What does healthcare have to do with defensive driving?

September 23, 2019

By Geoff Frost, UBC Physiatry Resident

One of my favourite Canadian jokes goes something like this: There’s only two seasons here: winter, and construction season. Nowhere is that more true than BC’s mountain highways. When winter comes, it can be devastating. Avalanches and snow storms can seal off mountain passes and wreck the roads beneath them. So when summer comes, it is construction time. I was driving home from Regina today, and found myself with ten spare hours to ponder the universe while navigating these treacherous roads. And of course, this being the beginning of Fall, we are still firmly in construction season.


At one point in the drive, I was about 1000 metres above sea level in a dense fog. Despite the fog, the few cars that were on the road hummed along at the absurdly high speed limit of 120 kilometres per hour. Not wanting to be a hazard by driving 2.pngtoo slowly, I was white knuckling along at 120 just like everyone else. I was about to hit a construction zone, where the speed limit drops to a more sane 80 kilometres per hour.

In the zone, the lanes narrow to barely a car width, and oncoming traffic is no longer separated by a median. One of my fellow travellers decided it was imperative that they enter the construction zone first, and accelerated past me to enter the zone at what must have been 140 kilometres per hour. They did a token brake tap after spotting the first dump truck, but continued along their merry way at a mind numbing 130 kilometres per hour, fog, narrow lanes, and sharp corners be damned. Being the careful driver that I am, I quickly lost them in the fog as I slowed to 80 kilometres per hour.


And then I thought. Why? What did they gain by hitting that accelerator? Five, maybe ten minutes of travel time saved over me?  And at what risk? I could not help but notice that over the course of my ten hour drive I saw three different car wrecks. Despite the massive leaps in safety we have made over the last fifty years or so of automobile travel, the car is still the leading cause of accidental death for both men and women in Canada. It is not without risk.


And that got me thinking. What a perfect metaphor for our own personal health. In life, there are many things with regards to health that we cannot control: our environment, government policies, whatever, the list is endless. These are just like road conditions, the weather, or other drivers. There are always externalities. But what was the first thing I learnt in driver’s education? While there are threats we cannot control, we can control our behaviour on the road. We can drive defensively, carefully, and safely. We can take steps to ensure that we do not harm others: check our blind spots before changing lanes, signal our turns, and stop at red traffic lights.1.png

This is similar to our own personal health. We can sleep enough, eat well, have meaningful social relationships, exercise regularly, and keep our weight in check. To extend the analogy: when it comes to our own personal health care, we need to be defensive. We need to take steps to avoid common mistakes that ultimately lead to poor outcomes. The novice driver must hammer into themselves the need to check their blind spot before changing lanes. We as patients must learn to sleep enough, eat well, maintain healthy social relationships, control our weight, and exercise daily. These are not secrets but they have a massively positive impact on our health.


Of course, there are always externalities we cannot control. As someone who was involved in a life changing car accident where I was completely not at fault, I think the analogy still holds. Some of us are born with genetic conditions or a family predisposition to certain diseases. This is unfair, and not something we can change. But that doesn’t break the rule. There is still benefit in doing what we can to improve our health, whether that’s eating right, exercising within the limits of our own bodies, sleeping eight hours a day, focusing on meaningful relationships, or doing what we can to watch the waist. In my life changing accident, I was about to be T-boned by a driver running a red light. But my defensive driving saved my life. I checked the intersection despite having a green, seeing the oncoming threat, I turned away. What should have been a direct blow to the driver was a glancing blow to my car’s engine. The car didn’t survive, and I was injured, but I’m still alive. Defensive driving works. So does preventative health care. 


It is boring. It is unglamorous. It does not make for a good TV show. It will never be a quick path to riches through piles of online sales. But it works. Eat well, sleep enough, get some exercise, control your weight, and maintain healthy social relationships. I think that about covers it. Like my boring driving, it will get you there. Just don’t try boasting about it. No one will be impressed.


And next time I see you on the highway, do me a favour and signal your lane changes. 

Geoff Frost.jpegGeoff is a fourth-year Physiatry resident at UBC. He currently serves as the Director of Communications at the Resident Doctors of BC and is the host of the Pulse Podcast. Geoff is a professional engineer in Ontario, and prior to entering medicine, he worked as a biomedical engineering entrepreneur.