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Mindful motoring

Written by Koen Smets (1 Jun 2015)

I remember very well the day I got my driving licence. The sense of freedom it gave me was intense, but in addition to suddenly no longer being dependent either on public transport (and having to get home too early for my liking) or on one of my parents to come and pick me up, there was something else. The actual sensation of being behind the wheel, being in control of a car – feeling it respond to my instructions to speed up or slow down, or go left and right, and seeing the world from the driving seat was exhilarating.

Unfortunately that elation gradually eroded away. Years later, I often had to drive long distances in my job, and driving had become boring and mindless: all the fun had slowly evaporated. Then, one day, I came across the Institute of Advanced Motorists – an organization devoted to improving traffic safety through hands-on training of drivers and motorcycle riders.

I discovered there was a local group that held so-called check drives every Sunday morning. These are short trips of around 30 minutes: drivers are taken on a route that incorporates a variety of roads, and all the way monitored from the passenger seat by an experienced observer who, other than for giving directions and instructions, remains silent throughout. The point is for the driver to sharpen their observational skills: the road is full of hazards, and driving safely means being aware of what is happening within sight, and anticipating what might happen out of sight. A typical observer trick is to ask a driver what road sign he or she has just passed, or what the prevailing speed limit is on roads where the limit is lower or higher than the default.

Over the course of half a dozen weeks or so, this not only succeeded in making me more confident behind the wheel, more aware of actual and potential hazards, and so – I like to think – a safer driver. It also reattuned me to the act of driving. When you want to develop the habit of observing the road ahead, you have focus on the here and now all the time. And for me, that meant no longer driving like an automaton, deep in thoughts and oblivious to what was happening on the road. Instead, I learned to be fully aware of my environment, both in the car and outside.

And I rediscovered the fun in driving: being conscious of the markings on the road, of the signs at the edge, of the other road users, sharp corners and the traffic lights ahead made me feel strangely serene and alive at the same time. But this habit of active observation also made me be aware of stuff that had nothing to do with the driving itself: the colour of the fields and trees along the road, the smell of the badly adjusted engine of the lorry just in front, the sound of the engine as I pressed the accelerator pedal, the subtle vibrations of the road...

I had learned to be a mindful motorist, and now, many years later, I still am enjoying driving as if I had just obtained my driving licence.