The psychology of driving: 6 ways to stay stress-free on the roads

    How to stay stress-free in the car
    Published: 14 March.

    We ask driving psychologist, Professor Samantha Jamson, for ways to make driving stress-free and check out the latest tech to help, for safer journeys all round.

    Driving isn’t always a calm experience. Thanks to the likes of unexpected tailbacks, cars pulling out haphazardly and roadworks causing diversions, a theoretically straightforward journey can leave you frazzled by the time you reach your destination. 

    However, the last thing you need when you’re driving is extra stress. When we’re under stress in the car it can lead to a lack of focus, rash decisions and what is commonly referred to as ‘road rage’. But it’s not all bad news – through psychology, there are ways that you can stay calm and chilled on the roads. Making those Spring road trips more enjoyable and something to look forward to. 

    So how can you stay calm, be present and remove distractions when you’re in the driving seat? We asked Professor Samantha Jamson, driving psychology expert, to share her top tips for a stress-free drive. Plus, we also have a little look at some of the innovations being worked on to improve wellbeing and journey safety. 

    1) Ditch your phone

    Phones are a major source of stress and distraction. The government’s 2019 National Travel Attitudes Study found that 62% of people think the use of mobile phones in the car – including hands-free – is dangerous. Which is why ditching your phone is the simplest answer to staying stress-free and safe. 

    If you switch off your phone completely, you remove the temptation to quickly check a text or take a phonecall. Responding to a message or call while behind the wheel means you’re attempting to multi-task, which is something that can have dangerous consequences if an error is made. 

    ‘Our brains don’t do two things at once,’ says Professor Jamson. ‘They switch from one task to the other. And any time you get a task switch, there’s a delay when you go back to the other task, and you have to refocus. People don’t really understand that. Some people think they’re really great dual-taskers, but we’re not that good at self-regulation. 

    ‘Usually, if a crash happens, the driver says, “I didn’t even see them.” That’s partly because they’re doing other stuff or they’re simply not looking in the correct places. So, the best thing we can say to people is: just put the phone away.’

    From 2022 the Department for Transport (DfT) has tightened rules surrounding mobile phone use in cars. Drivers are already banned from texting or calling at the wheel using a handheld device (unless it is an emergency), new rules go further. Now drivers are not allowed to take pictures or videos, navigate playlists or play games on a phone when driving. Offenders will be handed a £200 fine and receive six penalty points on their licence, half of their 12 point allowance.

    2) Keep your emotions in check

    We’ve heard that term ‘road rage’, which is when we become frustrated behind the wheel. Letting your emotions take control can mean we forget to carry out safe driving habits such as checking our rear-view mirror. How do we stop those emotions getting the better of us? It all comes down to self-awareness and taking a moment to think about the reasons behind others actions, and also to think about how we are reacting in the moment. 

    ‘It’s hard for people to detect anger in themselves,’ says Professor Jamson. ‘Often, when they’re in the moment, it’s too late. There are some innovations in terms of technology, such as cameras directed towards the driver’s face that pick up various emotions, usually via facial expressions, but often it’s the passenger that points it out.’

    Professor Jamson’s advice is to try to think about why someone might be driving in a particular way – for example, they’re in a rush to get to hospital to see an ill relative – rather than immediately writing them off as a terrible driver. But she concedes that might be difficult. ‘There’s a lot to do while driving, without thinking about all these other scenarios that might be happening.’

    3) Entertain the little ones

    How could we not be distracted by our adorable backseat passengers? It’s easy to become distracted by little ones, especially on long journeys but keeping your eyes on the road is important. Keeping children distracted and entertained is the best way to ensure you’re not having to give them too much attention. There’s lots of options on exciting ways to keep them happy!

    ‘It can be difficult with children in the back. Give them your phone – after all, you don’t need it when you’re driving,’ advises Professor Jamson. However, she says we shouldn’t get too stressed out by the risks of driving with our kids. ‘The good news is that often parents self-regulate – they stop the car if the kids are fighting and screaming. That’s the best way to deal with it.’

    Don’t fancy your kids having too much screen-time? Here are ‘5 ways to keep kids entertained in the car’ which includes ideas for playing games, practicing mindfulness, singalongs and book reading. All great ways to keep your little ones entertained on long journeys.

    4) Soothe your mood with music 

    You know that feeling when you put on your favourite playlist and feel your mood instantly boost? Well, you can apply that in the car to help you feel calmer. Before you set off on your drive, put together a playlist that will help you feel in a good mood and therefore stop you from getting stressed when driving. You can also make sure it’s the same length (or a little bit longer just in case of traffic) as your trip so you don’t have to user your phone to choose a new one. 

    Alternatively, if music isn’t your thing then you could try listening to some mindfulness tracks to help soothe you. Drive with Headspace is a collaboration between GPS app Waze and Headspace that brings your meditation to life. It has five different moods, a dedicated calming Spotify playlist and customer meditative navigation prompts. 

    If we gaze to the future, it looks like one day we will have cars that can assess your mood using heart-rate readings and respiration rates via sensors in the seats or wearable tech devices. It would then be able to change your playlist, lighting and airflow to help keep you calm in the car. This technology isn’t available just yet, but we’re looking forward to it coming to life in hopefully a not too distant future. 

    Want to know more about Headspace? Head over to vitality.co.uk to find out more!

    5) Use innovative in-car technology

    Car manufacturers and tech firms are already beginning to think about how they can improve technology to support a driver’s wellbeing when on the road. Engineers are working away to look at sensors which are reactive to a driver – using AI and analytical tools to check behaviour and emotions. These sensors would alert drivers to a change in their wellbeing, and help to keep them feeling less stressed.

    Gaze technology and cameras that track pupil dilation will assess your cognitive load and may turn on air-con, sound or lighting to improve focus. Or, if the AI senses danger, it can take control of the vehicle via an advanced driver-assistance system.

    Tim VanGoethem, Vice President of Automotive Product Management at Harman International, says that in the future there may even be an in-vehicle teledoctor service, where you can receive updates on certain health parameters while stuck in traffic. ‘As these technologies for driver alertness mature, Harman expects to support more use cases for monitoring the wellness of the individual, either by embedding additional sensors in the car or by connecting to wearables.’

    Ford recently unveiled a Mindfulness Concept Car, which includes electrically activated seats that provide feedback on breathing and heart rate, ambient lighting and climate temperature control to create ‘moods’. These moods would include elements such as blue skies to help reduce anger levels, and immersive sounds that help to make the driver feel more at ease.

    6) Monitoring your behaviour

    Understanding how you’re driving on the roads can really enhance how you feel when you get inside the car. That’s why at Vitality we created our sensor and app that allow driver’s to monitor their driving behaviour and make easy changes for a smoother, less-stressful driving experience. 

    Unlike a ‘black box’ the Vitality sensor doesn’t penalise you if you aren’t perfect at one of driving parameters (acceleration, braking, cornering, distraction or speeding), it simply shows you where you could get a little better on your next drive. Driving well can help towards feeling more confident in the driver’s seat, which in turn can help driver’s to feel more relaxed when driving. 

    Plus, when you do drive well and make those behaviour changes, Vitality will reward you for it. Can’t get better than that! Find out more about Vitality car insurance.