Know your limits

Know your limits

If you’re Driving While Stressed, settle down or get off the road

By Jennifer Hadley 09/24/2009

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Icrashed my car. Again. This time I was returning home from my morning coffee run to 7-Eleven. As I was pulling into my underground parking lot (which I do several times a day) I smacked the front end of my Xterra into a concrete wall (which I don’t do as often). I wasn’t hurt, and neither was my four-legged companion, Frankie. I can’t say the same about my car. The driver-side front quarter panel is bashed to bits. Sigh.

I know that the statistics of driving while distracted show that we’re far more prone to get in accidents when we’re talking on the phone, eating, applying make-up, or dealing with children in the car. I also know that accidents happen far more often when we’re drowsy. In my case, I wasn’t distracted by any of those things, but arguably I was a little drowsy. I hadn’t had my coffee yet.

But what I certainly was that morning was stressed out. Like so many small-business owners, I’m scared of losing everything I’ve worked for. I’m anxious because some of my clients have fallen way behind in paying me. And I’m taking on a great deal of extra work in an effort to supplement my income.

No doubt about it; I’m a bit of a nervous Nelly these days. So I had to wonder: Is being stressed out a driving distraction? Could my stress, or the stress that others are feeling with job losses, mounting debts, wars, you name it, actually make us less alert drivers?

I’m no therapist, but luckily my fellow Pasadena Weekly columnist, Patti Carmalt-Vener, is. Wasting no time, I called Patti to ask her if there was any merit to my theory that stress may in fact be considered a distraction while driving.
“Stress is a catchall word for any type of overwhelming emotion, such as feeling scared, angry or sad. Research has shown that strong emotions running through your body can lead to cognitive distortion,” according to Carmalt-Vener. Moreover, she explained, “one of the ways the body defends itself against these overwhelming emotions is sleepiness.”  Hmmm. I liked where she was going with this; my theory was looking like it might hold some weight.

On the day of my crash, I was feeling overwhelming emotions of fear. This got me to thinking of how many others like me there are out there on the road, feeling overwhelmed.  

What about the guy who got notice at five o’clock that he’s being laid off, and now has to commute back home in rush-hour traffic? Or my friend, Judith, who is facing foreclosure and is being hounded day and night by creditors and banks? She’s such a nervous wreck that she says she doesn’t feel safe driving. But she has to drive, because she has to get to work. Is there anything we can do to make sure that we’re not inadvertently putting ourselves and our fellow drivers at risk in our overwhelmed condition? Carmalt-Vener says there are a few things we can do. “Deal with the feelings before you get behind the wheel. Process them. Take a minute, call someone and talk about how angry, sad or fearful you are. Get it out.” Note though, that Carmalt-Vener definitely advises against driving if you’re tremendously upset.

To that end, I urge everyone to remember that driving really does require our full attention. Now the stress of having to fix my car, get a rental in the interim and pay my deductible is just adding more stress. I can’t even fathom how much this stress would have been exacerbated had I hurt someone in an accident.

As for me, I’ll be taking deep breaths before getting behind the wheel. And if that’s not enough, my appointment is just going to have to wait until I can vent my frustrations to an open ear. I certainly don’t need the added stress of being in another accident. Driving while stressed out is just not fair to my fellow drivers.

Contact Jennifer Hadley at


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