Thinking and Driving – guilty as charged

I was as guilty as any of them. Even so, I was a little put off that the Bureau of Motor Vehicles had ordered me to take a defensive driving course. I was in denial. I thought my two traffic tickets in one year were no big deal. Speeding (85 in a 60 mph zone on my way to the airport at 6 am) and making a right turn on red (with a sign posted indicating the illegality of my maneuver between the hours of 4 and 7 pm).

I made comparisons – they were minor infractions compared to what some people do…I wasn’t a “bad” driver, I was just distracted by my thoughts… I made excuses – that cop was sitting there waiting for me! But the truth is, two tickets in a year and you have to take the course, or have your license suspended.

So I found an approved DSP course online – the description said the estimated time for completing the four chapters was 4 hours! Really? I bemoaned having to spend my precious time and money on something like that! I put off signing up for as long as possible. But with the deadline to complete the course quickly approaching, I had to sacrifice a free weekend to try to knock it out.

I made no other plans, determined to get the task over with. However when the designated weekend rolled around, the weatherman predicted temps in the mid 60s for both Saturday and Sunday (in February!) How could I ever stay inside on a computer taking a driving course when the sun was brilliant and people were out there running around with no coat on?? I got up on Saturday and went to the studio for a dance lesson. But driving home, the air was so nice I changed my plan – When I got home, I decided to clean up my vegetable garden from last year. I might not have another chance for a long while, I reasoned, the outdoors was calling to me, and working in the yard was something I could feel good about!!

Early evening arrived and the sun went down. I started to feel bad for not working on the course. So I made a frozen pizza and booted up my desktop computer. I logged in and clicked the “Get Started” button. The first chapter was auto-narrated, which I thought was kind of nice. As the woman’s peppy voice talked about making sure your vehicle is operationally safe, I took little notes on a sheet of paper – all the numbers and hard to remember facts and acronyms. I wanted to make sure I didn’t have to do it again.

Once the course got past the initial vehicle safety reminders, and into actual driving situations, the instructions kept suggesting that as drivers, we need to look ahead and anticipate trouble, to pay attention to what other drivers are doing 200-300 feet ahead of us, at intersections, pulling out of driveways or side roads, and coming up from behind us as well. We’re supposed to anticipate, even predict what “might” happen with drivers, motorcycle riders, bicyclists, pedestrians, even dogs! We’re supposed to make a plan and decide ahead of time what we’ll do, if….

It seemed impossible – I chalked all of the warnings up to overzealousness of the driver safety program to overemphasize our responsibility behind the wheel. With all of the scary videos and matching games it took me an hour and a half to get through the first chapter! By then, my attitude toward it wasn’t so great, so I turned off my computer and went to bed.

Getting back to the computer on Sunday was just as hard – I completed an hour in the morning thinking I would come back to it later in the day and finish, but I didn’t. It was 11:30 pm on Monday night when I completed chapter three. It was then that I began to give more serious consideration to my driving habits. The course pointed the finger of responsibility right at me and it was true, I needed to be more present while I was driving!

You see, I travel one of two routes to and from work daily – I know the way. I could probably get there in my sleep. And that’s the problem. My mind is hyperactive – so busy thinking while I drive…about blog posts like this, about work, about conversations I want to have, about choreography and dance routines, about family, about food, about projects I want to do around my house, the list is endless. And when I’m thinking, I’m only paying partial attention to what’s happening around me. The truth is, I’m not really present for most of the time I’m in the car.

Let’s face it, driving can be monotonous and boring. Our minds get distracted easily when we’re bored (at least mine does). There’s not much to be excited about driving down the road – you can’t even look at the scenery – only the car in front of you and the ones coming your way – no wonder people text and talk while driving. I used to feel okay with just letting my mind wander – it seemed productive, especially if I was mentally working on something. But the truth is, accidents happen when people “check out” while driving – whether it’s putting on makeup, eating a sandwich, texting a friend, or simply daydreaming.

I finally finished the readings and passed the exam this weekend. First thing Monday morning, I wasn’t a block from home when I came upon a terrible accident scene. Two cars lay shattered, all askew on the road – windshields both crumpled like fractured ice from the head-on impact. Sheets of paper blew all over the road and fluttered in the air like ash from a fireworks display. The bodies had been taken away and the wreckage crew was hooking up the cars to haul them away. Given the extent of damage, I doubt anyone survived. It really hit home for me how hard it is to stay present behind the wheel. I’m guilty of losing focus, not paying enough attention and getting lost in thought. The tickets, the fines, the mandated driving course are evidence that I need to stay present when I drive.

I know that this blog post might not mean very much to you. It wasn’t your experience or your lesson to learn. You certainly don’t need one more person to remind you to stay in the present moment – those words are plastered everywhere these days. But how and when do we even know when we’re not present, when we’re not as aware as we could be? I’m trying now to focus more when I drive, to not think as much. Let me tell you, the habit is tough to break – it’s unconscious, all too easy. But ‘m not about to ignore the subtle warnings of the Universe either. I trust that your life, in its own way, will show you too when and where you need to be more aware. My only advice is to please listen closely when the Universe is telling you things you may, or may not want to hear.

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