Beware of the dangers of “Vacation Syndrome!”

This article originally appeared in the August 24, 2005 issue of The Wave. It is being reprinted in response to your many kind requests. It applies no less now than it did a year ago.

‘I’m on vacation! I’m going to have fun and do what I want to do!’

For those of us who derive our livelihood from this resort area, that’s music to our ears. But I’ve noticed a recurring pattern that seems to be specific to vacation destinations: frequent car crashes and driving-related incidents. Week after week, we read about serious mishaps on the roads of this and other resort areas. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it’s the summer months that stand out in the huge number of careless accidents resulting in severe injuries or worse. Indeed, July, August, and September lead the way in the number of motoring fatalities. In case you might think that this increase is due to the greater number of summer miles driven, these months statistically produce the highest death rate per mile (USATODAY Health Spotlight:

Here at the beach, I observe more red lights ignored, more tailgating, more aggressive lane changes and more speeding than I ever see in large metropolitan areas. I even witnessed, with my own eyes, a driver waving a pistol at the occupants of a car next to him at a light near Rehoboth Beach. Do these people drive and behave like that at home? Maybe so, maybe not—but (as you have probably begun to suspect by now) I have some thoughts on the subject!

Is there a mindset that takes over when we go on vacation? I have known people who are married, or otherwise engaged, who tell me about affairs they had while on vacation. Often, they excuse the severity of these lapses by rationalizing, ‘Well, I was on vacation, so I could do what I wanted,’ as if there would be no consequences of their actions when they returned home to their partners and their daily routines. Is it maybe this attitude that fuels the reckless, sometimes rude, behavior that can result in senseless car crashes and the associated human toll?

So many people work in jobs they dislike, or for people they dislike. Though it often makes financial sense to endure work-related stress, my experience has shown that anger generated by the workplace does not go away. It is suppressed, perhaps, but, when vacation time finally comes around, the resentment is set free. With no boss or co-workers to ‘take it out on,’ the anger is directed at other drivers (co-workers?) and authority, symbolized, in part, by traffic laws (the boss?).

It’s most surely a rebellion against authority, but it’s a misplaced rebellion. People who feel that they have too little control over their lives need to address the issue, but not on the highways, streets and parking lots of resort towns. They’re not liberating themselves by thinking, ‘To heck with this red light’ or ‘Not to worry, I’m driving and dialing my phone at the same time’but I’m away from home and on vacation, so who cares?’

Usually, these feelings are not entirely conscious, but they do characterize the psychology of vacationing. Don’t get me wrong: A vacation is a necessary element of the human experience. A break from everyday routines is vital to good mental health. But none of us—including vacationers themselves—benefit from this harmful, even irrational, approach to letting loose. People can, and do, die from it.

Though it’s far from an official psychological diagnosis, occasionally this phenomenon is referred to as ‘Vacation Syndrome.’ Vacation Syndrome is what happens when an individual tries to get rid of all responsibilities, instead of just some. For example, there’s nothing irresponsible about leaving voice mail and business email at home, if possible. In fact, that’s the whole point of taking a break.

But, shedding all responsibility, including the need to drive while sober, to stop at red lights and stop signs, and to act with civility, dignity and good sense (even while having fun) is where the problem of Vacation Syndrome enters the picture. Do you ever wonder what’s going on in the minds of those who subject their fragile baby to a ‘stroller run’ on the rocky, narrow shoulder of a busy road? Or those who merrily ride their bikes, or roller blade, in the middle of the street, ignoring the designated bike lanes? Just because they’re at the beach doesn’t make these activities any less treacherous than they would be at home!

Perhaps those who show signs of Vacation Syndrome take too little care of themselves during the rest of the year. If they allowed themselves a little more fun in their day-to-day activities at home, they might not depend so much on their vacation time to provide it all. Whatever the causes of their stress (and it might be perfectly understandable stress), it doesn’t make sense to play it out by endangering themselves, and everyone else, at this otherwise peaceful, summer playground.