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Don’t Let Wartime Radio Reports Affect Driving

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dear Readers:

War in the Middle East has made its way to the Santa Ana Freeway. And the San Diego Freeway. And Coast Highway. As hostilities broke out last week, many motorists in Orange County and across the country tuned in their car radios during the drive home from work, eager for news from the front.

They were easy to spot. As news of bombs and missiles poured in, some drivers looked glassy-eyed, disbelieving. Tears streamed down the faces of a few. Others drove like madmen, anxious to reach the safe haven of their living-room couch and a TV set tuned to CNN.

Indeed, by many accounts the Wednesday afternoon commute appeared a bit more haywire than normal, seemingly affected by a war erupting half a world away. Understandably, the minds of some motorists were not on their driving.

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It is not particularly common for a broadcast over the car radio to severely distract a motorist from the task at hand. But it can happen, and news of a war is just the thing to do it.

“If you’re listening to something that gets you emotionally worked up, sure, it will be a distraction,” said Andrew Lesser, an Hermosa Beach stress management specialist and author of “Drive With Less Stress.” “People project themselves into a situation like this war by listening. They want to feel a part of it. They want to go through the emotional changes of being on the spot, being where things are happening.”

Lesser knows. He has relatives in Tel Aviv, so when he learned at his office on Thursday that the city was being hit by Iraqi Scud missiles, he was out the door and into his car for a quick trip home. His frame of mind for the drive, he admits, was far from ideal.

“People need to remember that whether or not they have loved ones or friends over there, there’s nothing you can effectively do to change the situation in the Middle East right now,” Lesser said. “It’s your responsibility to take care of your own reality, which is keeping your eye on the road.”

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With everything from cellular phones to mini-TVs crammed into cars these days, a radio news report hardly seems the sort of thing that would cause an accident. But problems can still crop up.

I can recall driving to work a few years back, tuned in as usual to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Suddenly, an announcer broke into the broadcast to say that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded. I had to pull over to the side of the road and sit there for a minute or two before I regained my composure.

“It’s like a catalyst,” said Sy Cohn, a Los Angeles-based driving therapist. “When your mind is in another place, you’re not focused on the moment. People need to keep themselves attuned to the now when they’re driving a car.”

Cohn and Lesser recommend that motorists take steps to keep the radio from yanking their attention away from the road, especially in the unpredictable weeks to come.

* If a broadcast on the car radio--be it war news or just an exciting finish to a football game--becomes terribly distracting, consider pulling off the road until you are prepared to drive again.

* Should the news get too weighty, throw in a tape or tune in some music as a diversion until you get home. Cohn even produces his own subliminal tapes concocted especially to ease the stress of driving. “If you’re feeling jangled up or upset, you want something to cool you down, calm you down,” he said.

* Lesser urges awareness that events on the radio are out of your hands. Don’t drive like a maniac to get home in time to catch television footage of some pivotal event--there are always lots of replays.

“There have been more replays of the bombing of Tel Aviv than there were replays of the Super Bowl,” Lesser noted. “So take your time.”

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