Zen and the art of safe holiday driving

September 02, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Are you seething? How about angry, frustrated, anxious, flustered, annoyed or appalled? Would you admit, just between us, to a simple bout of uncontrollable impatience?

Yes? Then you must be motoring through this wet and windy weekend.

Relax your grip on the steering wheel for a second, take a deep breath and heed some advice from the doctor - Dr. Driving.

"People are always driving with seething rage," says Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii who runs the Web site drdriving.org. "But we're not so much angry as frustrated and impatient. You have to stay calm."

Surviving the inevitable traffic congestion bound to continue through Labor Day, he says, is manageable, even for soggy Marylanders seeking out the season's last sunburn at the shore or crawling along Interstate 95 toward Washington or New York.

Traffic experts, state transportation officials and local and state police in Maryland braced for significant delays as the remnants of Ernesto brushed by. Yesterday afternoon, the former hurricane left thousands of people on the Eastern Shore without power and prompted some evacuations in Southern Maryland.

"It's terrible," said Buck Gray of Buck's Towing and Transporting in Glen Burnie, as he drove on U.S. 50 yesterday afternoon. "There is a lot of traffic out here and people are driving like it's dry concrete."

"People run up on a red light and then slam to a stop," he said over his cell phone. "Yeah, that's smart."

Uncertainty over the weather led to a somewhat staggered start to the holiday, according to traffic watchers. Weeks without rain only made those newly slick roads harder to manage, said Maryland Transportation Authority Police Chief Gary W. McLhinney.

"It's a tough combination. Everyone wants to get an early start, but not enough people ever do," McLhinney said. "And this kind of steady rain is almost worse than a short, strong burst."

Philip J. Tarnoff, director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Technology at the University of Maryland, agreed. Drivers, he said, need time to adjust to the new road conditions.

"And while they do, people drive as if it's almost snowing. There is more distance between cars; they drive slower," said Tarnoff. All of that can lead to congestion, he said.

On the Bay Bridge yesterday afternoon, strong winds prompted officials to impose restrictions, including a ban on house trailers and tractor-trailers carrying empty containers.

More than 663,000 Marylanders are expected to travel this holiday weekend and 560,000 of them could be in a traffic jam near you, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

State police say that the weekend is typically one of the most dangerous on the state's roadways. Last year, there were 350 crashes, including four fatal crashes that claimed five lives, over the three-day weekend.

More than 200 people were arrested for drunken driving during the same time.

The auto club's road safety advice includes fully charging your cell phone, checking your windshield wiper blades, keeping your headlights on, keeping proper pressure in your tires and testing and retesting your brakes.

"But go slowly," AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Troy Green said. "Standing or running water of as little as 6 inches can lead to hydroplaning."

A sudden downpour means you might have to get off the road completely, Green said. Parking next to a pole or tree could make things worse if lightning struck.

To soldier through the traffic tie-ups, Dr. Driving recommends a more philosophical approach, which he calls the Costanza technique for the easily irritated driver.

"It's based on the character from Seinfeld," James says. "He started doing and saying the opposite of what he did before, and things improved. You need to pretend you're like him in the car."

Even the doctor admits he hasn't always been a "supportive driver." (A defensive driver, he says, simply isn't nice enough.)

"My wife said, `Leon, Grandmother thinks you're not a good driver,'" James, 68, says. "She was right. I was just ignoring the passenger. And you know there should be human rights for passengers in cars."

The solution came with a Zen-like enlightenment that he describes as the need to become a "gentleman driver."

His research shows that venting in your car at an obviously insane driver does not help. James says it only "rekindles the original emotion." And that, he reminds us gently, is not a good thing.

"Maybe you could meditate," James offers.

"You could reflect on what kind of personality you're going to have today."

But whatever you do, he says, don't blame it all on the rain.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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