Driving gets most of us in a tizzy. The endless stopping and starting, the traffic jams and the right-hand-turn-only lane when you’re desperate to go left. The peak-hour traffic experience is the stuff of nightmares. But how stressful is driving really? As part of an RTE documentary entitled Mean Streets, I agreed to be monitored for one day while driving. Over the course of the day, my pulse and heart rate was recorded to see whether the body reacted in any way to different conditions on the road.
While I consider myself a calm driver, my results told a different story. Under stress our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, general senses are heightened, and oxygen is sent to our muscles to get them ready to go. My heart rate and blood pressure reflected the traffic conditions and rates peaked when merging on to motorways, complex junctions and in situations of heavy traffic.
With so much stress building inside us all at peak times, it is little wonder that tempers can fray. According to a Millward Brown Survey conducted exclusively for Mean Streets, more than half of road users surveyed experienced aggressive road behaviour in the past year. More than one-fifth of us have been tailgated by another driver and one in 20 was confronted by another motorist face to face.
Sudden braking, tailgating, excessive horn beeping or driving against the clock – all these are common incidents that cause increased stress levels and in the extreme will cause drivers to commit violence against fellow road users.
“Day in, day out someone else is telling them how to be, so then when they get in the car they want to exert their control,” says psychotherapist Zita Stanley, who treats people with road-rage issues in her clinic. “We forget cars are killing machines if they’re not handled with due care.”
Financial stresses, early commutes and bad road surfaces all add to the congestion and create an atmosphere that could potentially lead to more accidents. Ageing vehicles also contribute; the average age of cars on our roads is now nearly nine years old.
“Something funny happens to human psychology when you’re in a car,” says Conor Faughnan, from the AA Roadwatch. “There’s a tendency to feel entitled to the road space in front of you. Now that is an irrational reaction. You are actually in a public space, but it doesn’t feel like a public space, it feels private. So in that context people give vent to their reactions.”
From bike couriers, Dublin Port Tunnel workers to private clampers Mean Streets highlights the bad manners and bad driving that has become a feature of Irish roads. Last year saw an increase in the number of people killed on the roads the first time since 2005. There is clearly something going very wrong on our roads.
The long-term solution to better and safer driving is likely to lie in improved education for drivers, a more rigorous driving test and better transport options. While Transport Minister Leo Varadkar may confidently assert that there is “not a direct correlation” between the decrease in the number of traffic gardai and increase in the number of road deaths, the current figures appear to suggest that a visible garda presence is a factor for safer roads.
Top 10 tips for avoiding road rage
1. Forget work or home worries when you are behind the wheel. Concentrate on your driving.
2. Plan your journey, leaving plenty of time for unexpected delays. Know where there are road works and listen to traffic reports.
3. Don’t retaliate. Never take the other driver personally.
4. When you merge into another lane, leave plenty of room and use indicators before making a move.
5. Tailgating is a principal cause of anger, leave an adequate gap between you and the vehicle in front.
6. Be polite, even when others are not, and never make eye contact with an angry driver.
7. If an aggressive driver is trying to pass you, let them.
8. If you make a mistake, apologise using an appropriate gesture.
9. Count slowly from one to 10 if you are tempted to jump out of your car in fit of rage.
10. You can’t control other drivers but you can control the way you react so be patient, stay calm and drive safely.
A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Independent
30th January, 2014