Driving Lessons: Change Your Perception of Other Drivers on the Road

It is likely that driving is the most dangerous thing you do each day. Even when we’ve reached a point of comfort and boredom with driving, after we’ve acquired some not so safe habits of driving there remains within us a system that stays on high alert. This constant state of underlying vigilance leads us to having higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol. As we drive, little by little, with each time we have to unexpectedly brake or swerve our amygdala is recognizing danger and threat. We should be thankful to have such functions working within us. It is the part of the brain that is on the lookout, protecting us. It is, however, this constant “looking out” that colors our perception of the road, and our perceptions of other drivers.

As a driving instructor I’m am frequently hearing about how terrible all the other drivers on the road are. If this were actually true, there would be far more traffic incidents than already occur. But, with that being said, most of us do have room for improvement (myself included).

There are two things we can understand about our amygdala and it’s function that might help how we perceive other drivers on the road.

Think back to the last time you were on the road. It will probably be easier to recall the person who cut you off without using a turn signal rather than the hundreds who followed the rules of the road. The same brain function that protects us by constantly looking for problems and threats causes us to focus on the more dangerous driving.

As our amygdala’s main function is to sense danger and protect us, it is not so well equipped to distinguish a minor threat from a major threat. All threats are dangerous to the amygdala, and once the amygdala senses danger, we are unable to utilize the logical thinking part of our brain to plan or problem solve. This hypersensitivity to danger followed by a change in cognition may cause us to overact, responding in a way where we become the actual threat to others on the road. We might rage or engage in other risky behaviors (weaving in an out of traffic, slamming on the breaks) without the full comprehension in the moment of the dangers of these actions. While many of the drivers around us will steer clear to avoid us others will respond in kind creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Now the people who are left driving around us really are bad drivers with little self control (at least for the moment).

If we can learn to control the way we respond to our feeling of being threatened on the road, we become better drives and let the “bad drivers” go with any need to engage with them. But, how?

This starts with recognizing that all the other drivers on the road are not that bad. In fact most are pretty good. And the ones who we perceive as being bad might actually have a good reason. I’m guessing most likely they are human, that’s often reason enough. When you notice yourself being quick to judge another, or you feel your body tense as you begin to want to respond to another driver, ask yourself this: Am I really that good all the time? Do I really know why that other person is driving the way that they are?

It is easy to assume that drivers in other cars are robotic “bad drivers” with no feelings or thoughts of their own. We never know what someone else is going through, but when we don’t even see their face, it becomes easier to lump them into categories, causing us to feel more threatened and to possible respond in more dangerous ways.

Practice forgiveness, practice kindness, and practice seeing those “good drivers,” too.