Becoming a more mindful driver through physics

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by Amberella
By: Hamed SaberCC BY 2.0
Like many people, I spend a fair amount of time in the car, in traffic. I hate it, it makes me unreasonably angry.

When I'm on the highway and traffic slows to a crawl, then after a stretch speeds up again and I can't find an explanation, I shout "Why did we spend the last three miles going 10MPH? Did everyone lose their minds for a moment; is it a plot? Why is this happening to me?" It's not pretty to watch, and it's not fun to live through.

The other day I read the article, "The Physics Behind Traffic Jams" and it blew my mind. The author, William Beaty, explains traffic through using physics, what he calls vehicular fluid dynamics (imagine cars in traffic like water molecules, and if that doesn't help, don't worry there are diagrams), and even as a non-scientist I understood what he was talking about because he was explaining phenomena I witnessed every day.

He goes a step further and lists concrete things drivers can do to help unsnarl traffic. The advice was pretty simple: keep a lot of space between you and the car in front of you, don't attempt to punish people who try and cut in, if possible let more than one person merge ahead of you. But beyond the practical advice he provides, the article really helped me think differently about myself as a driver.

Here's what I learned:

One person in traffic can make a difference.

A lot of my anger in traffic was because I felt so incredibly helpless. I felt like traffic was something that happened to me, and I couldn't escape it (no matter how hard I tried to accelerate to make up time lost). But now I know that if I drive with enough space in front of me, I can help the people behind me and that breaks up traffic snarls. How powerful is that?

Since one person can make a difference, as a driver on the road I have a responsibility to all the other drivers to drive well.

Because I always thought of traffic as something that happened to me, I viewed every other driver on the road as an obstacle to overcome, and these obstacles were keeping me from driving the speed limit. This led to pettiness on my part and a jealous guarding of my space in traffic; I would think "I can't let too much space get in front of me or some jerk will cut in!" and "Look at that guy driving on the shoulder to cut in line for merging! I hate that guy, I'm not letting him in, and that will teach him!" But doing these things negatively impacts the people behind me, and it makes it worse for everyone. I cannot control the behavior of other people, and it isn't my job to punish their selfish behavior through pettiness.

Additionally I don't have an inalienable right to drive the speed limit (or a little over); if traffic is heavy it's better to go continuously slower, than jerk forward only to later slam to a stop.

In order to drive responsibly, I have to drive mindfully.

I have to watch the road around me to make sure I provide lots of space in front of me and I have to pay attention to where I am so I have plenty of time to merge lanes in a reasonable manner. I have to focus on driving, instead of trying to use time in the car to do other things (like eating, something I am totally guilty of).

Although I try to keep all this in mind, it's really easy to fall back into old habits. The good news is that I have plenty of opportunities to practice mindful driving.

These days if you happen to pass me in the car, instead of hearing my daily shout at everyone in my way, you'll hear me quietly repeating "I am a good, responsible water molecule. I am a good, responsible water molecule…"

What are YOUR driving tips for being a "good, responsible water molecule?"

  1. When I lived in a city, I found that people actually knew how to merge, and it made everything go so much smoother! When a road is going from 2 lanes down to 1, people occupied both lanes the whole way to the merge point, and then took turns merging. You were still going slower, but normally you wouldn't have to completely stop.

    Now that I am back in the country, there's always a long line in one lane that's at a stand still, and then you have people speeding up the other lane and cutting in front of people. I try to get around this by driving slowly in the other lane to at least block the people speeding up it. But then I still have to rely on a kind soul to let me merge since your right to merge isn't guaranteed like it was in the city.

    • Yes! Why is this? It's like people think they are "in line" like at at store… No… it's not like that. The DOT here even had a nice press release teaching people to use the whole length of the lane, and had to give it a cute nick-name. The "Zipper" merge or something….

    • I notice that when I am driving on the highway with semi trucks, one of them will drive slow in the lane that is merging, to keep people from cutting off other drivers. It untangles the traffic snarl and keeps everyone safer.

      • Especially since semi and other large trucks can't stop as fast as cars can, so I think they have to keep extra space.

  2. There was a time when I was getting pretty bad road rage on a regular basis. Driving was something that left me really angry and stressed. I've learned to put it behind me, which is good since I now have a 45 to 60 minute commute one way every day. What helped me was first giving myself plenty of time to get places, as well as avoiding peak traffic times. This means I have to get up about an hour earlier to get to work, but avoiding the stress of heavy traffic and spending less time in the car was worth it to me. It also means that my morning commute often occurs around sunrise and it's hard to be pissed when you're driving next to a beautiful sky. Additionally, I started letting people merge into my lane whenever someone shows the inclination to get over. It's kind of silly, but it just makes me feel like I'm being a good person and that karma will get me back by making someone else let me in when I need to change lanes at some point. Finally, I find that an open window (assuming it's not too hot or cold) and the right music makes me much calmer and more accepting of my fate when I do get stuck in traffic.

    • I totally agree about giving enough time to get places. I had to let go of how much time I think it -should- take me to get places, and accept how much it actually -does- (and then add a little extra time because of things I can't anticipate).

      I also have been experimenting with an open window. I definitely didn't realize how isolated I could be in the car until I rolled down the window and realized I could hear people talking three cars up. Then I realized I play music really loudly in the car when it's just me.

      So, now if I hear a good song, I roll my windows up so I can sing along and not bother everyone around me.

      • This is EXACTLY what I do. First I have anxiety about being late, so I ALWAYS leave earlier than I need to. Then, when I undoubtedly hit LA traffic, it's no sweat. I also drive with my windows down because it's more of a sensory experience that way. BUT when an awesome song comes on, I roll up the windows and belt it out, bro. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. I agree with leaving more room! Tailgaiters are a pet peeve of mine. I didn't realize it helped with traffic jams though, I just think of it as a safety thing. I learned to drive in Oregon, where people are curteous drivers, and now I live in California. I refuse to drive in the bay area. It stresses me out.

    • That's so interesting to me, because I grew up in the Bay Area, so I feel really comfortable there! When I (briefly) lived in Atlanta, I had to stop driving because it was stressing me out (people were waaay more assertive there than I could handle, and the street signs weren't as prominent as I was used to. End result, I got lost or nearly lost a lot and people honked at me a lot). My boss in Atlanta had gone to school in Seattle and she told me she couldn't take how oblivious (her word, not mine!) Seattle drivers were. So…yay regional differences!

      • I just recently drove through downtown Atlanta for my first time last week. My goodness, you gotta go balls to the wall to drive appropriately down there! I think I missed all of my turns at least twice, even with a GPS.

    • Portland, OR has the worst drivers I have ever encountered. Ubiquitously, people sit in my blind spot and don't allow me to move over unless I SLAM on my brakes and zip in behind them–and even then they enjoy slamming on their brakes and not letting me over anyway. At least half of the people who have done this to me have been laughing while they do it, and it's everyone from obnoxious high school kids to middle-aged folks to old people with nothing better to do with their time than fuck around with other drivers. The other half of the people who have done this to me were talking on their cell phones and rather than watching THE ROAD and the world around them were just sitting next to another car and following their actions. Oh, that car is speeding up, traffic must be speeding up, I'd better stick with it. Oh, that car is slamming on their brakes, something must be happening, I'd better slam on my brakes too.

      When it takes me 5 miles to merge lanes because people won't let anyone over, there is a problem.

      I also once got called a "Seahawks Loving Bitch" (by a guy who had been honking at me for three minutes already) for having a Washington plate and refusing to smash through the people in front of me and run a red light. It is hardly my fault I am second in line in the right turn/thru lane behind people going thru and the light is cycling through every direction but ours. That jerk-nozzle had to sit and stare at my middle finger for the next 8 minutes until the light finally turned. I may BE a Seahawks Loving Bitch, but if you're going to be an unobservant jerk you'd better include my Mariners in there too!

  4. It's only in the last few months that I've been doing this when the traffic is really congested (thanks, major-highway-overhaul construction!). Not only have I realized that I'm saving fuel by not continually negating my gas usage with braking, but it's made a world of difference in my mood when stuck in traffic. Frustration replaced with the zen of moving slowly-but-continuous.

    There are still plenty of drivers who don't understand what I'm doing and pass me to jump into my following gap — which amuses me because they often remain right in front of me for several more miles stop-and-go-ing, saving themselves nothing.

  5. I try really hard not to get stressed out in traffic. If I'm really stuck in a stand-still, or almost stand-still, I roll down the window and get out a container of bubbles that I keep in the car to blow out the window. It makes some other drivers smile, which makes me feel good, too. Some drivers glare at me, but they are just jealous that they are not having as much fun. ๐Ÿ™‚ haha

  6. I have always found my drives easier and less stressful when I remember to slow down and leave space in traffic. Also, always respect the zipper when merging! Be the nice guy and let someone in front of you; even if that guy in the other lane is an impatient D-bag and totally jumped the line.

  7. I have found that every city has a unique attitude when driving. Once you suss it out, it's much easier to anticipate what the people around you are going to do:

    Pittsburgh – Friendly. Everyone has been in that place where they realize they're about to cross the wrong bridge or get shunted down a one-way street they didn't want, so they're pretty forgiving of when you need to change lanes RIGHTNOW. Four way intersections can become a fustercluck when every other driver is waiting for someone else to go first.

    Raleigh – Aggressive. Turn signals are a challenge. Honestly you're probably better off not using them to change lanes because far too often someone will zoom up into your blindspot to cut you off. When it's raining everyone freaks out.

    Orlando – Angry and clueless. The traffic is a mixture of lost tourists blindly following their GPS and angry, angry locals (they are angry at the tourists). Expect everyone on the road to either cut you off or try to merge into you. As you get closer to Disney property just assume there's a bounty on your head.

    Austin – Somewhat . . . entitled? Not defensive enough to pay attention to what you're doing, not aggressive enough to be prepared when you make an aggressive maneuver. They're just going to keep doing what they're doing no matter what you're doing. The bicyclists are very smart however. I'm still getting used to Austin.

    • As a Tampa driver, can I say that your Orlando bit is spot on and hilarious? I'm sharing it. I avoid going through Orlando as much as possible, especially if it's any time other than 1-5a.m.

    • Man, I really found out those regional differences when I moved cross country. I was always told drivers in NY (where I'm from) are awful, so I figured anywhere else would be easy. NOPE. Yeah, NYC and the surrounding area is pretty bad, but upstate has pretty good drivers, probably some of the best I've experienced, and most everyone is really good in the snow.

      Midwest drivers? Nuh-uh. We're in Iowa and last winter I had someone cause me to get in a really bad accident. (And didn't even check to see if I was okay, just kept going.) Honestly, they're pretty awful at it out here, especially in the snow. Oh and the tailgating! The speed limit is 70 out here and they will crawl RIGHT up your ass without a second thought even if you're going like 72. It's terrifying. Perfectly nice people until they're behind the wheel of a car, it seems.

      I've been to some surrounding states. Missouri's insane, or at least St.Louis is, and we had someone try to run is off the road. Minnesota is a little better than Iowa, but not to much. Nebraska was actually pretty okay though, except for those weird lanes that are one direction sometimes, and a different direction at others.

  8. This isn't a criticism of anyone in particular, but I have always been taught to leave a lot of space in front of me and go at a slow and even speed. My mom drove like that, her dad drove like that, and that's the way I learned as well. I have never understood why nobody else does it, and why they honk and me for going slowly… I'm fixing it, you idiots! Glad to see that I've been right all along.

    • Yup, as a long-time driver of a stick-shift that means I pick a gear and stick with…I'm not going to bother going from 1st to 3rd gear 400 times, so I'll just hang out in 2nd gear, thank you very much. This almost always led to huge gaps with the car in front of me, and I always regretted when I decided to close the gap because as soon as I got into 3rd I'd be hitting my brakes a moment later.

      Now, in retrospect, I wonder if the annoyed drivers behind me were really benefiting from me "absorbing" the wave! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • It's patience. Or lack thereof. Especially up here in New England. People up here live such fast paced lives, going from one thing to another so quickly, they overbook and underestimate on time and speed like crazy so they can get from one place to another as "efficiently" as possible. It's a really hard mentality to switch off. I don't know about other parts of the country, but up here it's all "me first" agression. Worse when you get near cities, like Boston. Places like that, if you're not an aggressive driver at some merging intersections you literally can't get anywhere without eventually sticking your nose out and asserting yourself, which is TERRIFYING if you're from someplace more rural.

      I wish more people passed on info like the original post here. Not that everyone would listen (some people are far too stuck in their ways) but some people are simply ignorant and might change their ways once educated, and maybe just maybe pass that on to the next generation as your family has–which is all the more important as our population grows! Speaking of which…it's a shame modern life isn't so conducive to carpooling. As a culture it'd be really lovely to work on THAT too =/

  9. This sounds kind of unsafe when I type it out, but I promise it's not: when I'm stuck in traffic, I make it like a game to come to a full stop as little as possible…not by getting up in people's butts, but by hanging back and just coasting, which has the bonus that it's easier for people to merge into my lane if they want. If we all just coasted through instead of jumping on the gas to move 5 feet and then stopping dead again, it would be a lot easier.

    • What you're describing is exactly what William Beaty suggests doing!

      If you don't jerk forward and slam to a stop and instead you coast along leaving a two car gap, you will have space (and time) to negotiate small changes in speed of the cars ahead of you without breaking, making it easier on the cars behind you (if your speed is slow but constant, they can predict you better so they don't accelerate too fast and then hit the breaks and pass the traffic jam to the people behind them).

      When Beaty tried this out on a highway around Seattle, he was able to break up traffic (in that after a few miles of him doing this the people for MILES behind him were going way faster than the other lanes and were evenly distributed).

      He calls this behavior "anti-traffic, and I think it's really neat.

  10. The one think that acutely stuck with me from driver's ed was this: "Be the lone wolf." Drivers tend to drive in groups, like sheep in a herd. If there's a group ahead of you and a group behind you, be the lone wolf. Leave the space.
    I repeat that to myself often when I'm driving. It's sort of meditative, too. "Be the lone wolf."

  11. Thank you for your considerate driving tips! My husband read that physics article too and now drives with plenty of space from the car in front to "smooth out" his speed so he doesn't stop and start and allows merging cars in. It's amazing though that he gets honked at by angry drivers behind him thinking he's taking up too much space!

  12. Please don't be the person waiting until you are in the taper to merge! As a person who used to run traffic control for a paving company, I take it personally. I had to start using road flares to take the lane before I could set my barrels because apparently people fear running over a flare more than me!
    Having driven a broad range of large vehicles, a little physics on weight and stopping distance is good to keep in mind when you go to cut off a large/ loaded vehicle. Not to mention center of gravity and how that impacts stability when swerving to miss someone!
    Physics, common sense and little courtesy ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. Ok, so this might make me sound like an angry little old man…but the right lane of the highway is for driving, and the left hand lane is for passing! Seriously, they taught me that way back in Driver's Ed, but it seems like either they are not teaching it anymore or nobody cares anymore. Because when I'm on the highway, now, it seems like everyone thinks the left hand lane is the "drive really really fucking fast and never get over" lane. Which means that when you need to get over left to allow other cars to merge onto the highway from an onramp, you can't, because there are 25 idiots over there all stacked up each other's asses trying to go 90 in the 65. And if you do manage to get over left to let traffic onto the highway, you won't be going fast enough for that one guy in the douchemobile who needs to be going 115…so he'll climb all the way up your ass and then pass you on the right and narrowly miss hitting the merging traffic that you moved over for in the first place. There is a special place in hell for people who pass on the right.

    And while I agree that letting other people merge speeds traffic along and avoids traffic jams…I so wish I had a hood mounted flamethrower for that one guy who always has to wait till the absolute last second and try to get ahead of everyone else when lanes are narrowing. The signs telling you that a lane is about to end start at 250 feet most places…everyone else managed to read them and go ahead and get over, so what makes that guy special? I still let people in (and get honked at, more often than not) but I say bad words while I'm doing it. Man, I used to really enjoy driving, but it seems like there are so many people on the road constantly now, and so many bad drivers out there, that I can hardly stand to do it anymore.

    • "There is a special place in hell for people who pass on the right." I so agree. Especially on 3 lane highways where both the cars on the right and the left try to pass the slow car in the middle lane at the same time.

      If there's not a lot of traffic, everyone should get over when they see the sign. There's no reason not to if there are like 2 cars on the highway. But when there is a lot of traffic, the "zipper" method works better. To facilitate this, I've been driving the same speed staggered in the other lane to prevent those assholes from speeding up ahead of a whole line of cars. And I rely on the good karma of not jumping line myself and preventing those who do for someone to actually let me merge at the taper. And it gives me a sense of control, so that's really why I do it, haha.

  14. If you want to lean alot about driving, drive a large (26 ft+) box truck or a tri axle dump for a few days. I was driving a cabover on I90 near Buffalo once, and had the crap scared out of me by someone who merged with 3 feet to spare. There is no crumple zone, and the 2000 lb engine was actually behind me on that truck. Oh, and big trucks can't stop quick. We just can't… that whole law of physics thing again. 80,000 lbs takes alot of brake to stop. Also, blind spots. Don't tailgate big trucks, or hang out along the sides. If a mirror isnt adjusted just right, we can't see you.

  15. I do a LOT of driving, between a long commute to work, and visiting my love three hours away. The things I wish I could teach all my fellow drivers:

    1. Use your blinker! This should be instinct and common sense.

    2. If someone has their blinker on to get into your lane, accommodate them if you can do it safely, especially if it's a big truck or bus. You know you appreciate it when other people let you move over.

    3. If cars are stacking up behind you, move over. If there's just one lane and there are multiple cars stacked up behind you, pull over when you can and let them pass. This goes double if you know you drive on the slow side, or if you're not familiar with the area. It goes triple if the person behind you is signalling that they want to pass you.

    4. Avoid driving in other cars' blind spots. These are usually the back corners of cars – especially longer ones, like minivans and wagons.

    5. GET OFF YOUR PHONE! You don't drive as well as you think you do when you're on the phone.

    6. Give the person in front of you who's driving too slow a chance to move over. There's a good chance they see you tailgating them, and want to get out of your way when it's safe to do so. Don't pass them up the right before they get the chance.

    7. Highbeams: turn them off when there are other cars in front of you. You don't want to blind the people driving towards or in front of you. Common sense, yes?

    8. A yield sign is NOT a stop sign! Slow down enough to make sure you're good to go, and go! You only have to stop if another car is coming that would hit you if you don't stop.

    Short version: don't be a jerk; treat others how you want to be treated.

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