Monday, April 25, 2005


Safe Driving #6: Observation

Most drivers I have seen here in the US are totally oblivious to what's going on around them. For example, some mornings I commute Northbound on Lakeshore Drive here in Chicago. For some reason best known to the city, from April-October they close the Northbound outside lane during rush hour to allow landscape maintenance on the median. They park a large trailer with a huge flashing yellow "Keep Right" arrow on it at the start of the work. Last week I saw this in the distance as soon as I passed Ontario and moved right to the next outer lane. I watched as people blasted past me until they were almost on top of the trailer before noticing it, slamming on the brakes and swerving in to my lane of traffic at the last minute. As I was already aware of this hazard I was able to plan for it, and when approaching it I slowed down a little to allow room for these people. This improved their safety and my own.

While we're on the subject of oblivious, about two weeks ago there was a report on the news of a woman here in Chicago who was killed when her car was hit by a train at a crossing. It turned out she'd been talking to her husband on a cellphone and had driven straight through the crossing barriers and into the path of an oncoming Metra express. An investigation later showed that the crossing was functioning perfectly well.

So in order to get wiped out in this Darwinian way, she had to miss:

1) The flashing red lights
2) A number of loud clanging bells
3) The prominent sign warning drivers of a crossing
4) The 'railroad crossing' road markings
5) A large striped barrier down across the road with flashing lights on it
6) Maybe even the thundering express train itself, blowing its whistle

I feel sorry for the woman's family, but at least she took on a Metra train rather than a school crossing guard and a number of small children.

Even in the light of this I do not support a ban on drivers using cellphones. The state should not try to protect people from their own idiocy. If it hadn't been a cellphone, she'd have been opening a bag of chips, tuning the radio, inserting a CD or sipping a latte. If people don't care about paying attention while driving, they'll find some way of distracting themselves.

No. Cell phone bans, absurdly low speed limits and seat belt laws are just ways the state allows its agents to interfere with otherwise law-abiding people and are simply a revenue raiser. (Most cops don't wear seat belts - take a look!)

The goal of observation is to identify hazards sufficiently far in advance that you are able to change lane, slow down or stop. In other words, to give yourself and the drivers behind you time to plan and react.

In the example above I demonstrated how observation can make the difference between arriving safely at work and being splattered all over the front of an oncoming train. Here are some more examples of observation.

What's the weather like out? Is it getting dark? Don't be afraid to be the first to put your headlights on (not your main beam). Is it foggy? Fog lights. Is there no fog? Then turn off the goddamn fog lights, as they dazzle and reduce the benefit of your brake lights to following drivers.

Is it wet, is there ice and snow? Allow yourself much more time to stop. Drive slower. Leave a much bigger gap between yourself and the car in front. Is it starting to rain? When was the last time you topped up the washer fluid bottle? The first time you flip on the wipers, are you going to be able to see through the smeared road gunk?

What's the road surface like? A lot of American roads are poorly maintained (one reason speed limits are so absurdly low). Hitting a pothole can wreck your car or send you into oncoming traffic or worse.

Are you driving North on a clear day at sunrise? Why not get your sun visor down before turning East, rather than after you've been blinded?

Always look as far ahead as you can for hazards. If you look beyond the end of the hood of your car, you'll be looking further than most drivers. On the expressway, don't tailgate the guy in front. Hang back so that there are at least two seconds between you and him. Look as far ahead as you can. What hazards are you looking for? On the expressway, primarily brake lights signalling a crash or backup. On a wet day these will be reflected in the road surface and you can see high-level brake lights of others through the back window of the cars in front. As soon as you see brake lights, you should start covering the brake pedal with your foot. Remember: when you see the smoke coming off the tires of the car in front as he emergency brakes, it's too late. You've had it.

Just for fun, try to be the first to spot a cop parked on the shoulder or median. Who among the other cars is the last to see him? You'll often see people's brake lights go on when they are right on top of the officer, and in many cases, when they've already passed him. I have never had a speeding ticket in 18 years motoring. And I am no big respecter of speed limits.

Observation means more than being aware what other drivers are doing. The Darwin award nominee mentioned above didn't notice there was a railroad crossing right in front of her.

People have likewise pulled over to read a map or ask directions in an inner-city war zone.

People have pulled up on the shoulder of the expressway to change a diaper or swap drivers and had their car or family wiped out by a passing semi.

People proud that they never exceed the 55MPH limit on an empty expressway in the middle of the night happily drive at 25MPH through a residential area on a Sunday afternoon when kids are about chatting to their significant other, opening packets of chips, and answering calls on their cellphones.

If you regularly lose concentration on the expressway you're likely to end up in the ER. If you lose it in a 25MPH residential zone you're likely to end up sending your neighbor's kid to the ER, or worse. There are simple techniques you can use to reduce the chance this will happen to you.

- Expect the unexpected. Slow down. Be able to stop in the distance that you can see to be clear.
- Keep your eyes on the sides of the road and peoples' driveways. Look for kids and dogs and soccer mom's SUV backing out while she chats to her husband on her cellphone and sips a latte. As soon as you see something like this, be covering the brake. This warns following drivers and reduces your chance of being rear-ended if you have to stop suddenly.
- If there are cars parked at the side of the road, take an 'axle-view' where you look under them. Look for pairs of feet about to propel their hidden owner right in front of you.
- If the road bends to the left or right, take a cross-view in that direction.
- Don't be intimidated by the guy behind into speeding through areas like these.

In summary, obervation means being aware of the hazards you're likely to come across in any given situation and actively looking as far ahead as you possibly can for them.
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