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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 1

How to Be a Better Driver

driving, hands on steering wheel, steering wheel



ANDREY KRASNOV iStockphoto

A Guide to Mastering Your World

When we think about the things we do every day—driving, working, parenting—we realize that even with tasks we are generally good at, there is always room for improvement. Luckily, scientists are on the case. Visit this column in every issue to find tips for acing life.

The Editors

#1 Take up meditation. Driving is the ultimate multitasking activity. Your brain constantly switches among actions—looking for brake lights ahead, checking the mirrors, watching for pedestrians, listening for horns and sirens, glancing at the speedometer (and watching for cops in the rearview mirror if you're speeding). A recent study at the University of Washington found that people who trained in mindfulness meditation two hours a week for eight weeks were better able to focus during multitasking tests than those who never meditated. The training appeared to help them notice interruptions (in the study, a computer alert) without totally losing focus on the task at hand. Although these findings cannot be directly extrapolated to the open road, improving your brain's ability to be focused and nimble is bound to help.

#2 Put your cell phone in the trunk. You already know texting while driving is deadly, but chances are you feel pretty safe using a hands-free cell to chat. After all, it's legal. But those policies are misguided and deceptive, says Paul Atchley, a psychologist in the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Kansas. “All the studies that have been done by cognitive psychologists or that have looked at phone records have found that hands-free and handheld [phone use] lead to the same amount of risk while driving.” It's the conversation, not the act of manipulating a phone, that distracts the brain, Atchley explains. (In-person conversations are much less problematic because the passengers are usually tuned in to driving conditions and able to hold their tongue if necessary.) “It's very difficult for your brain to ignore social input,” Atchley says—we are wired to attend closely to messages coming in from our peers. That's why he recommends you put your phone in the trunk (or turn it off): “If it's within arm's reach, you're going to go for it. Even if the phone's in the glove box. I've seen people engage in all sorts of acrobatics.” You're better off if you just can't hear it.

#3 Drive more. Any complicated activity requires your prefrontal cortex, a high-level control area of the brain, to understand the task's rules and to prioritize information. “Training has a big effect on that,” Atchley says. Younger adults and other less experienced drivers, for instance, are not as good at deciding where to place their attention—they may spend too much time staring at the bumper in front of them instead of looking several cars ahead to anticipate slowing or sudden stops. Frequent driving trains the brain to focus on the right things, Atchley explains. If your experience is lacking, logging some hours behind the wheel will help you sharpen your skills.

#4 Do some downward dog. Good drivers rely on their keen visual perception to avoid sudden obstacles in the roadway and react to shifts in traffic. As strange as it may sound, several studies in India have found that yoga practice may improve exactly that type of visual acuity. In one such report, published in the Journal of Modern Optics in 2007, children and adults who practiced yoga for two months were able to detect that a flashing light was pulsing, rather than held steady, at significantly higher frequencies than control subjects. The meditative qualities of yoga (as per the first suggestion above) are very likely responsible for the improvement.

#5 Assume the worst. At any given time you can assume that at least 10 percent of other drivers are distracted, Atchley says, which studies have found makes them even more dangerous than drunk drivers. Defensive driving courses suggest you pay attention to the cars around you and be prepared for sudden stops or swerves. Atchley says he drives all the time “under the assumption that everyone else is out there to kill me” and doing so, he reports, has saved him from wrecks twice in recent memory.

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