By Dr. Victor S. Sierpina

Driving a car actually takes a lot of skills. It is a daily example of complex multi-tasking.

Since most of us have been doing it so long, it can seem automatic. Yet just think of how many tasks — or switches between what we are paying attention to — happen as we drive.

We glance at the dash, the mirrors, gauge the speed and location of our vehicle and those around us, accelerate, brake, read road signs and so forth.

Now that is just the driving part. It doesn’t include drinking a beverage, adjusting the sound system or answering a phone call.

Having worked in emergency rooms for many years, I have seen some horrific outcomes of poor driving, intoxication, distraction, poor road conditions, equipment malfunctions and bad judgment.

Just a little inattention and distraction can quickly shatter the life of some motorcyclist, pedestrian or bicyclist, destroying man and machine.

Though thankfully car deaths are falling annually, there are in the U.S. nearly 5.5 million crashes a year, 2.5 million injuries and over 32,000 deaths.

Given the number of tasks involved in driving, the speeds at which we drive and the multitude of decisions we have to make instantaneously, it is almost a miracle that any of us survive our daily commutes. Some don’t make it, though, as the grim statistics point out.

Have you noticed how many more cars seem to have all these shallow scratches along their sides these days?

I think of them as texting punctuation. They are a period, comma, semicolon, question mark or exclamation points resulting of drifting into an adjacent lane. Glancing off another car or guardrail isn’t fatal — just disfiguring to your body work and potentially dangerous.

This is often the result of inattention and trying to punch out a few critical thoughts to whatever person’s phone is more important than your and others’ lives and safety.

In an article titled “Impactful Distraction in Science News,” August 2013, it was reported that texting or talking on the phone while driving quadrupled the risk of accidents.

Hands-free talking does not lower this risk. The distraction causes us to limit our eye movements and concentration on the road and other vehicles.

Gosh, I hated reading that! I often catch up on a lot of phone calls and patient messages while driving and figured my Bluetooth-equipped car made it easy and safe to talk while driving.

Wrong. In fact, it is a lot like driving drunk.

In her book “How to Train a Wild Elephant,” Dr. Jan Chozen Bays provides us with a wonderful chapter on mindful driving.

She invites us to open up to beginner’s mind, stepping back from driving on autopilot and to notice and enjoy all the subtle activities involved in driving.

This can start from noticing the pressure of the seat on your thighs, buttocks and back, the feeling of the feet resting on the floor, the pressure of the key in our fingers, the vibrations of the running engine, and how the hands grip the wheel.

Mindful driving involves relaxed, alert awareness and being prepared for the unexpected. Just like in life, we have a destination we hope to get to in a straight line, but there are often many unexpected curves, delays, detours and surprises along the way.

Mindfulness is like a vehicle that can help us move through life and get to where we want to be going, safely, peacefully and grounded in moment-to-moment awareness.

So I have started just to relax and reflect on the joy of driving and realize what bliss I can find just noticing the many detailed tasks involved in safe and observant driving.

Suddenly, this mundane, daily method of transporting myself and others from place to place has become an event in itself.

Driving is transformed to something of grandeur and mystery, something of immense value. I know that this attention to driving makes me a safer driver. It is also a metaphor for much of the rest of life.

Lesson learned: When I am doing a complex task, I can really enjoy it by immersing myself totally in the moment, deriving satisfaction and even bliss from that mindful presence.

Plus, I just plain do it better.
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At a glance

Here are a half dozen pointers for safer, more enjoyable driving.

When driving, just drive.

Enjoy the sensation and experience of driving by noticing all the major and minor components of what you are doing.

Avoid distractions such as using the phone as it quadruples the risk of accident.

Keep alert, sober, attentive.

Be mindful of road and vehicle conditions and adjust speed accordingly.

Wear your safety belt.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.