How to Build Good Driving Habits — and Stick to Them

It’s now the end of January, and the chances are that if you made a New Year’s resolution to start a self-improvement habit, you’ve already failed at it—in fact, an 80 per cent chance by mid-February. So, just why is it so hard to change our habits and make them stick? And how can we apply that to driver safety?

  • Be aware of the cycle—cue, routine, and reward. Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, writes about how every habit contains a cue, routine, and reward. In the case of smartphones, a text or a call or an email comes in—that’s the cue. The routine is to respond to it in some way, even if you’re driving on the highway or negotiating a crowded parking lot. The reward? A little dopamine squirt in your brain that makes you feel good about making that social connection. The key, according to Duhigg, is to notice this cycle by first identifying the cue and why you’re responding to it, then breaking or altering the chain of events that perpetuate the bad habit. Put the phone away or disable it so you can’t hear or see it, and you’re on the road (so to speak) to a safer habit.

  • A new habit doesn’t have to be a huge one to make a difference. Let’s say that you often don’t stop fully before you reach a pedestrian crosswalk at a traffic light, which increases the odds of your inadvertently hitting someone. It’s a bad habit that most of us have, one we often don’t think about. While it’s not as notorious as speeding or using a smartphone behind the wheel, it is a daily occurrence that can be disastrous. Paying attention to this one habit, as small as it may seem, is worth it. And along those lines.

  • The habit must be repeated until it becomes automatic. So, once you’ve decided to make stopping behind a crosswalk a new habit, you must work at it—constantly. This requires vigilance and discipline; every time you pull up to one, you must pay attention and plan ahead of time, multiple times a day. It may be surprisingly difficult at first because it’s often harder than most people think to reprogram their bad habits and replace them with new ones, especially if they’re longstanding ones. But don’t give up. On average, research shows that it takes about 66 days for new habits to become automatic, so give yourself at least a couple of months.

  • If you fail or forget, don’t beat yourself up. Just take note and move on, reminding yourself to do better next time—and there is always a next time. You may get discouraged when you realise how many times you’re forgetting, but remember that the first step to changing a habit is to become aware of committing the act in the first place.

  • When you succeed, reward yourself! And make the reward worth it. Positive reinforcement is powerful, even if it’s small and momentary. When you find yourself having actually stopped before that crosswalk, take notice and mentally pat yourself on the back. Gamify it—track how many times you accomplish this little change in action on a given day and try to outdo yourself the next. Promise yourself a bigger, tangible reward for reaching a certain score.

    Every time you do stop behind that crosswalk, look at the people walking in it and think to yourself, There’s a person who’s safe because I didn’t hit them. I’m not blocking their way. I’m respecting them by giving them space. The little squirt of dopamine that’s produced in your brain when you think these positive thoughts is compelling making it that much easier to automate the habit more quickly.

  • Don’t try to tackle too many new habits all at once. The key is not to overwhelm yourself with change; a sense of failure and constant frustration may compel you to just give up on everything. It’s far better to concentrate on deliberately and consistently changing one or two small habits at a time rather than everything that might need attention.

  • Just because you know something is a bad habit doesn’t mean you’ll automatically stop it. Speeding is a habit that many of us do pretty consistently. We know that it can be dangerous, even lethal. But just like smoking cigarettes or talking on your smartphone while driving, just knowing that it’s not a good idea doesn’t mean you’re going to change your behaviour. That’s why at least 84 per cent of people surveyed say drivers shouldn’t text, but then more than a third admitted to having done it themselves in the past month.

    If you’re a safety manager, you know that just telling your employees that speeding is bad doesn’t mean automatic compliance. Instead, it requires realistically exploring how changing that habit fits with the person’s fundamental life values and building a supportive culture around that goal.

  • Let’s face it—changing our habits can be really hard. It’s easier if we don’t have to do it alone. We often don’t like change; it’s much easier to stay in our comfort zone. Whether it’s stopping before the crosswalk or not texting while driving, making yourself accountable to others can make it easier to stick with that habit until it becomes automatic. It could involve using a smartphone app that tracks your actions, or having a friendly competition with a colleague on who can score the most positive change in a month’s time. Or you could even discuss the new habit with a supportive friend or coworker and ask them to gently remind you if they see you engaging with your phone while driving. We could all use a bit of help to change our habits for the better!

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