How I found the cure to stressful driving

Pressure-cooker motoring is on the rise. Sue Baker finds out what it does to your mind
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Deadlines. We all have to live with them. For most people, they are an inescapable fact of life, punctuating our days and measuring our achievements. But have you ever paused to consider how constantly striving to meet deadlines may be having an adverse effect on your driving?

Deadlines. We all have to live with them. For most people, they are an inescapable fact of life, punctuating our days and measuring our achievements. But have you ever paused to consider how constantly striving to meet deadlines may be having an adverse effect on your driving?

A dangerous trend of "deadline driving" has been identified in a survey into motoring habits carried out for the tyre company Bridgestone. More than 1,200 drivers around the country were questioned about their lifestyle and driving patterns.

What emerged was a picture of pressure-cooker motoring, with two out of three journeys being driven against a deadline. On 29 per cent of journeys the pressure is already building before the trip even begins, because the driver sets off later than intended, typically 10 minutes.

Driving against the clock leads to risk-taking and while breaking the odd speed limit or jumping the occasional traffic light may not seem too hazardous in isolation, when multiplied by substantial numbers of drivers doing the same thing, the result is a significant increase in accident potential.

As life gets busier, we all spend more time than ever on the road. An average British motorist spends 11 hours 36 minutes behind the wheel in a typical week, making 28 journeys averaging 25 minutes each. Two out of three drivers admit to taking risks to make up lost time. As a result, one in three has had an accident or near-accident. More than half (52 per cent) say they will break a speed limit when late, even though they may be disinclined to at other times.

Nearly as many admit that they will hurry through traffic-calming measures in residential streets. More than a quarter (27 per cent) will tailgate cars or overtake on the inside, while 21 per cent acknowledge cutting up drivers.

Women feel under greater pressure to pack a lot into a day: 61 per cent say so, compared with 55 per cent of men but they are less inclined to take risks: 71 per cent of male drivers admit to risk-taking when under time pressure, against 59 per cent of women.

Bridgestone commissioned the neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis to conduct an experiment with Sussex motorists. Six of them, three men and three women of differing ages, were asked to drive a 22-mile route on unfamiliar roads. They were monitored for brain and cardiovascular activity to detect physical changes and stress levels. They began the drive under no time constraint, but halfway through were asked to complete the trip against a deadline. The change in behaviour on the second half of the trip was dramatic. Brain activity showed high levels of arousal, and although all rated their own driving "careful and sensible", it wasn't.

For Diane Reagon, a 41-year-old busy mum, the daily school run is a battle against the clock. She likes to think she drives sensibly with her nine-year-old daughter, Isabelle, in the car, but admits that her frustration as the minutes tick away sometimes gets the better of her.

"The drive to school every morning is the most stressful journey I make, because I am worried that I won't get Isabelle to school on time," she says. When asked to drive to a deadline in the Sussex experiment, she repeatedly broke speed limits, became aggressive to slower motorists, raced through a junction and jumped an amber light. Although she said she did not feel stressed, monitoring suggested otherwise: her heart rate rose by 133 per cent during the journey, peaking at 140 beats per minute from a resting rate of 60bpm.

It is not only performance behind the wheel that deteriorates; car maintenance does as well. Six out of 10 drivers check tyre pressures less than once a month, when ideally it should be done weekly.Even a small imbalance in one tyre can make a significant difference in an emergency, as I found at Bridgestone's Aprilia test centre, near Rome.

I was invited to drive two seemingly identical cars at 70kph (43mph) through a coned chicane, representing a sudden evasive lane-change manoeuvre. In fact, there was one small difference between them: the second car had one tyre slightly deflated, by a visually undetectable 1 bar.

In the first car, the sudden swerve presented no difficulty. In the second one, with one soft tyre, the difference was alarmingly noticeable and it was harder to pull up safely without swerving.

I was wired for the test, and the results clearly showed a sharp increase in brain activity and stress when dealing with a drama on the road in a car with a tyre imbalance.

Trying to cram too much into a day is at odds with road safety. And although some deadlines are unavoidable, others are self-inflicted. They are not worth risking our necks for.

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