Monday, June 21, 2010

Impatience and distracted driving

Last week, I was out in Fitchburg to talk to a youth group about being pedestrian advocates and how to do walking audits in their communities. I got a zipcar to go to and from, and on my way back into Somerville, I hit the typical long wait at the Alewife tangle of intersections. I wasn't in any rush, though, and because I don't drive all that much, it didn't seem like that big a deal to me. I had my music on, and I was feeling relaxed, and the time in the car wasn't particularly stressful. Cars cutting me off didn't phase me, and it was easy to keep an eye out for bikes in my lane and pedestrians waiting to cross the street. No sweat!

The next day, though, I was at another evening event that required driving to, and on my way back home, I was in a big rush, because I had a someone waiting for me at home. This time, I noticed how much worse a driver I was due to my impatience. Every other car on the road seemed to be driven by my arch enemy, getting stuck behind a bike for a short distance while waiting for my opportunity to pass infuriated me, and every crosswalk where I had to stop for a pedestrian made me want to shake my fist at the people who were getting in my way.

Okay, this is something I've noticed before, and it goes to something that I'm fond of saying, which is that being a user of all modes makes me a better user of all of them. Even when I'm impatient and cranky, I stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk, because I understand the hows and the whys of what makes that important.

But I noticed something else about the difference between chill driving and rushed driving: Not only was I a worse, less attentive driver when I was in a hurry, but I was also more tempted to take out my phone. That feeling of being in a hurry meant that stops in traffic, whether for a backup or for a traffic light, felt more like dead time, and long, relatively non-conflicted straightaways on the highway felt like, "Hey, I'm not using my whole brain for this, and I really DO need to send this text ..."

Because I feel strongly about not using my phone when I'm driving, I resisted the temptation, but it was interesting to discover the difference in the temptation to do so in different states of mind. I can see how, driving and getting stuck in traffic on a daily basis, where time in the car is not luxurious relaxation but an impediment to the rest of your life, the lure of the phone and other distractions must get increasingly strong.

The pleasure of commuting by foot is that the travel is itself a satisfying activity. And, of course, there's less danger associated with texting while walking (as long as I take my eyes off my phone while I'm crossing the street!) The frustrations of daily driving for utility create and perpetuate bad habits that impact (literally) all of us.

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