How can I be more zen about driving, when everyone wants to kill me?
February 16, 2013 3:01 AM   Subscribe

I've had a particularly awful experience on Friday that made me pull over and cry for a few minutes. LA freeways are a nightmare, and I really need ideas on how to internally deal with assholes on the road, and repeated incidents of dangerous aggression. I don't know how everyone else does it!

I've been driving here for nearly ten years and had one accident when I was 18. I'm not a bad driver, I don't disturb the flow of traffic or try to aggravate those around me on the road, but my god. I have to drive an hour to get to work, going opposite of traffic - which is great, but also gives people plenty of opportunities to be bastards driving killing machines. Repeated tailgating across multiple lanes, merging in front of me with barely any room to spare and no indicators, pulling ahead and in front and breaking HARD out of nowhere, not giving me any room on a lane that's merging into another, etc. It feels like these scenarios are getting more and more frequent, and it's freaking scary.

I try to stick to one lane (and not the passing lane), have good music or podcasts playing, leave plenty of room in front of me, but nearly every day there's some incident where another driver almost disregards my presence and pulls a dangerous maneuver. I don't know how to keep calm and carry on I guess..! How can I avoid getting more and more anxious about getting in my car at the end of the day? How do other people let this stuff roll off of them? Breathing excercises? Decompression techniques? I'm willing to try anything, and if this daily adventure could be avoided entirely I'd have jumped at the chance long ago.

Absolutely dreading Monday morning because of this.
posted by Tequila Mockingbird to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, CA (47 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I hate to say this, but that repeated tailgating/cutting in front of you/braking hard combo? That's what a lot of people do to cars that are moving slower than most of the rest of the surrounding traffic, especially if that slow-moving vehicle is in the left lanes.

So: are you keeping up with traffic? There's no need to be the fastest person out there, of course, but are you regularly the SLOWEST person? And too, while you're leaving 'plenty of room in front', are you leaving *so much* room that, as with being the slowest driver on the road, it gives other drivers a perception that they're being 'held back' and that you're creating some sort of barely-moving traffic jam.
posted by easily confused at 3:17 AM on February 16, 2013 [23 favorites]

Ugh I have this problem. Here's what I do:

-leave early then go to a coffee shop and read a book until work.
-leave early and take alternate pretty routes through neighborhoods, parks.
-take the bus (may not be applicable where you are).
-imagine everyone who is an asshole driver is going to a hospital where someone they love is very sick (I work near a bunch of hospitals) and that's why their driving like that.
-do deep breathing exercises while I drive: 5 second inhale / 5 second exhale (don't do it so much you make yourself dizzy)
-try to remember I can't control the behavior of others, but I can control mine and then try to not let strangers ruin my time in my car.

Can you move closer to work? I found that when I am able to ride a bike or walk it is much nicer than taking freeways. Or can you carpool with a co-worker? Join a ride-share? Still my main trick is just to leave super early and hang out at places I like along the way. Good luck!
posted by dog food sugar at 3:33 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Good advice from easily confused, but even if you are not doing that, or any other kind of provocatiion, there are a lot of jerks out there.

A few years ago, I lived (and drove) in Africa, in a place that set a new watermark for horrible driving. I found that it really helped me to think of the other cars as crazed wild animals, rather than pieces of equipment being piloted by human beings who were CHOOSING to behave in such dangerous and aggressive ways. That helped me shift my mindset away from "why did that happen" and towards just dealing with it as a fact of life. It did not change the objective situation, but it reduced my stress levels and made it easier to cope.
posted by rpfields at 3:38 AM on February 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

have good music or podcasts playing
Have you tried driving without the music and podcasts? I find stressful driving environments are easier when it is just me and my car and the other cars and hazards around me. Your concentration is on your surroundings, and you have no temptation to change the volume, process whatever is happening in the story, etc. Give it a try.

I lived (and drove) in Africa
Oh gosh, me too. And then I spent some months in Houston and found myself traveling in large migrations of dumb, fast-moving wildebeests on the Loop. I have clear memories of forcing my car through slow-moving traffic around 610 and Westheimer, asking myself whether certain "assertive" habits were things I should be doing or had picked up in Accra.
posted by whatzit at 4:03 AM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

One thing that might help your mental state considerably, is to consider the type and condition of the car you drive. If you're tackling LA rush hour traffic in a 10 year old, 90 horsepower Toyota Corolla with worn brakes, bad shocks, and under-inflated budget tires, you're probably right to be more nervous than if you're out there in a new 250 horsepower Buick Verano with 4 wheel disc brakes, traction control/electronic stability control, and new tires/suspension and safety gear.

You can't always be driving the latest and greatest car, but you should be driving a car that is appropriate for the routes and conditions in which you drive, and you should make sure that any car you drive in that kind of environment is in top shape as far as brakes, tires and suspension. If you're sure you can accelerate quickly when needed, and always stop as quickly as the guy in front of you can, a lot of interior anxiety goes away, but if you're trying to anticipate the other guy to overcome your own vehicle's deficiencies, you're bound to lose, sooner or later.

And on preview, +1 to whatzit's suggestion to turn off the radio (except, perhaps for 5 minute traffic reports on the hour), and of course the cell phone, too, and just drive.
posted by paulsc at 4:16 AM on February 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

Just the other day, I read in a book a suggested technique for dealing with this. I haven't tried it, YMMV, etc., but here goes:

When someone drives like a jerk, causing you stress, make up a story that presents a best case scenario for why that person was driving that way. So, for example, maybe a woman's young son was in the back seat choking, and she was trying to check on him while rushing to get to the hospital. The idea here is not that you'll really believe this is the truth, but that even allowing yourself to think it could be true might redirect some of your anger/fear/frustration into sympathy/empathy, which in turn will calm you down.
posted by maxim0512 at 4:31 AM on February 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't experience those sorts of events very often, and the frequency of them that you're describing makes easily confused's thoughts seem very plausible. My wife has significant driving anxiety in freeway traffic, and she sometimes unconsciously slows down and makes the whole situation exponentially worse by triggering the sort of vehicular chaos she most fears. In heavy traffic in big cities, leaving 'plenty of room in front' is just an invitation for others to squeeze in there. So maybe work at driving more assertively.

How do other people let this stuff roll off of them? Breathing excercises? Decompression techniques?

When it does happen, I get mad, not anxious. But just for a minute and then it's over. Sorry if that's not helpful.

If you're already anxious when you get behind the wheel, then you're primed to see every challenging situation as confirmation that danger and aggression is everywhere. I think your goal should be to be less anxious at the moment you get in your car and start it. If your mental state is dominated by what you're imagining instead of what's actually happening, you're already sunk. Trying to deep-breathe your way out of that seems like a losing game.

I wonder whether you could work at building some positive associations with driving? Drive when you don't have to. Drive to an especially great ice cream parlor, or to get supplies for a hobby. Some of the most beautiful roads in the world are within range for a weekend road trip.
posted by jon1270 at 4:51 AM on February 16, 2013

Defensive driving is all about actively planning escape routes and reactions. When driving in heavy traffic, I just assume everyone around me is going to make poor decisions. The Honda edging out from a side street is definitely going to turn directly in front of me. The Beemer coming up fast from the right lane is definitely going to squeeze in front of me. The bus facing me from across the intersection will definitely gun it and turn left as soon as soon as the light changes.

With these assumptions in my mind, I'm already preparing for the necessary response (brake, lift off the gas, wait, respectively) so when someone does do something stupid, I calmly take the action I planned. It gives a satisfying feeling of control and safety when I correctly anticipate idiocy, and the rest of the time, I'm pleasantly surprised by good behavior. Good luck out there!
posted by violinflu at 4:59 AM on February 16, 2013 [13 favorites]

California traffic is... special. I've driven regularly in cities that were rumored for having terrible traffic (Chicaco, Detroit), and frankly it was nothing like the aggression, rudeness, and incompetence of the drivers around me everyday on I-80 outside of Sacramento. LA is rumored to be much worse, so I feel you OP.

I've learned to cope by learning my route really well and acting well ahead of when I need to. In your lane merge example, that would never happen to me because I know the lane merge is coming and I move over a mile or two before it happens so that I am not caught. It's so much less stressful to know you need to merge in 3 miles and jumping over whenever you get a opening rather than fighting for it at the end. I have also memorized the hotspots where traffic tends to snarl up and I make sure I'm in the correct lane to get through the hotspot as easily as possible (in my case, these hotspots are caused by abnormally slow traffic coming onto an onramp so moving over to the left to let them merge helps us both).

I do notice I get tailgated and cut off more when I'm driving slower than prevailing speeds (I have a 90hp car so acceleration is very slow), so there might be something to that as well. Try speeding up 5mph when possible and see if that eases the aggression.
posted by zug at 5:20 AM on February 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

"Repeated tailgating across multiple lanes" really shouldn't happen almost ever. I mean, if you were going too slow in one lane, why on earth are you changing lanes to a faster lane and inviting the tailgater again? That means at some point you cut them off.

In the future, if someone wants to pass you, help them pass. If someone wants to get into your lane, make room for a safe switch. It sounds like you are probably a safer driver than these yahoos, but you may be inviting aggression by being discourteous.
posted by PCup at 5:55 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I try to stick to one lane (and not the passing lane)

The way this is worded, it sounds like you aren't sticking to the right most lane, or you would have stated that. If people are constantly tailgating you, then you are probably going slower than the rest of traffic so you should be staying in the right lane.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:05 AM on February 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

Seconding dog food sugar. Some people are not cut out for driving commutes. I moved to a new city and live close enough to bike to work, walk to shopping/restaurants, bus to downtown, etc. This has changed my life. Making radical changes to free yourself from your car will have a much greater impact for the better than changing your cruising speed and increasing situational awareness.
posted by crazycanuck at 6:08 AM on February 16, 2013

One other small point that may or may not apply to you, but is especially useful if you do have a small economy type car: keep it cleaned out. A couple months ago, a neighbor of mine was complaining that her Hyundai Accent wasn't good for driving in traffic, and in looking over her car, I realized her back seat was full of stuff, and upon checking, so was her trunk, except for a tiny area big enough for the two shopping bags she usually brought home from the grocery store. We unloaded 40 pounds of magazines she was "taking into" some place she volunteers, a 20 pound sewing machine she was giving her sister, a bag of gym gear that had 20 pounds of free weights and leg weights, 10 pounds of cat litter she kept in her trunk because it was "good for snow" (she lives in Florida), some gardening tools, and miscellaneous other stuff, altogether amounting to about 120 pounds of payload. She'd been paying for gas to accelerate that stuff every time she pulled away from a stop sign, and using up her brakes stopping it, again and again, for months. It was like she always had an extra invisible passenger along, and in that 90 hp car, it made a noticeable difference getting up to speed, and about 8 feet shorter stopping distance from 50 mph.

She also found that a clean interior was a nicer place in which to drive.
posted by paulsc at 6:26 AM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have a fairly hellish commute myself, of about 40 to 50 minutes. One leg of my route is full. of. crazy. Here's what I do:

1. Look for the lane that is least dysfunctional. In my case, this is usually the special lane on the far right that is only active during rush hour, and the regular right lane next to it.

2. In heavy traffic, you may not be able to leave a car length, but try for half. Beware of the people around you, and yes, they are assholes, but I find that I can really tell when I pay attention, who is going to be trying to merge into my lane. They hover.

3. As someone said above, know your route, and plan for it. "Okay, so when I pass xyz sign, I know that traffic will clog up soon because all those people are merging on - I'll get over one lane so that there is room to merge and I don't have to dodge those guys."

4. Travel the same speed as most of the traffic. You should be able to keep pace in your lane with a safe distance, most of the time, between you and the car in front of you. Being very slow is just as dangerous as being very fast.

Above all just relinquish the idea that you can control anything other than yourself. Prepare to be safe - your car should be gassed up and taken care of, and have your coffee and your music if you don't think it's distracting for you, and just try to relax and pay attention so you can make good choices.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:36 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm assuming there are at least 4 lanes of traffic. You need to stay as far right as is practical. Maybe not the far-right lane, since folks need to enter and exit, but certainly not the next-to-left lane, either. Think of ALL lanes except the far right as passing lanes. Don't stick to one lane--choose the lane that's moving the slowest. Nothing drives me battier than someone who thinks that, just because he's not in the left lane, he can go whatever speed he wants to.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:36 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I live in LA, and drive the freeways as well as surface streets. There is no " passing lane" on the freeway--the farthest left lane is allegedly the fast lane, but in reality, all lanes are passing lanes. You might not be keeping up with traffic, if you're leaving a great deal space ahead--forget what drivers' ed told you about 6 car lengths--the freeways at rush hour aren't the same as driving on the interstate. Turn off the radio and try to pay attention to what's going on a couple of cars ahead, on both sides. If someone wants to pass, let them. Give motorcycles space so they can split the lanes--this is legal. Give people room to exit or change lanes--I get very cranky with slower drivers who hog the lane nearest the off-ramps and don't seem to notice that I'm signaling and trying to get to the exit.
Driving on the freeway can be frustrating, but you have to be active--sitting in one lane, chugging along, praying that you'll get there in one piece isn't active participation.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:56 AM on February 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

If people are constantly tailgating you, then you are probably going slower than the rest of traffic so you should be staying in the right lane.

Lane discipline is tricky on US interstates because they are designed terribly often have exit-only lanes on the right. However, on a commute, Medieval Maven's advice applies: you can learn the most appropriate lane for each section with a best alternative.

I sing songs about drivers and what they're going to do, which is one way to feel in control about the situation.
posted by holgate at 7:00 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ditto violinfu's advice. The way I manage driving is to merge with the flow of traffic as best I can, find the average around me of behavior and act courteously by pro-actively taking action in traffic, merging ahead of time, being aware of people coming up on me from behind, leaving room for merges in front of me. I am always looking to expand some room in front of me when people merge so there is more reaction time. I have a pair of those little concave mirrors glued to my regular mirrors so I can get a big world view of what's behind instead of the tunnel view of the standard mirror. I need to get the big picture in a glance, see movement and know exactly what's in the two side lanes on either side in case a quick maneuver is needed.
LA traffic is significantly speeded up and aggressive over other places in the world. That can be good and bad. Good because you learn to drive in heavy, fast, quick reacting traffic. Bad because it can be jarring and feel threatening.
Like being on a bike, I try not see the people inside, I only look at the vehicle and think of it as a big wild animal with unpredictable behaviors and only a couple of lights tell you what it's going to do. Mapping out escape routes is a basic behavior. Always be calculating the least cost exit from a situation, expanding your safety zone in front yet maintaining position. If you are slowing down traffic noticeably, people can and will jam around you aggressively. Acceleration can be your friend by taking you out of a dicey situation into a safer more predictable place. Good luck out there. Lose the radio for a while and practice getting into the flow and expanding your awareness of what's going on around you.
posted by diode at 7:27 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

merging in front of me with barely any room to spare and no indicators

People should use their turn signals, but many don't. There are still ways people will telegraph that they want to change lanes, such as speeding up along side of you, or making small, quick moves to change lanes.

When you notice this, are you slowing down to let them in? Are you noticing this? I agree with the suggestion that you eliminate distractions like the radio when you are driving. Also, check your mirrors at regular intervals to see what is going on around you. (I've heard every 10 seconds is a good rule of thumb.) You should not be constantly surprised by other drivers. By driving defensively you will learn how to anticipate many signals.

The thing that keeps me sane in L.A. traffic is remembering one thing: Do not be part of the problem. This means I don't block intersections, even if it I end up missing the light. I let people merge. I keep up with the flow of traffic. I signal.

You might also look into non-freeway alternatives during rush-hour. My parents and I moved here in 1972 and my mom has never, ever driven on the freeway. When I was in high school she used to drive to work from W.L.A. to Woodland Hills and back on surface streets. Depending on your commute it might be an alternative.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:38 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

In Houston flowing-freeway traffic situations, if you are going BELOW the MAXIMUM posted speed limit, you are almost certainly a hazard and causing problems. If you get to the top of the freeway on-ramp and you are NOT going the MAXIMUM speed limit, you ARE a hazard and you ARE causing problems.

Do you use cruise control? I know it is not always possible, but I find keeping my speed steady really helps other drivers avoid me.

Also Houston specific, since I seldom drive elsewhere, but: If I leave 5 minutes early, I arrive ten minutes early, because traffic is so much less crazy. if I leave two minutes late, I arrive ten-15 minutes late, because traffic gets insane and dumb.

And, most of all: Don't take it personal. They are not actually attacking you. Yes, it is dangerous and scary. But they are likely nervous and scared too.
posted by Jacen at 7:50 AM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

From personal observation I can attest that traffic on LA freeways is no more extreme than elsewhere, and I take a dim view of the regional insult built into this question. DC loves to declare its traffic woes second only to LA but IMO it's much worse in DC due to insufficient alternatives and lousier infrastructure, which raises the stress level thus provoking asshole drivers, who exist everywhere.

When encountering one, to answer the OP's question, don't compete, slow down, pull over, get out of the way and let 'em go. Then proceed.
posted by Rash at 8:08 AM on February 16, 2013

The first thing that gets switched off when I drive through difficult traffic is the radio/CD player. To avoid getting shocked every time someone behaves badly on the road, you need to have your wits about you, actively anticipating others' moves. The better your podcast, the smaller your chance to achieve this.
posted by Namlit at 8:23 AM on February 16, 2013

How about taking a defensive driving course? It might help increase your confidence when driving with aggressive drivers.
posted by florencetnoa at 8:28 AM on February 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Call a driving school and see if they offer instruction in defensive driving. A session or two with someone actually in the car with you will help you better assess the specifics of what's going on. Check into breathing techniques that will help you manage your anxiety, or better yet, look into short-term therapy for this specific issue. You don't deserve to spend your weekends dreading Monday morning.

As far as listening to music/podcasts, do what you need to do. If music is distracting you, turn it off. If it's helping you stave off a panic attack, keep it on. I personally cannot do podcasts while driving, simply because they require more attention than I can give them.
posted by corey flood at 8:31 AM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

For me the driving anxiety was helped with a combination of working with my own stress level and some situational awareness of what was going on with people who did not drive like I did. The older I get the more I will drive like a slow cautious person if left to my own devices. This is fine in the small town that I live in, but totally unacceptable if I'm on a major city highway and I have to adapt or I should stay off the major city highway, in my own opinion. Seeing myself as part of the highway organism and not some lone target for nutty drivers.

So, for the stress level

- eat breakfast or otherwise be fed and not over caffeinated
- listen to classical music or nothing in the car, nothing that requires my attention. Phone off and in my bag. No food or drink in the car
- give myself enough time to be where I need to be so that "being late" is not on my list of concerns
- realizing that thousands of people use these highways every day and a vanishingly small number get in accidents. I do not know why I think I am so special that I am the one who will get in an accident if I am driving appropriately. It's like being afraid of lightning or something.

For the organism thing

- driving a car in good repair but also not "my precious" and decently insured so if I got in an accident, god forbid, I would not have money troubles on top of accident troubles (I know this sounds nuts but part of fear-of-accidents is figuring out what the underlying fear is. Injury? Death? Money problems? Late to work? Cops? Accidents suck but in a good car with airbags and seatbelts they are not fatal as often as we feel they are going to be)
- learning how to effectively merge on on-ramps and change lanes and be aware of other people doing these things correctly and incorrectly and how to respond appropriately
- taking responsibility for my own position in this. I don't have to agree with all the rules of the road that people seem to agree on but I should know what they are and try to work within them (see what everyone else is saying about trying to stay in a lane at appropriate speed to the traffic around you). These rules change depending on where you are. If LA traffic rules are appalling to you, it's also okay to, over the longer term, plan your exit strategy and this may make you feel more in control of the situation. I moved to Vermont partly because I could not abide by Massachusetts traffic in the long run. I am not sorry to have made that decision.
posted by jessamyn at 8:51 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I want to add that right lane/merger lanes are no longer used as slower lanes in Los Angeles. The right lane now includes drivers well over the speed limit, drivers hoping to use the merge lane to get about five cars ahead in a line of hundreds, drivers determined to 'win' what they see as a contest of egos. I try to stay in one of the center lanes that has less lane changing until I am ready to exit.

If you know the traffic patterns of your commute, you can predict a lot of likely problems as is noted in some of the comments above. Often, fifteen to twenty minutes can make a difference between a manageable commute experience and a painful commute, so perhaps leave a little earlier.
posted by effluvia at 8:56 AM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Absolutely dreading Monday morning because of this.

I've been thinking about this, and I'm not sure that any of my advice will help in the short term. I would really think about leaving early tomorrow morning and trying surface streets. You might find that since you're going against traffic it won't be hugely more time consuming, especially if you're traveling on streets with timed lights. You can always hop back on the freeway.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:04 AM on February 16, 2013

Definitely leave earlier. It's amazing the difference it makes to remove all your time pressure and have "all the time in the world" to get where you're going. It's much easier to be all "Whatev, jackass, do what you want" when you're not in a rush.

Long term - figure out how to carpool, bus, or something like that. Congratulations! You have now reached the point at which there are Just Too Many People for everyone having their own personal car to really be practical.

I'm not saying that as the Green Police; I'm saying that as someone who reached that point a while ago. I still have a car and use it when I have to, but getting into the vanpool and worker/driver bus program where I work was the best thing ever for my general stress level. Takes a little longer to get where I'm going, and my ability to be spontaneous on work days took a bit of a hit, but I'm much happier overall.
posted by ctmf at 9:32 AM on February 16, 2013

I think that a lot of people never really learn to observe the cars around them - it's something I picked up from my mom, but driving with other people it seems like some are constantly surprised by cars - "he didn't use a signal! Why did she brake?! Why is that car tailgating me!?" But since I observe the cars around me constantly as I'm driving, I know that Car A wanted to merge in front of me because he spend up and occupied the spot in front of me and one lane over (so I slow down to give them a bit more room). Car B is braking because he was cut off by another car (so I'm already slowing down in anticipation). Car C is tailgating me because I'm going slower than them but the don't think they have room to pass me (so I slow down or speed up slightly to give them room).

A driver that wants to feel in control can't simply pick one lane and ignore the cars around them until somethings scary happens. I don't know what they teach in an in-car defensive driving course, but it seems like something that can be learned with practice - just watch the cars around you as part of your daily driving.

(Also, I grew up in California and went to college in LA. I moved to another, smaller city where I commute daily, but when I went back to LA a few years ago, I definitely felt like I had to flip a switch back to "this is LA." There are definitely different social driving norms in different cities - that doesn't mean LA drivers are particularly bad.)
posted by muddgirl at 9:33 AM on February 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

How much room are you leaving ahead of you? In LA we don't leave nearly as much room as in other places. If you're leaving a car length gap - even going the speed of traffic - you're going to frustrate other drivers. And people are going to slam their car into any gap which results in the hard braking. What you are perceiving as tailgating may be just the way it is here since people drive bumper to bumper.

But your question was to how do people get over the crap of driving in LA. I listen to comedy shows to make it less of a grind. Also, I remember that it's not personal. They aren't mad at me. They're mad at the situation - too many cars, not enough road.
posted by 26.2 at 9:51 AM on February 16, 2013

To add onto what maxim0512 said above, this is a great example of the fundamental attribution error, which basically says we tend to explain other people's actions in terms of their character rather than their circumstances (especially when the circumstances leading up to an incident are invisible and the incident itself is obtrusive). I found that wrapping my head around the fundamental attribution error keeps me mellow on the road (and I drive in Jersey) and in other situations.
posted by alphanerd at 9:52 AM on February 16, 2013

merging in front of me with barely any room to spare and no indicators, pulling ahead and in front and breaking HARD out of nowhere, not giving me any room on a lane that's merging into another

This is all pretty standard in LA rush hour traffic, in my experience. It annoys me that people don't use their freaking turn signals, but you can always tell by the way they're driving that they want to change lanes. Are you paying enough attention to more than just the car(s) right in front and behind you? Do you let them in when you do notice they want to change lanes? I generally err on the side of courtesy and let people in if I notice in time. Being a more active and aware driver like that makes me feel more in control and less like I'm getting stampeded by traffic.

As for people tailgating and cutting you off, that really sounds like people retaliating for you either cutting them off, or for going too slow for the flow of traffic. In traffic, don't leave more than one to two car lengths between you and the car in front of you: that's enough room to not have to constantly brake, and to not have the people behind you frustrated. Also, you really need to not be the slowest car on the road. LA drivers are driven insane by people not driving fast enough for the speed of traffic. This doesn't mean you need to go 80+ mph, but if you're in the center lane and the road is clear, 65-70 mph seems to be the norm. Slower than that and you should be in the right most lane with the trucks.
posted by yasaman at 10:23 AM on February 16, 2013

I do think that sometimes there is something drivers do to generate this kind of activity around them. My husband and I both think we're great drivers. However, he is constantly having other drivers "antagonize" him and I seldom have that problem.

We all have our own personal blind spots, perhaps there is something you're doing unintentionally that is making people drive poorly around you. With my husband, I realized that he does this thing where he goes around other drivers without fully leaving the lane. He felt like he was leaving the other driver enough space. When I would look over, I'd see them frequently having a fear/anger reaction to his very close passing style. This explained many incidences he'd recount to me of people starting car fights with him. He really didn't realize this is something that bothered other people.

My mom has lived in LA for 30+ years and has never been in an accident. She gets a good driver discount from her insurance. She thinks she is a great driver. However, I fear for my life every time I drive with her. She drives very slowly, far below the speed limit and creates a flurry of erratic driving activity around her as she crawls along the freeway. She thinks she's being really safe by leaving a huge cushion of space but in reality is creating a problem with her slow speed.

It could also be the freeway your driving on. For instance, I find that people always drive crazy at the 101-405 interchange because it is poorly designed. Since this is a constant (crazy driving), I just expect it to be crazy and since I'm prepared for it, it bothers/scares me less. I have this same philosophy about Trader Joes. I expect it is going to be bananas and when I get there it doesn't bother me because I already accept that it is going to be that way.

What freeways are you taking and at what time? Just curious.

I also agree with others that there is no such thing as one passing lane in LA and you should have a 3-D expectation that passing is going to happen on all sides at all times.

Leaving earlier or at less busy times is something I frequently do if I know the commute is going to be a bear. I'll just grab food or run an errand until it is a better time to drive.
posted by dottiechang at 10:24 AM on February 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

Unlike what others are saying above, I think you can't worry so much about what other drivers may or may not think about your driving. As long as you're driving around the speed limit, using your turn signals, not riding the brake, not cutting people off if you can help it, and not actively endangering anyone, you're doing fine. You can't know what they're thinking and you can't worry about it. Yeah, some people are gonna tailgate you or pull in front of you. Just be prepared for it, look for the signs, and safely do what needs to be done to avoid getting hurt because of it. It's not your responsibility to go superfast because some guy behind you wants to go superfast; he can be an adult and change lanes if he has a problem.
posted by limeonaire at 10:53 AM on February 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

have good music or podcasts playing...

You sound like you might be distracted. Driving during rush hour is moderately demanding, and you might be listening to something that you are a little too interested in.

Rather than using car lengths as an indicator of how much room you should leave between you and the car in front of you, it's more accurate to use a time-based rule. People are terrible at judging distances at freeway speeds. As an illustration, how long, in meters or feet, are the white lines painted on US freeways as lane dividers? Choose your answer now.

And amid imagined howls of protest, use the 2 second rule during rush hour, if traffic is still moving. You will slowly drift backwards relative to the densely packed vehicles around you (or not, as the case may be), but it doesn't have much effect on how soon you arrive. It also serves the purpose of keeping traffic less densely packed, allowing freer movement for other drivers from lane to lane, especially if you tend toward the rightmost lanes on the freeway.

By this rule, 2 car lengths is safe at 12 MPH, and 6 car lengths is safe at 37 MPH (car length here is 18 feet).

I drive rush hour frequently in the SF Bay Area. I don't get honked or swooped-and-squatted. And those white lines? 10 feet, or 3 meters long. Did you underestimate them?
posted by the Real Dan at 11:44 AM on February 16, 2013

No one wants to kill you, but if you are going slow in the fast lane(s) and blocking anyone from passing they will get pretty upset, I know I do. I drive in the DC metro area which does have horrendous traffic and terrible drivers, who are even more terrible if there's the slightest precipitation, and roads with unexpected exit lanes that come up quickly, counterintuitive routes to destinations the other way, freeway merges, city roads that are one-way in rush hour and two-way at other times and occasional drivers who aren't aware of that, diagonal major streets across the city grid, and don't even get me started on the tangle of confusing roads from the bottom of the National Mall over to Arlington and around the Pentagon.

My thoughts as far as dealing with this.. The worst is when a car in the passing lane or center lane drives the exact same speed as traffic to either side, so you have a block of two or three cars holding up everyone who are impossible to pass, so I make sure I never do that even if it means slowing down or speeding for a little bit. As a general rule, I try to cultivate an awareness of all the traffic around me and go on the assumption that anyone can do something incredibly stupid at any moment - slam on the brakes, pull a U-turn, cut me off, refuse to move out of the way of an exit that I need to take, change three lanes at once, etc. It just happens. I lay on the horn if it's a really dangerous move and they're about to hit me.

I drive fast, always, but I'm not doing 85 out there on the Beltway - if someone is really stressing me with the tailgating (it's the worst after dark with those headlights), I get out of the way ASAP if I'm in the fast lane. If I'm in a center lane just going with the flow and they are being pointlessly aggressive and can pass easily elsewhere, I flip the rearview mirror up temporarily so I don't see them. They can get over it. After all, it's their responsibility not to rear-end my car. Also, if I'm going to have to slow down significantly due to sudden traffic jams coming up (happens all the time on I-66), I do it gently a couple of times so the brake lights flash on and off enough to give a better signal to those behind me. I haven't had a wreck other than a fender bender on a side street which was definitely my fault due to not paying attention at a stop sign.
posted by citron at 12:44 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

As long as you're driving around the speed limit

Uh, no. That's not how LA traffic works. If the OP doesn't want to be honked at and swooped around and generally hated by people on the road, they need to go the speed of traffic.
posted by 26.2 at 1:35 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came here to suggest a defensive driving course, but florencetnoa beat me to it by a mile. I want to second it though. You'll feel much more confident that you have the skills to react to dangerous drivers,and if you do have good or bad driving habits, the instructor will reinforce or help you correct them.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:55 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not in LA, but oh man, I hear you, down to the pulling over and crying and all (a few months ago, I was nearly sideswiped at high speed by someone who just couldn't be bothered to look where they were going).

Frankly, I yell at these jerks (not that they hear me), give them imaginary traffic tickets, and move on.

I drive extremely defensively -- I basically always have exit routes in mind. I make a point of not hanging out in someone's blind spot. I make it easy for people who are trying to pass me (even while I am dropping F-bombs over the fact that they are about to do so without signaling). I usually stick to the rightmost lane when there are only two lanes, and the next one over when there are more (to avoid all the freeway entrance/exit merging). I drive approximately the speed limit, well, usually a few miles over. When I know the area, I get into the appropriate lanes for merges well ahead of time. When I don't, I still don't do crazy dangerous multiple lane changes to get where I'm supposed to be; I can live with losing some time to missing my exit and having to navigate my way back. I leave more space ahead of me than most people do, and sometimes someone cuts into it, and then I just readjust. I always signal.

You are not alone in thinking that there is a lot of erratic, dangerous, infuriating driving happening. I think the best you can do is keep yourself alert, so that you spot potential problems before they become unavoidable. Expect that people will be idiots, and drive accordingly.

Also, I would make sure anything you have on the radio is purely background music stuff, not anything that requires focus. Podcasts and audio books are fine for long drives on mostly empty roads, but no way would I listen to them in LA traffic.
posted by ktkt at 2:41 PM on February 16, 2013

I had this kind of reaction to New York City buses, which basically gave me twice daily panic attacks. I don't know if this is an option for you, but my solution was to move. I'm much happier now.

I thought my reaction was unusual, but it turns out that your commute can seriously influence your happiness.
posted by walla at 8:00 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks guys. Just to answer a few questions, yes I've turned off the radio/iPod for weeks at a time in the car. I don't consider myself distracted by this stuff, and if it's on when a situation looks kind of iffy the music gets immediately shut off. (And I drive an awesome 2007 Honda CRV, not an old clunker.)

Moving isn't possible, my husband drives in the opposite direction for his job, and with traffic it takes him as long as my commute. Surface streets would take too much time. I already leave the house at 7am.

I've driven from Redondo Beach to Encino on the 405 and 101 for several years without any of these issues becoming actually dangerous. Yes, I can spot the driver who wants to merge but I just KNOW isn't going to signal. I merge lanes way before they end (the original post was referring to a few stretches where this isn't possible, for one reason or another. I could signal and try to move closer all I want, some people just do. Not. Care.) Now I'm going from Miracle Mile to Valencia, and it's all 101 to 170 to the 5, and somehow people are more aggressive. I'm not going slower than traffic - I stick to 75mph as much as possible, unless of course other cars are slowing down. I don't leave a crazy amount of room in front of me to warrant people being pissed about it, no more than others and no more than what I've always left.

I appreciate suggestions to fix how I drive, but that's not entirely helpful - I'm not doing anything out of the ordinary, reckless, or provocational. I'm looking for ways of internally dealing with people who think they own lanes, the entire freeway, etc. And thank you for the suggestions regarding that.
posted by Tequila Mockingbird at 9:43 AM on February 17, 2013

I've come to the following way of thinking about Boston drivers (who are worse drivers than SoCal drivers, but there aren't as many and they don't drive as fast): Some of them are an accident waiting to happen. My job when driving is to not be there when they have that accident. That car that zooms up behind me and rides my tail? As quickly as it is safely possible I will help them get on down the road where they can have their accident far away from me. It might require me moving over a lane, or maybe staying predictably in my lane at a stable speed, if they look like they're more likely to change lanes to go around me.

You end up doing a lot of projective psychology based on minor car motions. "Ah, that car is drifting in its lane. Let's let off the gas a bit so as to not be next to it on the upcoming curve." And it can make driving much more tiring work, as opposed to the pleasant excursion it can sometimes be. Oh well, I want to stay alive. It probably helps to be a middle-aged fart who doesn't need to prove himself to every random stranger. And this is probably more Boston than L.A., but if someone flips me off while driving I don't take it personally — of course they're angry, they're an angry driver.

This way of thinking was catalyzed a while back while driving (on 91 East, actually) and got ticked at a motorcyclist weaving in and out of traffic while going about 10-15 mph faster than everyone else. About a mile down the road I passed the spot where he was being lifted into an ambulance, next to his crashed cycle. That's when I realized why he needed to get where he was going faster than I did — he was going to die young.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:44 AM on February 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Tequila, just so you don't think you're nuts: that particular stretch of the 5 is a weird vortex for all sorts of aggro-crappy driving. It's a particular flavor of SoCal traffic experience that can really rattle you. A very angry-tweaker feel to it, if you will.

My way of pre-gaming for driving notorious stretches is to think of the experience as being intense and intriguing, rather than bad and wrong. I get into video-game mode, Level Hard, and accept and expect that Shit's Gonna Get Weird. That way, I get less aggrieved when some kid in a ratty Sentra drops me like a hot pocket and then does a flying two-lane merge that nearly takes out the whole pack.

Back when I had burly commutes, I also made a point to remind myself that I was there by choice (even if it didn't feel like it). You and your husband have prioritized living in the Miracle Mile over other options (relocating or getting new jobs), and that is a perfectly fine and good choice. But it's not the only choice.

I do think you might feel less stress if you can avoid dehumanizing and demonizing our fellow comrades on the road. Like you, they are doing the best they can. They are probably dealing with shitty life circumstances sanding their nerves down to the nub. Sucks to be them. But they're not out to get you per se, and you can choose to be cooler than them, and not get sucked into their rage.
posted by nacho fries at 12:15 PM on February 17, 2013

There are going to be bad or aggressive drivers everywhere.
You cannot "teach" them how to drive,
you cannot "punish" them for their mistakes.
As soon as you see that someone is going to merge into your lane, let them.
If you realized this because they used turn signals- then good.
If you realized this because they started going into your lane, let them.
Help them merge into your lane and go on with your commute.

When you see someone jumping in and out of lanes aggressively-- just let them do it and let them get far away from you.
The energy you spend on trying to teach them how to drive is wasted.

I actually leave a bit of room in front of me so that I do not have to slam on my brakes--
My goal is to drive smoothly and consistently, realizing that cars will be pulling ahead of me.
It often makes me feel like I am conducting them, so I feel in control of the situation.

I definitely notice that I am less successful at this when I am late, stressed, or angry in general.
posted by calgirl at 12:50 PM on February 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are regularly exposed to dangerously aggressive drivers, and there's nothing you can change about your own behavior to mitigate it, then getting stressed and scared seems like a natural, and even rational, response. Your body is telling you that you're not safe, and given the rates of car accidents in the US and in LA, your body is probably right! My impression has been that shutting down my body's natural response to danger is very difficult, which may be why people are struggling to provide a helpful response. It seems to me that you really only have a couple of choices:

(1) Give it time, and see if you get more desensitived,
(2) Seek professional help if this is seriously affecting your life in a negative way, or
(3) Find a different, less stressful, perhaps longer commute - either carpooling or maybe taking Metrolink (which looks inconvenient but not impossible).
posted by muddgirl at 7:41 AM on February 18, 2013

I appreciate suggestions to fix how I drive, but that's not entirely helpful....I'm looking for ways of internally dealing....

My suggestion of taking a defensive driving course, or even something like the race course offered here was not offered because I thought you might not have good driving skills, but because a good teacher can do a lot to instill you with confidence in your abilities, as well as give you even more skills than the average driver has. Confidence trumps every time.
posted by BlueHorse at 12:35 AM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't have too much about how to be zen other than remaining in the now and letting the just past evaporate. What I do that helps is use the emergency blinkers, say 5 blinks when someone is just glued to my tailpipe. I also watch for someone driving just a bit slower, move around them and use them as a buffer, your morning traffic sounds a bit to dynamic for that to be effective, great on longer stretches. Staying in one lane may not be the best alternative, you're a bit of a target, move around, at a good time when there's a gap. Signal a lot, let folks know you are there.
posted by sammyo at 8:10 AM on September 11, 2013

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