressive, hurried state isn’t just bad for our own health; it can have a devastating effect on someone else.

I know it’s easy to focus on our own commute and what we have to accomplish during the day.  But we should take a moment to have some compassion for other people.  How our actions affect others.

One consequence is that it stresses out other drivers.  Driving 20 mph over the speed limit, weaving in and out of traffic while honking at people is not only a dick move, but it increases everyone else’s stress levels.

Another consequence, which is much more serious, is that this type of driving causes more accidents.

 Not everyone is this lucky ( image source )

Not everyone is this lucky (image source)

The best outcome of more accidents is that it just causes more traffic.  The effect being that people will have to wait longer to see their families just because someone was trying to arrive 5 minutes sooner.

The worst outcome of these accidents is that they can injure or kill other people.

Driving a 4,000 pound piece of metal at any velocity, let alone at interstate state speeds, makes it a weapon.  Even an accident going 30 mph would exert a force of 2.4 tons on the driver.  An NFL player can top off a tackle with a half ton of force.  Getting in an accident, just at 30 mph, is like being tackled simultaneously by 5 NFL players.  Maybe we should start wearing football gear when we drive.

 This is nothing compared to a car accident ( image source )

This is nothing compared to a car accident (image source)

It’s easy to take a “it won’t happen to me” perspective.  In fact, one study showed that 93% of Americans think they’re better than average drivers.  It’s important to re-read the last sentence.  Maybe you'll notice that it's statistically impossible.  In other words, most people have an illusion of superiority

For more convincing consider this, there were over 40,000 deaths on the road last year.  To put it in perspective, 58,209 people died in the 20 year Vietnam War.  2,996 died in 9/11.  We almost had a Vietnam War on the road last year.  Or we had Thirteen 9/11’s on the road last year. 

 The odds aren't in our favor.  We're better off swimimng with sharks than driving on the interstate.  (image source)

The odds aren't in our favor.  We're better off swimimng with sharks than driving on the interstate.  (image source)

In other words, this is an epidemic we should be worried about.  It’s a problem we should all be working to correct through our own actions.  Because we put other people at risk as soon as we put the keys in the ignition.

What to Do

It’s pretty simple.  Slow down.  Breathe.  Enjoy the ride.  

You can’t control traffic, but you can control your emotions and actions.

Here are some other methods to make the roads safer and to decrease the detrimental effects of driving on our health...

  • Leave earlier in the morning.  Having more room for error will make the slower traffic much less threatening.
  • Talk to your work about working a non-rush hour schedule.
  • Consider the math.  Driving 10mph slower because of the flow of traffic won’t make us more than 5 minutes late.  But you know what will?  An accident caused by hurried driving.
  • Commutes are much longer when we’re in a hurried state.
  • Make the car enjoyable.  Pour a cup of coffee to go in the morning.  Listen to an audiobook or a podcast.  Get some good music queued up on Spotify.  Call a friend (with a hands-free device).  
  • Rest your head back on the headrest.  It's hard to be in a sympathetic state when your cranium is relaxed.
  • Use cruise control if possible. 
  • Try to adapt a window of an ideal speed.  Instead of being fixated on going 75 mph.  Try being content going anywhere from 65-75 mph.  It’s only a 4 minute difference if you’re going 30 miles.  Variability is a healthy thing.
  • Leave space between you and the car in front of you.  There’s a three-second rule.  Pick an object on the side of the road, like a sign.  When the car in front of you passes it, start counting.  If you pass that object before three-seconds then you are likely following at a distance that won’t allow for adequate reaction time.
  • Change the seat position every time you get in the car.  Just a little.  It adds some variability into your body.  Because like our mom's always said, "if you keep making that face, it'll get stuck like that".
  • Realize it’s not a race.  You don't get points for passing someone.
  • Don’t be the aggressive guy that rides everyone’s bumper in attempt to move one spot ahead in traffic.
  • And don’t be the passive aggressive guy that stays in the left lane going the speed limit or slower.  Move over if someone wants to go faster.  Not letting people pass is just as much of an ego trip as trying to pass everyone.
  • Don’t text and drive.  Sometimes I think I see drunk drivers on the road.  But instead they’re texting and swerving all over the place.  Would you sprint and text at the same time?
  • Don’t drink in drive.  Make better plans.  Use Uber/Lyft/Taxis.

One Last Point

Some still enjoy the North versus South rivalry.  Despite all of us being Americans, or even better, all of us being Humans, many still spend a great deal of mental energy comparing the North versus the South.  I think we should be focusing more on individuals morals and actions instead of geography...but I digress.

And yes, I do see the irony in this last passage, since I started this article with a comparison of the cultural driving norms of the South versus the North.  But consider this…

Last year more children died on the road in the South compared to the North.  “The South proved deadliest: 1,550 children died in fatal wrecks.  Safest was the Northeast, with 189 child fatalities.”

It’s hard to dissociate the empirical and statistical correlation of cultural aggressive driving and harm to others.  

However, this statistic shouldn’t be mistaken for blame or relief based on where someone lives.

It's not a location thing.  It's an aggressive and hurried driving thing.   

The only thing we can truly change is how we live our own lives.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where we live.  It matters how we act and how we treat others around us.  And how we drive is another means of how we treat others.

Summary

I’ve heard too many tragic stories from friends, family, and patients about the death of a loved one from a car accident.

So take it easy on the road.  Slow down a little bit and try to enjoy the ride.

It’ll improve our health and save lives.

Donate to MADD

MADD is a non-profit organization that works “ to protect families from drunk driving and underage drinking.  MADD also supports drunk driving victims and survivors – serving one person every eight minutes – at no charge.  Your contribution helps support this important and lifesaving mission.“