Welcome to the final stretch of this series!
This week I’d like to tell you a story about bad driving habits and how to correct them.
There You Habit
I once had an adult student, named Donna, who was a habitual speeder. Everywhere Donna went she got there at least five miles per hour faster than everyone else, yet she was consistently no less than five minutes late. Arriving for her driving lessons was no exception.
Donna came to me because her college-aged daughter, Natalie, had been taking lessons from me and she wanted to learn what I was teaching Natalie – partly because she wanted to help Natalie practice at home and partly because she began to realize how much her own driving abilities were lacking.
As we drove together, I gently offered suggestion after suggestion for better behaviors. “Try moving your eyes more,” I said. “Look as far down the road as you can see,” I said. “Try braking as soon as you see that the traffic light is yellow or red.” Needless to say, Donna had quite a bit to work on; but we made good progress with most things. She was a receptive student and she genuinely did her best to listen and learn. At the end of the day, she had many quick fixes and a few persistent problems. The most stubborn of which was her speeding.
Every time I fell silent for more than ten seconds, the speedometer needle would wind clockwise – especially on the expressway. “It’s fifty-five here,” I would say, looking at a gauge reading fifty-nine.
She was never surprised by my reminders. If anything, she was annoyed.
After several productive lessons, Donna learned (among other things) safer lane changes and merging, more comfortable and safer sitting and hand positions, and better control in braking, backing, and turns – all the while gaining more confidence in herself and in me.
Suddenly, she was ready to address her speeding problem.
“I know I shouldn’t speed,” she said, “but I have so much to do all the time. If I don’t speed then I’ll never get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time. Plus, it’s not like I get tickets. I know how fast I can get away with in different areas.”
At first, I thought Donna was trying to tell me to stop reminding her of what she already knows. And, in a way, she was. But, shortly after that lesson it dawned on me that she was also trying to tell me that she had a problem and she didn’t know any other way to fix it.
By the next lesson, I was ready to do some investigating. “Why do you think you speed so much?”
“I’m always running late.”
“Okay, why are you always running late?”
“Because I never know how long it’s actually going to take to get anywhere. I always leave with plenty of time and then it always takes longer because of traffic or an accident or whatever. So, I just drive as fast as I can get away with to make up for it.”
Aha! Now we’re on to something.
Before she blamed other people for her problem, she confessed the key to her bad habit. “Because I never know how long it’s actually going to take to get anywhere.”
After a bit more discussion, it turns out the main reason for her speeding was that she had trouble judging how long it would realistically take to get from point A to point B on the roadway. Speeding was her solution to poor time management in route planning.
An Anxiously Heavy Foot
Remember that a driving habit is a means to an end. Every habit – good or bad, or somewhere in between – was created to consistently achieve rewarding results.
In Donna’s case, speeding was a means of compensating for her inability to accurately estimate her travel time. Every time the drive seemed to be taking longer than anticipated, she became anxious that she would be late. So, she started to speed to reduce her tardiness and therefore her anxiety.
The problem was that speeding increased her sense of urgency and heightened her nerves during the drive. She actually became more anxious while driving because speeding resulted in additional stressors such as the possibility of getting a ticket, less time to react to her environment, less control in maneuvers, etc.
In reality, her reward for speeding was a great sense of relief upon her arrival. As soon as the drive was over, she felt relieved that she was no longer subject to the many stressors present while speeding and that, presumably, she had arrived earlier than she would have otherwise. While the act of speeding didn’t make her feel very good, the end result did.
Breaking her speeding habit meant fighting against these factors.
The root issue was her difficulty with time management in route planning. So, I decided to start there.
During one of our lessons, I asked Donna to merge onto the highway. Once she reached about sixty miles per hour, I explained to her that, at our current speed, we were traveling about one mile per minute. And, if we continued at that rate, then a five-mile trip would take five minutes. I went on to explain that driving thirty miles per hour would take twice as long.
“What about traffic?” she asked.
“The rule of thumb that I like to use is to add on a quarter for light traffic, a half for moderate traffic, and double for heavy traffic. So, a ten-minute trip would take twelve and a half minutes in light traffic, fifteen minutes in moderate traffic, and twenty minutes in heavy traffic.”
She furrowed her eyebrows and I left it there, for the time being.
“Patience You Must Have” -Yoda
The second component of her bad habit was the great sense of relief she felt at the end of a spedfast* trip (* you are correct, this is a new word I’ve just made up … I think it works). This feeling of relief was the reward that continually reinforced her desire to speed.
To combat this, I started pointing out how relaxed she seemed to be while driving the speed limit and how tense she really was at times when she sped.
This opened the door to an experiment.
“I want you to pretend that you have to get back to work. From here it’s about fifteen minutes away, but there is moderate traffic. So, it should really take us about …”
“Twenty-two and a half minutes, which would be 4:47ish by that clock.”
“Right! Now pretend that you’ve told your client that you will meet him there by 4:50.”
The challenge this posed for her was not just accurately measuring her travel time but using her estimation to commit to a reasonable arrival time. This meant that she would have the opportunity to experience her new set of behaviors achieve a desired result.
As she drove the speed limit, she started to become a little anxious that she would not make it by the estimated time. I assured her that, unless something catastrophic happened, we would arrive by 4:50. She gave me the benefit of the doubt and indulged the speed limit for the remainder of the trip.
Along the way I continually pointed out how nice it was to travel at a comfortable speed and to know that, even at this pace, we would arrive on time.
And, sure enough, when we pulled into her employer-reserved parking spot, the clock read 4:48.
Donna was very pleased. For the first time in a long time, she had arrived on-time – and she did it without speeding.
Breaking Bad … Habits
What drives the formation of a lasting habit is a personal reward. In Donna’s case, it was a sense of relief. But other habitual speeders may be rewarded by a sense of pride that they “beat traffic,” or a thrilling sensation from breaking the law without getting caught, or a feeling of power in defiantly maneuvering thousands of pounds of machine at a speed of their own choosing.
To break a bad driving habit, you have to get to the bottom of why it exists. The answer will always be in the reward. Because the reward tells you what the driver gets out of the behavior.
Once you understand the reward for a bad pattern of behavior, you can supplant the bad habit with a more rewarding good habit.
I only had a couple more lessons with Donna, but I was pleasantly surprised to see her arrive on-time for each one. And, even better, when we drove together she was more relaxed than I had ever seen her before.
I can’t say that her speeding habit never came back, but I can say that she now had a better pattern of behavior that provided a reward more valuable to her (and society) than the sense of relief she felt after speeding.
Old habits die hard, or not at all. But the goal isn’t to eliminate an old habit, it’s to create a better alternative that makes the old one obsolete.
The methodology I have found to be consistently effective is this:
- Determine why the bad habit exists
- Create a new, better habit using the method we discussed last week
- Use what you’ve learned about why the bad habit exists to prove that the reward for the new habit is more valuable than the reward for the old habit (preferably through demonstration)
Following these steps allows you to break down the old habit, make space for a new one, and incentivize the continuance of better behavior on the roadway.
The rest is up to your student.
I hope you have enjoyed this series on driving habits!
Next week we’ll be talking about how to use body language to predict your students’ intentions during lessons.
See you then!
** For the purposes of this post, names and some identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.