How to Keep Your Cool Behind the Wheel

Don’t let other drivers ruin your day.

I have a short commute, and I still pass hundreds of cars on my way to and from work. Let’s say it’s a thousand. Statistically, 50–70 of those thousand drivers are experiencing some degree of road rage. Sometimes, I’ll admit, I’m one of them.

There is a Jekyll and Hyde transformation that can take place when we get behind the wheel. It doesn’t happen every time, and some people transform more readily than others. It’s prevalent enough that Disney documented the behavior in the 1950 Goofy cartoon “Motor Mania”, where mild-mannered Mr. Walker transforms into the raging motorist Mr. Wheeler.

Here are some tips and things to think about so that you are more Walker than Wheeler.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockPhoto/Carlos_bcn

  1. Give yourself plenty of time. For me, personally, this is the biggest factor in how calm I am when driving. We often underestimate how long it will take us to get out the door, and we’re too optimistic about the travel time involved. Google Maps or iOS’s Maps app can give you a rough estimate, but allow extra time for traffic congestion, stop lights, and finding a parking space. You’ll be much more relaxed behind the wheel if you don’t feel rushed.
  2. Give the benefit of the doubt. Have you ever been distracted, or rushed, and accidentally cut someone off? We all have. And right or wrong, we have our reasons why we did it. The baby was crying, and we suddenly realized we were in the wrong lane. Maybe we’re trying to show up on time to the school play, or our wife’s in labor. These things happen. Instead of getting mad at someone for doing exactly what you’ve done before, let it go. Extend the same grace, compassion, and understanding to them that others have extended to you.
  3. Remember the example you’re setting for your kids. A friend of ours had a wake-up call when she heard her three-year-old shout, “Come on! Move it already!!” from the back seat as soon as they light turned green. Kids are a great mirror to help you see your personal blind spots, and a great reason to improve yourself.
  4. Don’t take it personally. I know it may seem that way sometimes, but that Corolla didn’t single you out just to make your life miserable. Nobody plans their day around making you late for work. They’re just running late, too. Besides, if you hadn’t insisted on fitting in one more thing before heading out the door, you wouldn’t even be running late yourself.
  5. Be glad nothing worse happened. When someone really cuts you off and you have to slam on the brakes, be glad it wasn’t worse. Nobody got hurt. There was no accident. If there was, keep your cool as you exchange insurance information.
  6. It just isn’t worth getting mad over. People are willing to spend vast sums of money in the pursuit of happiness. There are entire industries built around it. How much of a price do you put on your happiness? Are you willing to throw it away just because someone isn’t driving up to your standards? If so, you’re giving them way too much control over you. Choose your response. Hakuna matata. Let it go.
  7. Learn from their example. Finally, consider learning from their example. Are they driving slower than you are because the roads are wet? Ask yourself why you aren’t being as cautious as they are. Did they wait for a wider gap before turning left across oncoming traffic? Why would you have taken a greater risk than they did? Sometimes, we get mad at other drivers just because they’re driving differently than we would, even though they’re driving more responsibly than we are.

There’s something about getting behind the wheel of a car that makes us more likely to lose our cool. Maybe it’s the anonymity, the chance to vent other frustrations that have built up because the can’t hear us shouting at them. Maybe it’s correlation (not causation) and we just happen to be driving at times when we’re more stressed (going to work, or running errands).

Either way, when you’re behind the wheel, it’s a great time to practice self-mastery. You can’t control the actions of other drivers, but you can control how your respond.

Question: Your turn. What advice would you give me on how to keep my cool behind the wheel? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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