‘My boyfriend and I have had horrible arguments while we’re driving. Most recently, we were fighting and driving on the interstate and I asked myself, ‘If I got out now, could I get home?’ ”
I call these vehicular spats “carguments.” And it’s easy to see why they happen.
The process of driving a car is fraught with a whole trunkload of potential stressors. Heavy traffic, engine trouble, getting lost, road construction and bad weather each contribute kindling to a possible flare-up.
Drivers often respond to these situations in a volatile way. They may blame their fellow passengers (“We wouldn’t be stuck in traffic if you’d been on time”) or make obscene gestures to another motorist. The increased tension and aggres sive behavior puts everyone in the vehicle on red alert.
Difficult, emotionally laden subjects tend to crop up at the worst possible times. These relational landmines, treacherous under the best of circumstances, invariably erupt into a battleground of hurt feelings and vile language. Couples hurl verbal salvos, each more potent than the previous one, in hopes of wounding their partners to the core. The pressure increases faster than a leaky radiator. Both members feel as if they’re about to explode.
Unfortunately, one of the best strategies for defusing an argument — leaving the room until you’re calmer — is unavailable while on the road. The arguers are trapped in a metal missile, hurtling down the highway at potentially precarious speeds. There’s no good way to turn the steam down. The pin’s already been pulled on the grenade.
The DMV doesn’t keep track of carguments and the numbers of accidents they cause. But it doesn’t take a degree in public safety to see the dangers that they pose. Laws prohibit talking on hand-held cellphones or driving while drinking alcohol. No one argues that those behaviors interfere with a person’s ability to pay attention or make quick, appropriate decisions.
Yet driving while arguing slips under the radar. It’s seldom mentioned in the same breath as driver safety. We fail to treat it as the hazardous activity it actually is.
Of course, carguments are impossible to detect. There’s no wrath-alyzer test for heat ed couples to accurately quantify the extent of their ire. The CHP can tell if drivers are under the influence. But perfectly sober folks can brawl while driving and pose an equally lethal threat.
The best plan is to prevent carguments from happening in the first place or to de-escalate them ASAP. You’ll be a much safer driver. Road trips will be a lot more fun.
HOW TO AVOID GETTING INTO DISPUTES WHILE DRIVING
Here are some tips on how to stop “carguments” before they begin:
Plan ahead. Collect an assortment of pleasant activities to do or listen to in the car. Interesting podcasts, soothing music and car-friendly snacks contribute to a comfortable environment that makes car travel a snap.
Allow enough time. Tensions mount quickly when you’re running late. Leaving home a little earlier saves a lot of stress during the drive.
Keep the conversation light. Now’s not the time to tackle tough subjects. Reserve those for a later date. Instead, talk about neutral or mutually enjoyable topics to put everyone at ease.
Change the subject. If something comes up you don’t want to discuss, gently say, “Let’s not talk about that now.” Then engage your partner in a safer conversation.
Take frequent breaks. You’re more likely to quibble when you’re tired or hungry. Schedule plenty of rest stops to stretch and eat.
Limit travel distances. Avoid killer days behind the wheel. They’re hard on your body and your relationship. Set your sights on reasonable mileage so you’re fresher and less likely to fight.
Manage your stress. It’s important to stay calm when problems inevitably arise. Take a few deep breaths. Go for a short walk. Don’t let minor mishaps risk ruining your drive.
Be pleasant. You’re already sharing cramped quarters. Do your best to avoid getting on others’ nerves.
Pull over. Feel free to stop and regroup if you become tense at any time during the drive. It’s better to take five than to make everyone miserable.
Work together. Discuss what music you both want to hear or what temperature to set the air conditioner. Your congenial efforts show fellow travelers that you care and chart a course for a successful outing.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit http://www.lindalewisgriffith.com.