Preparing for the commute post-lockdown

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Driving is a necessary part of many people’s daily routine. Between childrens’ school activities and meetings or endless errands to run, commutes are still a primary factor to account for even in the midst of Covid-times. Now, many of us find ourselves glumly wishing for the long-lost miseries of the daily commute, if only for a reason to flee the house.

Covid-19 affected many aspects of what we considered “normal,” including drivers re-evaluating car insurance needs and increased sanitation guidelines for all industries that rely on transportation, ever-growing vaccine availability is likely to shift activities again. What might driving look like as we shift back to pre-pandemic driving normalcy?

What to expect

The stay-at-home orders, social distancing restrictions and increasing popularity of remote employment and virtual shopping experiences reduced the number of drivers on the roadways for a significant portion of 2020. While traffic was markedly down, a surprising increase in traffic fatalities was noted by the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Given the unpredictable outcomes of a pandemic-driving situation, many drivers may not feel immediately comfortable or confident behind the wheel after not driving for so long, or if facing increased numbers of drivers on the road. It can be made worse by common stress triggers associated with the road, such as these.

  • Heavy traffic – As Americans resume normal work and school schedules, roads are likely to become far more clogged, adding time and stress to your daily commute or errand-running. Researchers at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found that the average American spends about 42 hours per year on their rush-hour commute; drivers in Los Angeles face nearly twice that.
  • Rushed drivers – Drivers unaccustomed to factoring in time for their regular commute may find themselves more rushed than usual. As traffic increases, it tends to exacerbate feelings of helplessness or urgency. Over the long term, it can also affect our psychological well-being. Our commutes can affect us so profoundly that driver concerns can supersede all else. A poll by the Los Angeles Times shows that residents worry most about traffic and their commute, far more than they worry about other critical concerns like finances, housing and even personal safety.
  • Road rage – Aggressive driving is an ongoing problem drivers face. Analyzing data from 2006 to 2015, the NHTSA found that there was an incredible 500% increase in fatal car accidents in that time, stemming from aggressive driving. That rage sometimes affect quality of life at home as well. One study found that extreme amounts of traffic increased the likelihood of domestic violence by nine percent.

“Life stressors act as emotional cues,” explains Louis-Philippe Beland, an economist at Louisiana State University. “What our work shows is that in extreme cases, some people’s responses to those cues can be quite large, leading to violence.”

Given these factors returning or increasing overall, drivers may face a challenging re-adjustment period during post-pandemic drives. Preparation may help ease the transition.

Getting your car ready

As driving activity increases, it is imperative that your car is in good shape so it can handle the demands of your everyday commute. For many drivers, this is especially critical because although cars may have had some light use, many vehicles may have seen little use — parked in a garage or driveway.

As drivers begin to venture back out into the world, experts agree a few aspects should be checked for safety purposes.

Car maintenance

“Check your car before you leave,” advises Dan McMackin. A former UPS driver, who now proudly works with UPS Public Relations. He explains; “All of our more than 100,000 UPS drivers do that with their delivery vehicles every day. They do what is called a “pre-trip,” a quick but thorough inspection of all the safety items on a vehicle, to make sure it is in safe, roadworthy condition before ever leaving to make one delivery.”

He walks us through his expert inspection tips. “Check the fuel level, and make sure the horn, lights and signals work properly,” he suggests. “Check the tires for tread depth and that the mirrors are aligned for the best view of the roadway.”

These are some other tips to help you get road-ready.

  • Schedule an inspection. Be sure to have a certified mechanic check for things like working belts, electrical components, oil and other fluids. A trusted, local mechanic can look over your car and note any recommended car maintenance.
  • Check your battery. If you have a car that’s been sitting idle, there is a good chance your battery may not start. Take the time to check your battery well before your commute so that you have the time to charge the battery, arrange a jumpstart or replace the battery, if necessary.
  • Inflate your tires. A flat tire can quickly ruin any drive. Use an air pump or stop by the gas station to check the air in your tires and inflate as necessary.
  • Clean and disinfect. Even if you have not used your car regularly, germs or bacteria may still be present from past use. A little spring cleaning with an EPA-approved disinfectant can help you keep your car clean, so you and your passengers are not compromised.
    • “Your friends and family aren’t the only things your car could be carrying on a road trip,” warns Rob Harper, the Director of U.S. Retail Operations for Ziebart, an international car-care provider of over 60 years.
    • “Germs from all over the country can easily find their way inside, too. In today’s environment, it’s more important than ever to wipe down high-touch areas (steering wheel, door handles, lock buttons, control buttons, etc.) with disinfectant wipes. To reduce damage, use an alcohol swab to clean touch screen radios.”
  • Update your insurance. During lock-down or stay-at-home orders, you may have made changes to your insurance coverage based on average mileage, or to adjust damage or liability limits. If necessary, contact your provider to ensure your coverage accounts for the increased risks you might face on the road with more regular commuting.
  • Check your registration. It is also a good practice to check in with your state Department of Motor Vehicles to ensure your registration is current and valid. Vehicle inspections are typically a prerequisite to getting updated registration.
  • Inspect your windshield. “A lot of drivers may have put off fixing the crack in their windshield since the start of the pandemic,” Harper explains. “…no matter how small, a windshield crack can quickly spread and cause serious safety issues. Make sure to get it properly taken care of to create peace of mind before you hit the road.”

Having your car in top shape will do much to alleviate the mental stress that can accompany your increased commutes.

Prepare mentally

The heightened anxiety from the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new climate of stress and fear that can carry over into your commute. For many drivers, there may be concern over the unforeseen change to the traffic patterns and driving hazards.

To help alleviate some stress and prepare yourself mentally for the return of traditional commutes and increased drivers on the roads, here are a few tips:

Plan ahead

The days of the 30-second commute to your home office are likely coming closer to an end for many people. For those who will be returning to their workplaces, one of the biggest adjustments may be the physical departure from your home. After working from home for so long, it may feel unusual to find yourself waking up earlier to prepare for the work day. Planning ahead for your commute times to work and/or school activities can help relieve anxiety.

Monitor anxiety

The changes to your driving experiences can cause a disruption to your daily routine and driving expectations. It can increase the stress and anxiety you may already feel, as you get ready to return to the workplace or resume more frequent driving activities. There are a few things you can do to help alleviate the stress you feel on your way to work and while in the office if you are a commuter driving to work again.

In-car mindfulness tips

  1. Drive slowly. When we are running late or in a hurry, we can tend to speed or constantly switch lanes in search of a faster route. However, this rarely significant time off the clock and generally results in stress. Driving slower can reduce stress and will likely get you there about the same time as otherwise.
  2. Make a playlist. Take the time to put together a playlist of your favorite songs. The familiarity of your favorite tunes can provide comfort and have positive effects on your mood. It may even help take your mind of the anxiety of the roads or increased numbers of drivers.
  3. Consider a podcast or audiobook. Many people who live with anxiety may benefit from expert podcasts and audiobooks that talk through meditation and mindfulness techniques. They are designed to tackle your anxiety and help you stay calm, even when traffic is a nightmare.

In-office mindfulness tips

The office may feel like a foreign and uncomfortable environment at first as you adjust to your new workspace. Some workers may find that their office setups are no longer the same, while others may be returning to work at an entirely new company altogether.

These in-office mindfulness tips can help you maintain your calm state of mind, even if you work in a high-pressure environment.

  1. Plan your day. Having a plan or list of priorities can alleviate the stress of uncertainty each day. When you arrive at work each day, have a plan of action so you know exactly what you need to accomplish and when.
  2. Tackle one task at a time. It can be easy to become overwhelmed with a ton of responsibilities on your plate, particularly if you are affected by a new or different environment. To keep your mindset clear, focus on one activity at a time.
  3. Find your motivation. When going through an adjustment period, it may benefit you to remind yourself of the benefits of your job. Take notes in a journal or write on sticky-notes and leave them in places you will see frequently to remind yourself of why your work gives you meaning or benefit.

At-home mindfulness tips

When you return home, these wellness tips may facilitate a low-anxiety environment so you can maintain or improve healthy sleeping habits.

  1. Practice meditation. Guided meditation can relax the body and mind, helping to relieve the stresses from work or life. Begin with a simple guided meditation of 5 to 10 minutes, so you sleep better and better prepare yourself for each day.
  2. Keep a neat home. Little things like making your bed and tidying your home can help keep you free from mental clutter. Keeping up with laundry and dishes may seem like an endless chore, but it is more conducive to rest and relaxation for you and others in the home.
  3. Avoid electronics. TV and social media can be a constant source of worry, as many news and media outlets thrive on headlines, so turn off the electronics to keep constant negative information from saturating your mindset and environment. Instead, you could opt for good music, games or conversation with friends and family or reading a book to unwind.

Continue self-care

Many people have worked to create a perfect at-home work and school environment and it may be hard to revert your home back to being just a place of rest and connection. It may help to carve out specific times where you practice meditation and mindfulness, or give yourself time for self-care at home to reinforce the sense of relaxation and calm in your home.

Consider your options

Some states are moving faster than others when it comes to a return to normal life. State governments have been independently handling the administration of COVID vaccines to residents, and while Americans line up all over the country for their turn at a vaccine, it seems clear that the future will likely shift once again.

This pending break with our established pandemic routines may disrupt our increased dependency on things like technology. Meetings, exams,and even court trials have joined the digital realm, utilizing platforms like Zoom and FaceTime to interact with peers and colleagues across the U.S. However, companies that did not have a website (or had limited utility) have largely adapted to the increasingly technology-driven world, and that can mean big opportunities for you as an employee.

It is possible that your return to the office may not be in physical form at all. Many companies may allow employees the option to continue telecommuting as a standard practice.

Take the time to talk to your employee and explore the option of remote work even after business resumes normal operations, if the stress of returning to regular commutes is significant for you.

Bottom line

The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought several challenges to the everyday routines most Americans had in place. With vaccinations on the rise and Americans more willing to be out and about, you can likely expect to see increasing numbers of drivers on the roads.

With technology playing such a critical role in the COVID workforce, it’s only natural to assume that many companies will be tempted to continue on within a remote capacity, at least partially.

For employees anxious about hitting the road and returning to a physical office, continued remote work could be the option you need to manage stress in the short or long term. For those returning to a full-time commute, remember to stay calm and practice mindfulness wherever you can.

“Tensions will rise as traffic does, certainly, but drivers entering back into the traffic stream should remember first and foremost that it is a privilege to drive,” says McMackin, leaving an extra word of caution. “We should all be respectful of others who share the road.”