On Texting While Driving (It's Not What You Think)

After carpool drop-off this morning, I was momentarily relieved by the fact that we had eked in before we were officially “late,” and I wanted to text one of the other moms to let her know I got the kids in on time. But when I reached for my phone, I was reminded of my pledge to not distract myself while driving anymore, which then got me thinking about why people lull themselves into believing that texting while driving isn’t so bad.

I think about this modern habit so often. As I walk the dogs in the morning, I see the majority of people driving by with eyes partly on the road and partly on phones, and I realize they rationalize this behavior by telling themselves that they can see the road and their phones at the same time. But driving isn’t about what your eyes can see; it’s about being alert to your environment. And alertness isn’t simply a visual experience—it’s a receptivity to everything that is happening in that moment, to your environment and to what joins each moment to the next.

As I noticed myself deep in this thought, I found myself in the left turn lane as the light turned green. I was behind two cars. The car in front of me was riding up on the back of the car in front of it, and, as we all made the turn, the car in front of me surged ahead of the first car. It was then when I noticed that the first car was a student driver, and immediatelyIi felt compassion for that person and internalized a desire to be a good driving model and decidedly NOT ride up to his bumper in impatience as the car before me had done.

I considered for a moment whether it would be a fun job to be a student driving instructor and couldn’t immediately decide what my answer was, which brought to mind being a student driver myself, at the age of 16, when getting behind the wheel of a car carried such great import and felt foreign and overwhelming, with responsibility and things to remember about safety and speed and the confluence of events—the fact that I was operating machinery that could cause great harm to self and others if not properly driven—it was a lot to be conscious of at once.

So I slowed my speed and smiled at the instructor and gave her a thumbs up as I passed the car at a reasonable speed. The person behind the wheel was a grown man, probably 35 years old, and looked to be someone not born in this country. Again, I felt a well of compassion and empathy as I watched this man, foreign to this experience in so many ways, focus on the road and simultaneously on all the elements that created the moment he was in. When we both came to the next red light, we were side by side, and I spoke through my open window in the direction of the instructor and the student. I smiled at the instructor and commended the student for his good driving and for his attentiveness, and I told him that it would soon get easier and that he would surely be a very good driver. He smiled, but I don’t think he really understood what I was saying. And then the light turned green, and I made a right turn as they continued forward and out of sight.

Suddenly it occurred to me how driving is a metaphor for how we live our lives.

When we encounter sitting behind the wheel of the car for the first time, we are shocked and awed by the experience, by its importance and its power, by the benefits we can gain from the independence it provides us, and also by the responsibility we have to execute it properly, lest we cause harm to self or others. There seems like too much to take in, too much to attend to. The operation of the machinery as we move through space with variables created by environmental factors, movements of other cars and people, traffic lights, shifts in the way the sun comes through the windshield, sounds, thoughts passing through our minds—it all seems like too much to hold at once. Yet somehow, we manage.

As time passes, our bodies form memories of certain actions, and those actions soon become automatic. Starting the car and putting it into gear, and even checking for oncoming traffic before turning and turning around to search blind spots before changing lanes, become so automated that these don’t register as conscious actions. We subdue so many of the environmental cues to be able to execute a task and attain a goal—to get from here to there—that often we don’t recall much, if anything, about the experience of having gotten there.

For many of us, this ability to automate gives us space to do other things, like listen to the radio or talk to a passenger or, in so many cases, pick up a phone and text. As humans living in the United States in the 21st century, when we find extra space, we are conditioned to fill it with something more. We are consumers, multitaskers, overachievers. No longer is it a herculean feat to embark in a motor-driven steel tube moving at four times the speed at which the fastest human can sprint. It’s just a thing we do when we need to take kids to school or go shopping. And, in so automating, we choose to diversify with our attention and with our effort as we collect actions horizontally rather than enrich existing experiences vertically.

But what would happen if instead of reaching laterally, we chose instead to reach more deeply into where we already were? What if, each time we got into our cars, rather than try to automate driving actions so that we could undertake new ones (like texting or eating or applying make-up) WHILE we were driving, we opted instead to feel more connection with the actions we were engaging in and with the environment that surrounds us and interacts with us (like loosening our grip on the steering wheel or feeling the fresh air coming through the windows)? What if being alert and present, seeking depth of experience over collection of experiences, were the norm?

I don’t think there’s a “right” answer, and, if there is, I certainly don’t have it.

I do know, though, from my own experience, that I have seen and felt what collecting looks like. I know all too well how the automation of behaviors can yield a sense of detachment from the magnitude of each of the actions that I take in this world and how my sense of detachment fuels a disconnection and a depth of loneliness and solitude that often aggrieves me. And I also know that when I choose to expand a moment with depth of experience over diversification of my experiential portfolio, my connection with each of my experiences is so great that the jab of loneliness finds no purchase. My sense of self as “separate from” is so supplanted by my sense of connection with all, that a simple ray of sunshine touching my forehead can imbue me with a feeling of gratitude unlike any task completed or object obtained.

My preference is therefore for depth of experience over collection of experiences—absorbing life with the mind of a beginner—because, however seemingly familiar, each moment is unique, as is our potential for experiencing its fullness.

And my take-away?

Automate less. Experience more. Don’t text and drive. The life you save will certainly be your own.