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Gears between ears: Does your mind need a tune-up so you can drive better?

Gears between ears: Does your mind need a tune-up so you can drive better?

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel that dreadful night five years ago, when my mother was wheeled into the hospital after suffering her third stroke. She was attached to a ventilator, tubes of different sizes running into and out of her nostrils, mouth, and arms, through which life-sustaining air, fluids, and drugs coursed. Machines, doctors, and nurses surrounded her, and she was teetering between this life and the next. Seeing her in this state was too much for me, and I hurried out of the hospital distraught and on the verge of a breakdown.

I had to go home and get her some new clothes and other essentials for what could possibly be a long hospital stay. I was alone, and I drove, but my mind was stuck in the hospital, beside my mother as she fought for her life. I hadn’t noticed that the traffic light ahead had switched to red, and before I knew it, my car’s front bumper had gotten into contact with the rear of the vehicle I was following.

I knew the impact of the collision was enough to leave a sizeable dent on that other car’s rear bumper, and any other car owner would have at least alighted from the car, inspected the damage, and glared at me. But that night, a small sliver of good fortune remained with me, as the driver of the other car—bless his kind (or frightened) heart—just ignored the impact and sped away as soon as the light turned green.

This is my first-hand experience of a deeper kind of distracted driving—the sort that isn’t as temporary as glancing at your cellphone or tinkering with the car’s controls. This is the one that gnaws at your consciousness the entire time you’re behind the wheel; the kind that makes your eyes still see the road while your mind wanders someplace else far, far away.

Mind over motor. This is always the case whenever anyone gets behind the wheel and drives. The body simply translates into physical motion what the brain orders it to do. Would anyone argue that the brain is unaffected by external stimuli, either traumatic or pleasurable? My brain was distressed at the time I wasn’t certain if I would still see my mother alive again the next day. My mind was too preoccupied with grief, and when the visual stimuli shifted (the green light changing to red), my mind was not alert enough to tell my body to step on the brakes.

A 2012 article I wrote for this section discussed the “wandering minds” of bus drivers. Buses being among the largest land-based vehicles carrying the most human lives, their drivers carry the heavy burden of public safety and responsibility. But bus drivers are human, and they do experience a range of emotions and moods, many of which affect their driving behaviors.

In that article, I wrote about a sensitivity exercise conducted by the Land Transportation Office on public utility bus drivers who had recently figured in road accidents. As it turned out, these were what was running in their minds at the moment of the accident: “Hinahanapan ng pera ng asawa (Wife demanding money),” “Problema sa kabit (trouble with the mistress),” “di makasiping ang asawa (couldn’t make love with the wife),” “delay sa sahod (salary delayed),” “walang sahod (no salary),” “utang (debts),” “pabaon sa anak (allowance of children),” “diperensya ng sasakyan na di pa naayos (vehicle problems that haven’t been fixed),” “damay sa suspension ng kasamahan na nakagawa ng kasalanan (being suspended because of a colleague’s fault).”

I can imagine, 9 years after this article first came out, that the current pandemic could be introducing a new set of worries to these drivers, or enhancing old ones. And not just to bus drivers, but to all of us who need to drive to make a living or to get things done.

The ongoing pandemic should make us take mental health awareness a more serious thought. We’ve seen how living in fear of an unseen enemy, forcing us to live isolated and unable to physically commune, while many of our friends and loved ones come down with the disease and succumb to it, can adversely affect our minds, and by extension, how we drive. October being designated as Mental Health Awareness Month is quite timely, as well. The month often heralds our celebration of the Holiday Season—the longest anywhere in the world—and the second under this pandemic. What should be joyous occasions could become a season of depression for others who have suffered irreparable loss and prolonged isolation.

Like I said before at the beginning of this article, I shouldn’t have driven the night I knew my mind was being besieged by troubles. I should have asked someone to drive for me, or I could have taken the taxi. But there’s the rub, isn’t it? When do we say, “No, I can’t drive, my mind is too troubled”, or “Yes, I can still handle myself well behind the wheel, so give me the keys”?

I asked the following questions to a psychiatrist, Dr. Rodney R. Boncajes, MD, a Medical Specialist III of the National Center for Mental Health, and head of the community-based Mental Health Capacity Building and Training Unit of the institution.

What are the mental/psychological tell-tale signs that drivers of any age are not fit to drive?

Boncajes replied, “Since driving is a complex task and requires the involvement of physical, cognitive, and perceptual skills, individuals who are exhibiting some psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, disorganized behavior, and individuals with cognitive impairment might be at risk of engaging in a crash.”

“Reduced attention, problems with visual-spatial functioning, impulse control problems, and impaired judgment may also compromise driving skills. At risk of having road accidents are those individuals taking medications for their mental health conditions and who are experiencing adverse or common side effects—excessive drowsiness, motor activity problems (muscle rigidity), and disruption in perception, slower reaction time, and processing of information.”

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Dr. Rodney R. Boncajes, MD, a Medical Specialist III of the National Center for Mental Health

“With the increasing cases of anxiety and depression and other mental health conditions, individuals with these conditions are being cautioned in using complex machinery, including cars.”

Boncajes added that the same conditions may also apply to pedestrians and other road users.

Can these signs be revealed in psychological evaluation tests, which can be then required for renewing driver’s licenses, and would it be advisable for mental health experts to help in formulating such psychological evaluation exams for driver applicants?

Boncajes replied: “Some of the symptoms of mental health conditions can be overtly seen, but some can only be revealed through appropriate psychological testing (especially conditions related to personality disorders). I think other countries have already taken action in including mental health experts in their panel of evaluators for driver applicants. Though some countries would rely solely on the disclosure of the applicant, whether they would disclose their conditions or not.”

He stressed: “Noteworthy of our attention also is the provision of the mental health law focusing on the rights of people with mental health conditions, i.e. they should not be discriminated against. However, it also implies that appropriate evaluation is necessary to determine whether individuals (e.g. workers) are still fit to do the rigors of their tasks.”

The brain, along with the ecology that it exists in that encompasses the mind, is a complex and vulnerable thing; truly sensitive and receptive to external stimuli. But it’s also incredibly resilient. Today, five years after that harrowing experience, my mother is at home, off the ventilator, and all her vitals look great. Albeit still bedridden, her present condition is much better than the time she was rushed to the hospital.

As for me, I still do worry about my mom, but not to the point that it clouds my better driving judgement. I learned something valuable that night five years ago, and it’s that it isn’t really just about “mind over motor”, but more “mind over mind”.