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Zen driving - How letting go of road rage can lead to a safer oneness with the world | Opinion

Should you be pursuing Zen driving nirvana?

I recently descended a deep YouTube rabbit hole. This time (not for the first time), the subject was dash cam videos. And what a stark reminder of the need to expect the unexpected they are.

A side street bandit makes a mad dash for freedom across the bow of a semi-trailer. Wrong-way lunatics launch terrifying opposite-direction entries to roundabouts and dual carriageways. Last-gasp desperados decide double lines and blind crests shouldn’t impede their right to overtake at ludicrously high speed.

And that’s just the tip of an unsettling iceberg. Distracted, substance-affected, fatigued or just plain inattentive drivers out there seemingly oblivious to the danger they and everyone around them is in.

Which is where Zen driving comes in. Self-restraint mindfulness, and enhanced perception can help you remain calm in the face of all this madness. Maybe leaving out the conventional emphasis on meditation.

Zen driving master Peter Brock said every time he put the tongue of his seatbelt into its buckle, he reminded himself the drive he was about to undertake was easily the most dangerous thing he would do that day.

Even on a tedious peak hour commute, he aimed for the perfect drive, in terms of anticipation, spatial awareness and attitude, freely admitting he never quite got there. And as his untimely death behind the wheel proved, there’s always more to learn. Can you believe that fateful day was 15 years ago this week?

One of the things Brock and his advanced driving school partner, Jim Murcott (my employers as an instructor and coach in the ‘90s), focused on was ‘letting it go’. If you’ve managed to keep your eyes up and side-step a collision, that’s great.

It was scary; the adrenaline’s pumping, and your heart’s racing. You want to lean on the horn and turn the air blue in questioning the likely perpetrator’s sanity.

But you don’t. You give them a wide berth, and let them go, thankful you’re unharmed and that your car’s in one piece. 

It’s a big challenge, but once you rise to it, the benefits are significant, because keeping your emotional temperature low frees up headspace for crash-avoidance strategies and tactics.

Frank Gardner, despite his prickly reputation, was a fully ticketed Zen driving master, who talked about ‘switching on’ and looking for escape routes.

That is, being alert to the behaviour of those around you, sensing when traffic density, road conditions or other environmental factors are changing, and switching on to a potentially dangerous situation.

If that oncoming car continues to wander out of its lane, what are the options? A sense of where you’re sitting in traffic could allow for a safe emergency swerve. Or if things are really dire, identifying gaps off the road, between trees, parked cars or power poles could be a life-saver.

Of course, there’s an inherent sense of foreboding in any dash cam video, but I find myself mentally easing off the throttle and looking for options when stuff starts to go pear-shaped on screen. 

And when things do go wrong, the adrenaline-fuelled theatrics that follow are gob-smacking. Jeez, the horn gets a workout. 

Hand on heart, I haven’t used a car’s horn in anger in 25 years. And one of my least favourite driving habits is deploying the horn as a weapon of war.

If Daniel Ricciardo had the same anticipation and reflexes on a light change as New York cab drivers, he’d be first off the line at every Grand Prix. 

As soon as that red goes out, they’re on the horn, not so politely suggesting you might want to progress through the intersection. So, so helpful.

I was once sitting waiting to turn left at a busy city intersection, and for whatever reason the driver in front was failing to clock the arrow’s change to green.

Just as I was thinking about a friendly toot to wake them up, a motoring journo colleague in the passenger seat next to me leant over and mashed his hand into the wheel, unleashing a blast long and loud enough to wake the dead.

I felt violated. Well, intensely annoyed, anyway. But even then did my best to maintain an even strain.  

And that’s something I’ve attempted to pass on to our eldest daughter through her L to P driving licence adventure. A plan for the worst, hope for the best attitude, with the aim of not blowing a gasket under pressure.

Little things like leaving a three-second gap to the car in front in open traffic. That’s nothing new, but if someone jumps into that gap, trying to let it go. Ease back and recreate the space. The time lost is minuscule, but the safety benefit is huge.

Or being able to see the rear tyres of the vehicle in front when you’re stopped at lights or an intersection. That automatically creates a gap big enough to turn and accelerate out of trouble if your mirrors are filling with an out-of-control punter approaching at impact speed. Calm, mindful, aware.

And although it’s a sure-fire argument starter, I’m a proponent of left-foot braking in an automatic car.

It takes time but muscle memory soon gets up to speed for constant cover of the brake pedal with the left foot. And I’ve certainly avoided more than one sheet metal interface thanks to that fractionally quicker application of the brakes.

Any driver worth feeding can use their left foot to feather a clutch pedal with finely tuned precision, and with practice, the same goes for brake modulation. Ten out of 10 Formula One drivers can’t be wrong.   

None of us are perfect. I’ve made poor driving decisions and allowed mistakes to slip through, like everyone else. But the pursuit of Zen driving nirvana will hopefully keep them to a minimum.

Think about assuming the lotus position and opening yourself up to the possibilities of a Zen driving future next time you settle in for a session of disturbing dash cam drama.