Even a casual look around at other drivers on your morning commute will confirm that for many people, driving is an automatic response, something they do with no more awareness than chewing a piece of gum. Many drivers think nothing of checking a map, reading the morning paper, or even sending text messages while driving. I once saw a woman in a mini-van eating a bowl of cereal resting on her steering wheel while she drove 70 mph down the highway with her two small children in the back seats!
A more realistic view of driving is that it is an act which entails great potential for serious, and sometimes irreversible, consequences. Guiding a vehicle weighing several tons, hurtling down the road at highway speeds is an act that requires one’s attention. And while I’m not suggesting that driving should be looked at with any more caution than necessary, one thing is clear: everyone can improve their level of concentration and awareness of their driving. Luckily there are a number of simple techniques you can utilize to focus on and improve your awareness while you drive.
When it comes driving, the most important parts of your anatomy – besides your brain – are your back and backside. Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “driving by the seat of your pants”? It’s not just an odd expression! Improving your driving begins with driving awareness, and driving awareness begins with a focus on of those parts of your body that are the most in contact with your vehicle through the seat. It’s through the nerves and muscles in your back and backside that your brain senses what is going on with your vehicle as you drive.
Awareness, and along with it relaxation, are key aspects doing anything well, so it’s no surprise that in his excellent book “Superdriver” Sir John Whitmore spends considerable time discussing them and providing exercises to help drivers increase both.
He writes, “… here is an exercise to illustrate what I mean when I use the term awareness. (As you sit reading this) Place your attention on the points of contact between you and the seat which supports you. What does the pressure feel like? Where exactly on your body are those points, how hard is the pressure, what is the relative firmness of that pressure on your bottom, your back, and on your feet? Now move, and note how those feelings shift.”
It should be noted that this book was written in 1988, when it was more reasonable than not that a reader was sitting, holding a physical book. Modern readers may adjust this exercise to focus on the points of contact between themselves and the ground, the air, water, or whatever they are in contact with as they read this on their phones, tablets, Google glasses, or whatever. Where you are and what you’re doing don’t matter. Only the focus does.
Sir John continues, “… close your eyes and you may be able to feel more, as this will eliminate the dominant visual sense on which we are normally so dependent. Your tactile sense ‘expands’ to fill the gap and make up for the lack of vision.
“Now check through your body inside your skin, starting with your toes. Notice any feelings of warmth or coolness, tension or tiredness. Notice what you feel in each part of your body. Don’t judge it, don’t analyze it, just experience it.
“Now move a little and notice how the experience of different parts of your body changes. Experience and enjoy those feelings in the same passive way as you would hear and enjoy the sounds of a piece of music: one phrase after another, non-judgmentally.”
And this exercise, practiced numerous times, leads to a direct application to driving (though with the eyes open)!
“Now do the same thing while you are driving. To begin with, try it for short periods of time.
“As you are driving, focus on the pressure points between you and the seat, your hands and the wheel, your feet and the pedals when you push them. Notice the sensations and feel them change.
“Check inside your body also. Notice any tightness, tiredness, or discomfort in your muscles. Don’t try to do anything about it, just register it in as much detail as you can. What exactly is the sensation? Where exactly in your body do you experience it? When does it occur as you drive? All the time, or only when traffic is heavy, for example? How strong is the sensation? Call it five as it is now, on a scale of one to ten and notice if it increases or decreases as you watch it. Keep rating it on that scale for a while.
“You will find that as you maintain your focus upon it, the numbers will decrease and the discomfort will dissolve. You may find yourself altering your position in the seat or even wanting to move the seat. Go ahead and do it–your body is telling you what it wants, and, like an athlete, you are now listening to your body.”
Many people take driving for granted. They get in their cars and they go where they want, but they do it in a way that’s disconnected from the experience. Driving to them is a necessary evil, a boring (and often anxiety-inducing) means to end. Nothing more.
But I find the act of driving an immensely enjoyable experience, and more so as I focus on what my body feels as I do it. I’ve felt this same enjoyment in slow-motion, stop-and-go city traffic and I’ve felt it on the race track at the very limits of car control. The key to that enjoyment, I find, is awareness of how your body and your vehicle relate to each other.
And while you may not aspire to be a world famous race car driver (not that I am one, mind you!), there are so many aspects to performance driving that apply to daily driving as well. And at the very least, as you elevate your general driving skills you can transform your boring, daily commute into an almost sensual experience.
And who wouldn’t want that every day?!