Friday, December 4, 2009

Drive Your Car The Professional Way

I used to be a rotten driver. When I was a teenager, I had accident after accident. The main problem was that I didn’t pay attention, and the reason I didn’t pay attention was that I didn’t know what I was supposed to pay attention to.

That seems strange to say. You’re supposed to pay attention to road conditions, other drivers, and things like speed. There are signs that tell you that the road is going to curve, that you shouldn’t pass here, and what’s a safe speed. It’s a dumb kid who can’t follow directions.

That’s fair, but I see people every day, grownups, too, who don’t know what to pay attention to. It’s a skill, and one that nobody taught me until I drove professionally. Maybe it’s all a driver’s education teacher can handle to teach a couple dozen squirrelly fifteen year olds the legal details, like what diamond-shaped yellow signs mean, or the mechanics of moving a thousand pounds of metal down a narrow strip of concrete.

Not so. Trucking firms and bus companies usually teach new hires a driving system that keeps them out of major accidents. (Or should. Some drivers are less receptive than others.) Drivers who have been trained in other places, or who have been driving for many miles are included in a company’s training, because driving systems, like the Smith Safety Keys, keep buses out of the shop, and insurance premiums low (to say nothing of keeping people safe).

There’s a mnemonic for the safety keys: “All Good Kids Like Milk,” but I always have to think to remember it. The “Keys” are:

Aim high in steering. The actual technique is to pay attention fifteen seconds ahead of you. At highway speeds, that’s a quarter mile or more. Notice if there are cars fifteen seconds ahead of you, if there is a curve or reduce-speed sign. What are the cars up there doing? Are there brake lights? Is somebody in some trouble you need to avoid? A trick, in city driving, is to watch the stoplights, and try to anticipate changes. Is that light “fresh,” meaning that it just changed to green, or is it “stale,” about to change to red? Keep scanning rows of parked cars, driveways, alleys, and intersections for “snipers,” vehicles and pedestrians about to do something dumb or rude, and make your life hard.

Get the big picture. Pay attention to the road conditions. How crowded is the road? Are there pedestrians or parked cars? Do you have vehicles in the lane to your right or to your left? Are you going into some place you shouldn’t? There are a lot more parking-lot fender benders than serious, highway accidents. You need to pay attention in places where you’re obliged to drive slowly, and there may be places where your shouldn’t go.

Keep your eyes moving. This may be the hardest, because it can feel artificial, or like you need to study what you see, but practice. I had one teacher who insisted that I move my head and shoulders, so, she said,  that the official who tested me would see that I was keeping my eyes moving. Really, she was training me to really keep-my-eyes-moving. Look fifteen seconds up the road, move your eyes to the car right in front of you, check your left mirror, check your right mirror (buses and trucks don’t have rear windows, but in a car, check your inside mirror), look left then right then left at an intersection, check your gauges, look fifteen seconds ahead. Don’t stop.

Leave yourself an out. First, and most important, maintain your interval. Trucks and buses need to stay four seconds behind the car in front. Greyhound tells its drivers to stay five seconds back. Lighter vehicles don’t take as long to stop as big ones, but your reaction time is the same in either. Minnesota used to tell drivers to stay two seconds back, now it says three. Increase your following distance as roads get wet or it gets darker. On four lane roads, don’t linger next to another vehicle. This way, you can steer into a slot in the next lane, as well  as brake to avoid an accident. If somebody moves into the slot next to you, slow a little to make them pass you.

Make them see you. Drive with your lights on. Use your turn signals. Responsible shops don’t let trucks and buses go when their horns don’t work. Don’t use your horn to scold stupid drivers, but do use it to keep them from hitting you.

Knowing how to drive, I find myself enjoying the scandal of other drivers’ bad habits. In other words, I get pissed off. I find that if I see myself as the grownup, responsible for the safety of myself and the drivers around me, I calm down.

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