Driving in the Real World: Why We Must Drive Better—To Compensate for Others

Driving in the Real World: Why We Must Drive Better—To Compensate for Others

Mar 23, 2021

As a columnist who writes about street driving for a national car magazine (you probably know which one if you receive this publication), I get a steady stream of responses from readers.

Many people are positive and appreciate being empowered with quality information on better street driving technique, situational awareness, and even good-natured explorations into their attitudes toward traffic safety.

Others, however, declare that that’s all very well and good, but what about all those other drivers who continue to tailgate, cut in front of them, and otherwise act horridly. What can we possibly do about those nasty folks and how do we educate them—the ones who need it most? We don’t need to be reminded that there’s an awful lot that we can’t control. But sometimes it’s easy to get locked into a mindset that we’re trapped and defined by circumstance. We simply forget (or never realized) that we can usually overcome more negativity than we assume.

The fact is, we probably can’t get the message out about safety to the most dangerous of repeat offenders—the chronic DUIers, the hooligans who just have to be blindingly faster than others, and the drivers addicted to their smartphones while behind the wheel, to name a few. And, maybe we don’t. After all, it’s usually only a single-digit percentage of people who commit at least half of the most serious or repeat offenses (like drunk drivers). And no matter what is said or done, the vast majority of them won’t listen. But, the rest of us—an overwhelmingly majority—have three powerful tools at our disposal—motivation, compassion, and modeling.

In this case, motivation means that you give a damn. You want yourself, your family, your friends, and even strangers to get home safely and live to see another day. You’re willing to educate yourself about how to be a safer, more aware driver (like reading this article) and to share that information with others. And, as anyone knows, it’s often more effective not to lecture but to share, suggest, praise, and nudge rather than forcing unwanted advice down someone’s throat or getting preachy about things.

Compassion (and its sister, empathy) plays a huge role in getting through much of life, not just driving. A lot of it is about letting go and moving on when something unpleasant happens, or at least not instantly assuming that someone’s else carelessness was a deliberate slight. It doesn’t mean that you need to be happy about what happened; it’s perfectly all right—perhaps necessary— to get annoyed and angry. That’s what gives us our motivation. But it does mean that you have a choice in how you will act and feel, which means not taking revenge, becoming a road-rager, or making an already difficult situation even worse.

It’s also worth remembering that stupidity on the road doesn’t always signal malicious intent; the other driver may have been simply oblivious for any number of reasons. Getting angry at them and trying to educate them on the spot isn’t realistically going to help the situation. And, to be absolutely honest, you yourself have almost certainly triggered that exact situation multiple times for others, and you weren’t even aware of it.

Modeling is actually the single biggest thing we can do, and—even better—it’s the easiest action! We can effect huge change if more of us are simply the drivers we want others to be, because humans naturally copy what their fellow beings are doing, even if they’re not always consciously aware of it. Keeping our speeds down, maintaining better spacing around us, staying out of the left lane except to pass, moving over to let others merge, and giving law enforcement and motorists room during roadside emergencies are all forms of positive modeling. These all lower the road “temperature,” so to speak, which helps keep us and others calmer.

And, absolutely refusing to talk to others on a cell phone (even hands free) while they’re driving and letting them know you won’t converse with them until they’re safely stopped sends a powerful message. Even putting on your email signature something like “Sent from my iPhone, but not while driving” does the same thing. After all, few things are more effective than social disapproval, consistently drip fed. (Which is not to be confused with social shaming, mind you—it’s merely a quiet statement of your boundaries with no lectures or snarky undertones.) Equipped with these three tools, we wield considerable power. We must use them daily and teach our children these values from a very young age, because they’re our best hope for not repeating the behavior we don’t want to see on our roads.

Out on the road, it doesn’t take long to observe that more people than ever are not properly operating a motor vehicle because of electronic distraction, illicit drugs, legal prescription drugs (particularly mood-altering ones), and just regular distraction (a default human condition). We should also remember that Americans as a whole are not trained properly in driver education, especially compared with many European and Asian countries. On top of that, new drivers in more than 45 U.S. states are not required to undergo any training at all to get their license once they turn 18, as long as they can pass the written and road tests. This alone means that their shoddy driving is not so much a character flaw but the cumulative result of an incredibly dysfunctional system that sets them up for failure. And, of course, there are the usual culprits— overconfidence, a lack of perception of danger, complacency, and unreliable judgment.

That is all the more reason for the rest of us to pay the kind of attention that driving deserves and needs, so that we can protect ourselves and others. We should stop getting discouraged and start improving our road community, one of us at a time.

Mi Ae Lipe is a freelance editor and graphic designer in Seattle, Washington, who lives another life as a traffic safety advocate. She blogs on Driving in the Real World, Tweets daily driving news links and tips on Twitter at @DrivingReal, and writes a regular column on street driving for BMW CCA’s Roundel magazine. She is the past recipient of the NHTSA Award for Public Service for her work in driver training in Washington state, and she is also a member of the Washington State Transportation Commission’s Autonomous Vehicle Work Group’s Safety Subcommittee. miae@drivingintherealworld.com