I drive the same route to and from our daughters’ school at least twice a day. Five right turns, four left; eight traffic lights, five stop signs each way, plus a brief salute to the policeman directing traffic at Jefferson and Van Buren. I can drive the route in my sleep and given my affinity for multitasking, likely have. This route is as ingrained in my memory as my daily brush and floss routine; the auto pilot of my mind. As of this writing, mental cruise control is neither illegal nor regulated. But perhaps it should be.
While driving home this morning, I witnessed a horrifying car accident. The black sedan in front of me changed lanes and collided with a white delivery van. The force of the impact sheared the front end off of the sedan and flipped the van onto its passenger side with awe-inspiring ease.
Minus a camera and a beaming director screaming “cut,” the scene was movie perfect. Miraculously, the two drivers and their passengers exited the cars unaided, visibly shaken but moving all their limbs. Several drivers from nearby cars and a group of young pedestrians ran over to check on the victims. Someone called 911.
I joined the group of good samaritans and offered my assistance, consisting of a gaping mouth and careful avoidance of the fluids leaking from the sedan’s engine. Within minutes, the police arrived and began directing traffic. I returned to my car and joined the procession of other cars inching away from the scene.
Although I was driving mere feet behind the black sedan, I can’t describe exactly what I witnessed. I can replay the moment of impact in my head in dramatic, slow motion detail, but can’t visualize what happened in the moments before the accident.
I wasn’t talking on my cell phone (though I often do) or texting while I drive (which I don’t) or even picking Raisin Bran detritus out of my teeth. Instead I was mentally plotting the myriad tasks I wanted to accomplish today, down to the phone calls to return and the ingredients needed for a cheesecake I’m baking for my husband’s birthday. My driving was on auto-pilot; my mind everywhere except in the moment.
The sound of screeching tires and crunching metal broke my reverie. If it hadn’t, today would be like any other day, and I wouldn’t remember a single detail about my drive home. I don’t need drugs or alcohol or texting to impair my driving. The scattered daily machinations of my brain impair me enough to be a danger to myself and others.
I’m sure I’m not alone. With our busy lives and multitasking superpowers, I’m confident many of us aren’t as present as we could be while operating heavy machinery. Our brains are racing down the German autobahn while our bodies are stuck in rush hour traffic.
This auto pilot mode scares me, especially when we’re transporting precious cargo, but also in more mundane ways.
When I’m wielding a sharp knife to chop vegetables later today, I’ll likely be thinking about the dress I keep forgetting to return to Bluefly. When I’m playing my requisite seven minutes of Barbies this afternoon with my daughters, I’ll likely be thinking about all the Yeah Write posts I could be catching up on. Harmless? Perhaps. But I’d like the ability to be where my body is and take in what’s offered in the moment. For someone who hates to be left out of anything, I may be missing out on a boatload of joy. At the very least I’m at risk of losing my fingertips to a merciless Ginsu knife.
I guarantee that for the next day or so I’ll be more present while I’m driving, forcing extraneous thoughts from my monkey mind. I also guarantee that before long, I’ll slip back into my auto-pilot pattern. Perhaps the next generation of auto safety features can address this issue. I’m thinking a haunting, disembodied voice that periodically reminds me to pay attention and zaps me with an electric current would work well.
The best I can promise is that today I’ll be grateful for all the times I’ve driven safely and pray my guardian angels keep up the good work. However, if you see me on the road, please consider honking or throwing a rock at my window – anything to jolt me back to my life.
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