Car Culture: Driving can get you to a calmer place

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

‘I’ve heard it exclaimed on more than one occasion that someone was going to go for a drive and ‘clear their mind,’” Solan McClean writes in his 2016 book “Learning to Drive into the Now: PRND” (practice, relax, now drive), which teaches meditation techniques to practice calm driving.

“If I am in a bad mood I tend to drive more aggressively. If I am feeling tranquil, I am more apt to drive closer to the posted speed limit and be far more courteous to other drivers,” says McClean, who instructs readers to change their stress-ridden commutes to opportunities to relax, while still focused on the task of driving mindfully.

How did McClean learn to relax behind the wheel?

“Somewhere in my unconscious I had made a connection between the physical dimensions of the car and the feel of my own body on the steering wheel, accelerator and the brakes,” he relates in the introduction of his book. “Just like riding a bike, it became second nature ... the mind-body connection. If we are alone in our vehicle we have safety, some privacy, the ability to do as we will without being questioned, and a little time to think in an intimately familiar place without having to answer to anyone. We get lost in our thoughts, our music, and many times our reactions to other drivers around us. Our cars are our rooms, and sometimes the only real personal space we may have in our lives.

Just as I suspected, driving can be good for you. And until self-driving cars relieve us of that task, I feel we should make the most of our time behind the wheel, which is about 50 minutes a day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Our commute times are increasing, and the promise of self-driving cars relieving that duty seems to be taking longer to arrive than we thought.

I suspect that even as congestion increases, many drivers will still want to drive themselves.

“We know that people often choose driving over more convenient modes for irrational reasons, like perceiving that public transportation will take more time or be more expensive than it actually is,” Jenna Fortunati wrote in the June 27 newsletter for the U.S. Department of Transportation-supported Mobility Lab, “an organization whose mission is, quite simply, to reduce the amount of cars on the road.” She described a pleasant driving trip with the realization that people might choose driving simply because they like driving, even if they know it’s more expensive and slower than other options.

Why drive in congested traffic? “It’s called ‘carcooning’: When your car becomes your relaxation zone. A personal vehicle is customized for the driver’s comfort, as a ‘sanctuary escape from the world,’” Fortunati explains.

A lot of people actually like to drive. Results of a nationwide survey released June 27 by Hagerty, a longtime Traverse City-based auto insurance company, said drivers “like, love or are passionate about driving,” including 81 percent of the survey’s millennial generation respondents, 78 percent of generation Xers and 79 percent of baby boomers.

Reasons to drive recorded in the Hagerty survey included 70 percent of respondents saying driving is “time for myself”; 61 percent saying driving was often a positive emotional experience; 59 percent saying driving is a form of stress release; and 77 percent agreeing they’d rather drive themselves on an open winding road than have the car drive them autonomously.

Here’s one reason why we like driving, copied from McClean’s first chapter, where he explains how he handles road rage incidents: “One day I decided to try and be cooperative and courteous to especially those wretched souls of the road. And guess what? It literally made me laugh out loud! That’s right, full on LOL!”

So the more I focus on driving, enjoying the feelings of freedom and personal responsibility, the actual feel of the car’s controls, and the opportunity to meditate and relax around increasingly aggressive traffic, the more I feel like taking the time for laughter, too.