Stress and the driving task

As it happens, I've just received an email from the editor of one of the publications I write for, saying that he needs this article over a week ahead of the normal deadline, due to holiday commitments. As I opened and read his mail, I could feel a few, minor, physiological changes taking place in my body: slight rise in pulse rate and temperature, as examples.

Allied to these changes were conscious, unspoken thoughts: Why has he left it so late? How will I find time to write this? Is this a challenge of some sort? What happens if I flunk it and let him down?

And, to be frank, so far today hasn't been the best of days. There was a power cut last night which meant that the alarm didn't go off; the dog's barking eventually woke me up, but the downside to that and the reason she'd been barking was that she'd been sick all over her bedding. That'll be another visit to the vet then...

I had to heat the water for my morning tea on the gas hob and managed to scald my hand whilst I was pouring it out - and when I was trying to find a suitable dressing for the wound, practically everything fell out of the bathroom cabinet.

At this point, I'm already running 30 minutes late; I have a meeting 40 miles away in one hour's time and I've just heard that there is a signal failure on the train line I'm supposed to be taking (I'd normally drive but the car's in for service).

I've been preparing for the meeting for weeks and I think that it's unlikely we'll retain the business if I don't get the presentation 'just right'. And if we lose this contract, well, it'll be more than just my job on the line.

Ok, I'll admit that there's some poetic license in the above. This day hasn't (so far) been quite as bad as that but it's perhaps not unrepresentative of the type of succession of events, many of them seemingly out of our own control, that can and do cause us some of the triggers for stress.

Ironically, when I feel stressed I have been known to go for a drive. I find that driving is an absorbing and focussing activity; I inwardly curse if I find myself doing anything 'automatically'; it settles my breathing and becomes a three-dimensional 'chess game': How can I always stay one step ahead of the other road users?; what haven't I seen yet that I should have?; what's the best position for this bend?; is that cyclist wearing earphones?; does that dawdling couple (possibly foreign tourists) standing by the zebra crossing - do they intend to cross? Do they even understand what the purpose of the crossing is? It's hard work, driving, there's so much to think about!

Now, I understand that talking of driving as a form of stress relief is somewhat contrary to the norm. But I'm odd like that.

For most drivers driving is actually a very stressful activity because, for most of the time most drivers aren't really, honestly connected with the task. The driving is a means to the end (in its most literal sense) and not the end. For me, it's the end.

So ignore me for a second and let's think of how stress works and how it reduces your potential to be a good driver.

On that day when everything has already gone wrong in your plans (the failed alarm, the sick dog, the weather perhaps, the missed breakfast etc.), you hop in the car for a relatively short journey to work or to your appointment. You are in a bit of a hurry and, to cap it all, there's a bit of a jam on the road, due to road works. You set off again and, without warning, some 'idiot' cuts you up in his (or her) desperation (also) to make up for lost time.

You have to brake sharply and swerve a little to avoid a collision.

At this point your adrenaline (the fight or flight response mechanism) kicks in. Adrenaline is released into the body only for short periods with the purpose of preparing you for pretty instant action. If neither 'fight' nor 'flight' are available options, for example in those few seconds following a collision near miss, the adrenaline effectively has nowhere to go. Over time the episodes (which can be all sorts of different things) in which adrenaline is produced but un-used, bring about other changes in the bio-chemistry of the body - it's a cumulative effect. The most notable of these is cortisol - often referred to as the stress hormone.

In addition to some of the well-recognised deleterious effects of high levels of cortisol in the body (notably the role it plays in heart disease) stress affects an individual's performance in a number of key areas, for example:

  • Fatigue, sleep or insomnia
  • Ability to concentrate or focus on one task
  • Mental acuity, or the extent to which areas of the 'higher brain' can function or be accessed
  • The propensity towards aggressive behaviour (road rage?)
  • Creation and maintenance of relationships both at home, in social settings and at work

It's not difficult to see how these aspects of an individual's performance impact on a wide variety of activities - not least that of driving itself.

In summary, it's a bit of a circular chain of events. A huge variety of inputs in our lives have the potential to raise our stress levels to a point whereby our performance in a wide cross-section of activities may be seriously impaired. Driving, for many people, is in itself a stressful thing to do. The more stressed we are, the worse as drivers we'll be; and the worse drivers we are, the more likely we are to be crash-involved.

Fortunately, driver stress is something which can now be measured (in terms of specific performance criteria), monitored, managed and improved upon.

For a veritable wealth of information on stress management go to www.nfegroup.co.uk and click on Performance on Demand.

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