Home Mental Health & Well-Being Your Emotional and Mental State Affect the Way You Drive: Here Are the Reasons Why

Your Emotional and Mental State Affect the Way You Drive: Here Are the Reasons Why

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Every year, around 3,000 people tragically lose their lives in auto accidents caused by distracted driving, accounting for about 8% of all fatal motor vehicle collisions on roads throughout the US. But while distracted driving is often blamed on activities like cell phone usage, talking, eating, or fiddling with the navigation or entertainment system, there are many other possible causes for this, which basically includes anything that can divert your attention when behind the wheel.

Distractions of any form may prevent you from reacting in time and cause you to collide with the rear of other vehicles, run stop signs and traffic lights, fail to stay within your lane, or even hit pedestrians or bicyclists. Additionally, you can lose control of your vehicle because even a momentary lapse in focus can lead to missing a crucial warning sign or overlooking a potential hazard in your peripheral vision, thus increasing the risk of a severe accident.

Such is the case in cognitive distracted driving, which occurs when the mental focus is not on the road, even when you’re physically not doing anything other than driving. This makes it highly dangerous and deceptive in appearance because you may have both eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, but your attention is elsewhere, posing a risk to you, your passengers, and other road users.

The impact of distracted driving can be further intensified in the presence of certain road and traffic conditions, such as heavy traffic, winding roads, or stormy weather. In such situations, distracted driving can significantly increase the probability of an accident. If you have been involved in accidents like this, it is best to hire a car accident lawyer to guide you through the process and ensure your rights are protected.

What your emotions and thoughts can do to your driving

You may think that only negative feelings like anger and sadness would adversely impact driving performance. However, research indicates that intense emotions of any nature, whether positive or negative, can be as distracting as driving under the influence or using your phone while behind the wheel, increasing the likelihood that you would not be fully attentive to your driving environment and surrounding vehicles. 

This is because both positive and negative emotions influence individuals mentally, physically, and behaviorally. Drivers experiencing anger or happiness tend to have shorter reaction times and take longer to brake when following another vehicle compared to those in a neutral emotional state. 

As such, emotionally charged drivers pose a greater risk than those in neutral states. Interestingly, drivers in a happy state were even found to be more dangerous, as they perceived a lower accident risk and were thus less alert and defensive compared to drivers in angry or neutral states. Furthermore, experienced drivers in a happy state demonstrated poorer control over their vehicle’s lateral position.

Lastly, your stress and fatigue levels can significantly influence your driving behavior, leading to impaired driving, increased aggression, and less adherence to traffic rules. Stressed drivers tend to accelerate and brake more frequently and intensively than others. They are also prone to driving at high speeds, overtaking other vehicles, and neglecting to stop at crosswalks. 

Another study by the University of Warwick supports this observation, revealing that aggressive drivers are more likely to drive faster and make more mistakes than their non-aggressive counterparts, posing a risk to other road users. Aggressive behavior includes driving at an average speed of 5 km/h faster than non-aggressive drivers and making more mistakes, such as failing to signal when changing lanes.

Preparing yourself before getting behind the wheel

Maintaining a controlled or neutral state is crucial because of the significant effect of mental and emotional health on safe driving. Factors such as attitude, feelings, and stress play important roles in the safe operation of a vehicle, and being aware of your own condition is the first step towards addressing it while denying them will only make matters worse. 

For example, you might be concerned about an important meeting or anxious about personal issues, and letting your worries play around absent-mindedly in your head could affect your concentration while driving. On the other hand, if you catch yourself being distracted by such thoughts, you can turn on the radio or consciously disengage from any concerns that could affect your driving.

Set aside your thoughts and emotions, even though it’s natural to feel worried or stressed, especially during commutes to and from work. Remember that you can address these once you’ve stopped the car and reached your destination. 

You can also try relaxation techniques, choosing one that works the best for you whenever you feel emotionally unstable when behind the wheel. Aside from breathing exercises, you can also try counting backward, reciting a song or poem you know by heart, or simply sitting in silence and grounding yourself in the present moment through your senses. 

You can start your trip once you feel stable enough and your thoughts are clear. Or if you are already driving and feel the need to cool down, don’t hesitate to pull over and pause for a moment, then ensure your emotions are under control before resuming driving.


Adam Mulligan, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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