We're a society in crisis.
People are worried, fearful, stressed and insecure.
It's crime, drugs, AIDS, health insurance--and traffic.
We're mad at doctors, lawyers and, of course, politicians. We're mad at each other--at home, at work and on our freeways.
We want leadership, vision, action. We want someone to do something. We call for investment and infrastructure, such as schools and roads to create jobs.
In Orange County, such investment in our future in the form of massive freeway construction is creating new demands on our patience, lengthening already burdensome commutes, and making our freeways even more stressful and dangerous than they already are.
Car-pool lanes, designed to encourage ride-sharing and ease freeway congestion, have given birth to "Car-pool Cowboys." Conflict is the rule; cooperation and mutual respect the exception.
It seems to me that freeway behavior problems reflect larger societal issues. Similarly, plans for corrective action offer lessons with potential for far-reaching benefits. Therapists call this "spillover." Part of our task is helping others see the connection between seemingly unrelated events. This reduces anxiety and allows healthy problem-solving skills to emerge. And there are lots of problems. The recent Los Angeles riots serve as a grim reminder of how imperative it is that we learn to demonstrate respect for each other, whether it's on our freeways or in our communities.
As a medical doctor specializing in psychiatry and a longtime resident of Orange County, my responsibility is not only to diagnose and treat those already sick, but also to educate the public and practice preventive medicine. Unfortunately, denial, both on an individual and group level, destroys the forces of good and positive change. How does this work?
Individuals think "it won't happen to me." Alcoholics believe they can "stop any time." Groups say "AIDS is their disease." "Accidents are accidents." An illness or problem not recognized means no action and more illness, problems and cost.
All we can do is hope that the patient "hits bottom" and enters treatment. So we wait.
The good news is that periods of increased stress, like now, offer unique opportunities for breakthrough and changes not possible in times of emotional equilibrium. Often, we miss the opportunity and simply wait for things to get better. Scattered efforts are being made to change driving behavior and reduce stress and accidents. The California Office of Traffic Safety's Smooth Operator program is one. CHP and local police, despite limited resources and minimal public cooperation, do their best. MADD, Rideshare and Buckle-Up also deserve kudos for their efforts. And there are others.
Tips such as slowing down, allowing plenty of time to get from one place to another, seeing your car as a refuge, and when you drive, concentrate and just drive, among others, were offered to promote driver safety. "Isn't it kind of simple?" I was asked politely. "Yes," I answered, "but so is medical advice to wash your hands, lose weight, stop smoking and use a condom." Simple to say, but oh so hard to incorporate as a permanent lifestyle change. Ask the smokers, the drinkers, the overweight.
In 1992, nothing has really changed. We have only to get on the freeway and look around or note the endless accounts of accidents, congestion and commuting horror stories.
What to do?
What's needed is a large-scale, well-coordinated institutionally protected long-term public education program. Driver stress and safety is a huge public health problem. Its attendant costs, such as lost productivity and legal expenses, must be reduced significantly.
We simply cannot afford to go on driving ourselves crazy and assaulting each other on our highways. We must learn to work together for the common good.
Most accidents occur on sunny, dry days and are the result of driver error or equipment failure. Stressed-out, impatient, angry drivers who don't pay attention to the boring task of just driving make errors. So do stressed-out workers, doctors and parents.
Sure, more police, stricter enforcement and more roads would help. CALTRANS can help, but so can we.
Each of us every time we drive, must take responsibility to slow down, concentrate, drive safely and respect other drivers. Commuting can actually become an opportunity to relax and get away from the pressures of work and family. Learning to respect others while driving a car can be a building block in the post-riot healing process.
Road Warriors and just plain jerks must learn the futility of their high-risk driving behavior. Time urgency and hostility carry over to home and work, interfering with success and creating a wasteland of interpersonal relationships.