Attitude adjustment leads to better, safer driving

Computer illustration of brain cross-section in blue, glowing, human head.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 9 April 2021

How emotions can affect your driving and what happens to your brain when you're upset. How to manage your emotions and attitude to stay safe.

‘Attitude’ is a word that’s bandied around a lot when people are talking about driving, but what does it mean? I’ve just tried to find definitions for ‘good attitude’ and ‘bad attitude’ and it’s all a bit vague.

Whatever your ‘attitude’ is, it’ll be influenced by your emotions on any given day, so perhaps it’s more helpful to think about how different emotional states affect your driving and what you can do about it.

What happens to your brain when you’re upset?

You’ve probably been told that you should not drive when you’re angry or upset, but have you been told why and what effects these emotions could have on your performance?

Well, neurologists and psychologists have discovered that our brains process emotion in two stages.

  1. We unconsciously evaluate the significance of an emotion. This is like your brain asking itself ‘How does this make me feel?’ This will happen hundreds of times a day, usually without you even knowing it.
  2. If the emotion is strong enough, then it comes to the front of your mind and you must attend to it. It competes for your attention, whether you want it to or not.

We all have a limited capacity for processing information and when the brain is dealing with strong emotion, it’s not so able to deal with other demands – like concentrating on what’s happening on the road ahead, responding to hazards and making quick decisions.

Who says so?

There’s been lots of research into the effects of emotion on attention. Very simply, here’s what happened in one study.

There were two groups of people: one was put into a ‘sad mood’ by the researchers, using music and by asking the individuals to recall their unhappiest memories. The other group was kept in a ‘neutral mood’ – neither particularly sad nor happy.

Both groups then took part in various tasks involving emotionally neutral sounds and images and the ‘sad group’ was 50% less able to carry out the tasks. The researchers said

‘Our findings suggest that sadness can significantly increase distraction.’

What can you do about it?

Of course, we cannot prevent ourselves from feeling emotions. As the scientists have discovered, they’re triggered automatically and it’s not usually practical to put everything on hold until we’re feeling perfectly calm and happy. What we can do is recognise when our emotions are diverting our attention to the point that our concentration will be seriously affected, and find a way to deal with them in safety; that is, not when we’re behind the wheel of a big metal machine!

Now you know how your emotions are processed and the effect they can have on your attention, you may think twice before driving when you’re really wound up. There are ways you can calm yourself down, of course. You cannot beat a bit of deep breathing, but here are a couple of other suggestions for dealing with emotions that may affect your concentration.

  • Examine how you feel and give your emotion a name: ‘frustration’, ‘disappointment’, ‘rejection’, and so on.
  • Once you know exactly what it is you’re feeling, see if you can change its angle (this is sometimes called ‘reframing’). For example, you could ask yourself what you’ve learnt from the experience that made you feel this way. This takes some effort, but the more often you do it, the easier it’ll become.

Take charge – as Oscar Wilde said

‘I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.’

Back to top