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?”