Zen and the Art of Long Distance Driving

Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Tips

I’ve been thinking a lot about distance driving recently. This is because I’ve been doing a lot of long-haul driving recently, which has given me plenty of time to think about how to drive long distances in as safe and as painless a fashion as possible.

Anyone who is a frequent road traveler has probably developed his or her own ideas about what makes a drive both safe and fun. The key to successful long-haul driving is really a matter of finding what works for you. Today, I’m going to offer a mixture of my own observations and other pieces of advice I’ve been given over the years, both by road safety experts and other regular road-trippers.

Overall, the secret to a successful drive is probably similar to the secret of a happy and healthy life: don’t stress. Stress is the body’s natural reaction to a difficult or potentially threatening situation. When under stress, your entire physiology changes: blood flow changes, heart rate and blood pressure increase, hormone balances are altered. Not only does prolonged stress have long-term health impacts, but short term stress can really wear you down as well. As a result, an hour of stressed-out driving–say, in bumper-to-bumper traffic–can be far more grueling than three hours of stress-free driving an open road.

The moral of the story: plan and execute your trip to minimize stress.

First, prepare for your trip. Get your car serviced a week or two before heavy driving, so that you’ll have time to address any issues that may arise. Check the weather forecast a few days in advance, so that, if possible, you’ll be able to avoid heavy rain or snow, even if this means leaving a day early or arriving a day later. Also try to time your trip so that you are driving during daylight as much as possible. The reduced visibility of night-time driving makes it far more stressful.

If you are passing through or near major cities, try to time your trip so as to avoid rush hour; if you can, take a break for breakfast or dinner during peak traffic hours. Plot your route in advance and make sure you are familiar with the basic outlines of your trip, so that you don’t have to consult a map or GPS constantly but also won’t get lost. The day before your trip, drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and then get a good night’s sleep.

Once you do get on the road, attitude is key. Don’t push yourself to get to your destination as soon as possible. I used to think that the sooner I arrived, the happier I would be, as I’d be spending less time on the road. I’d stress myself out rushing to get there, and then would arrive so tired, high-strung, and cranky that I’d ruin the rest of the day for myself and my friends. Try, as much as possible, to enjoy your time on the road. If driving with friends, see it as a chance to have the kind of prolonged, oddball conversation one so rarely has enough time for. If driving alone, you have some precious time with yourself to reflect or simply enjoy the quiet. If done right, a long haul drive can be immensely relaxing.

Finally, break your trip into manageable chunks. In general, 500 miles is a good limit for a solo driver; 600 is possible, but pushing it. Keep in mind that long-haul truck drivers, who are seasoned driving professionals, are not legally allowed to drive more than eleven hours per day, after which they must have at least ten hours off duty.

On the highway, try to find a comfortable speed for yourself and stick with it. Don’t ignore speed limits, as they’re designed to keep you safe. The middle lane is often the best place for a long trip, as the flow of traffic will keep you from speeding but you won’t usually end up stuck behind a particularly slow car or truck. Do keep in mind that your speed tends to creep up over the course of a long drive as you get accustomed to going quickly; check your speedometer every now and then to make sure you haven’t accelerated too much. Also, don’t tailgate. Tailgating reduces your visibility, which also reduces you ability to react to road hazards and/or sudden moves on the part of the car in front of you.

Next, don’t be afraid to take breaks. Instead of seeing a day’s drive as a single unit, break it up into segments in your mind. Having little goals along the way will help you feel that you’re making concrete progress, rather than tackling a huge and unmanageable distance. For example, I like to stop at a rest station every two to three hours or so. I get a snack and stretch my legs; if I’m feeling really antsy, I’ll run around the parking lot or do a few stretches. I also try to drink water gradually throughout my trip, using a sport-top bottle so I’m not forever fussing with the cap. This way, I stay hydrated, which keeps me alert, and also have to take a comfort break every few hours, which makes me resist the temptation to power through a long stretch of highway.

As you drive, beware of drowsiness! Fatigue can creep up on you unexpectedly, so make sure you stay aware of how you feel. Turning on the air-conditioner or opening the windows can help to keep you alert. Try to listen to fast-paced, upbeat music, as this is more likely to keep you alert than something more sedate. Bring along an iPod or a few CDs with some of your favorite music or a really interesting book on tape. I, for one, listen to top 40 pop while dancing and singing in the driver’s seat; I’m sure other people on the highway laugh at me when they drive past, but it keeps me happy and awake.

Endless snacking can seem like an attractive solution to boredom. However, try to avoid eating too much sugar, as a sugar “rush” will end in an energy low, while salty snacks can make you dehydrated. Aim for a mix of different kinds of snacks; some also suggest that you alternate fruit juice with soda. Be wary of eating heavy meals, however, as these can make you pretty drowsy.

Also, don’t be afraid to stop! If you do become fatigued, don’t push yourself. Even if you aren’t in immediate danger of falling asleep at the wheel, your reaction time is significantly slower when you are tired. Stop at a motel if you find yourself becoming exhausted towards the end of the day. Also try to stick to your normal sleep schedule. If you normally go to bed around eleven, then don’t drive late into the night. I often find that I hit an afternoon low between three and five pm, so I’ll try to plan a stop during this time. You can even take a short nap in the car if you need to. For safety reasons, park in a well-trafficked area and lock your doors before falling asleep.

I’ll talk more about distracted driving in a later segment. For now, I’ll paraphrase advice I’ve received: “be the car.” Don’t take your eyes off the road and make sure that you’re able to freely access all controls and pedals at all times. When driving alone, I am careful to position all of my food and drink so that I can reach it without looking for it. I peel any fruit I may want to eat and open packages of food and bottles of soda. I also decide on what I’ll be listening to for that leg of the trip–CD, iPod, or radio–and stick with that until my next stop. Finally, I make all the calls I need to make before I set out. I then put my phone on silent so that I won’t be tempted to check my messages or answer calls.

Opinions on cruise control are mixed. Some driving experts believe that the use of cruise control decreases driver awareness, making it a danger. Personally, I find it very helpful. Using cruise control keeps my speed within safe limits and prevents cramping in my right leg; I also find that it makes me more aware, as I’m constantly trying to judge my speed relative to the car in front of me, in order to decide if I can safely keep cruising or not. I use cruise control when I can, but I think it’s a personal choice. Notice how you drive with and without cruise control and then choose the option that makes you a safer and more comfortable driver.

This point brings me back to where I started: know yourself as a driver. Budget some extra time for your trip, so that you don’t have to rush. Keep trying to find little things you can do or games you can play with yourself to make the trip more engaging. Take care of yourself, respect your limits, and enjoy the experience.

To learn more about this cars and driving, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!


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