It is astonishing how quickly many young and new drivers develop, then perfect, bad habits. I was asked by a friend to help her teenage driver check out a used car. During the course of this, I drove for a distance, then the young lady took over. She is bright, sensible, articulate and ambitious, but based on how little thought went into her own driving skills, destined to be simply an average motorist. That is, someone who directs as much concentration towards driving a motor vehicle as to opening the fridge door to look for a snack. Perhaps even less, due to the instant gratification available at the cold box.
This is unfortunate but almost inevitable, given our culture. For a teenager, learning to drive really well simply isnít cool. For much of the rest of the population, improving skills is assumed to be neither necessary, interesting, nor important. Blame this on various media, government and industry constipation, and the sheer self-righteous dullness of many driver training programs. Letís make this as basic as possible. People of all ages learn best when the subject matter is interesting and challenging. A so-called advanced driving clinic that consists largely of a long lecture by some hairy-legged fellow in badly fitting shorts is not going to do the job.
A few years ago, I was talking to a woman who held the Alberta advanced driving instructor qualification. I have no idea what this entails, but was less than dazzled by her approach. She maintained that it was not necessary to be able to drive better than her students, so long as she could teach. That is the old ďif you can, do, if you canít, teachĒ theory. It is ridiculous. I went through a lot of training, testing and racing before teaching for some of the best precision driving schools in the world. I firmly believe that a great instructor in any discipline has to be an elite performer, able to demonstrate at a high level, and also able to make the process interesting.
Most people take pride and enjoyment in developing skills, whether playing adult hockey, golf, tennis, going to a cooking class, or any number of other activities. I donít know of many other major human activities, in which a person will continue, with total lack of awareness, to perform sloppily day after day, year after year, and still consider themselves good at the task.
Experienced drivers are often bedevilled by sloppy habits as well, such as rushing up to red lights then lurching to a stop, tailgating, or simply lack of attention. It takes work to become good at anything. Lack of same produces predictable results.
A kid I know just stuffed his Momís car into a snowbank. He is no dummy, a first rate athlete and as far as I know, generally responsible. He took a graduated licensing program. Yet when things went wrong, a little too much speed into a slippery corner, he responded incorrectly. Part of this was likely due to target fixation, that is looking at what you think you are about to hit, rather than where you want, and hope, to go.
You read this advice everywhere, and it is simple enough. I guarantee that many of the safety experts who write about driving skills didnít do it right the first time they took an advanced driving school, and a fair number would not do so now. The reason is simple. In a moment of crisis, when a driver is out of the comfort zone and panic looms its ugly head, looking where you want to go is counterintuitive and difficult to do. It is a learned, practised, rehearsed skill, or it is empty words and wasted paper.
The comfort zone differs for each driver. I remember reaching mine in turn one of Pocono racetrack, an oval layout in Pennsylvania. I was driving a prototype Ferrari, at a little over 280 kph, when the outside rear tyre exploded. It was instantaneous, and took out the suspension on that side plus half the bodywork. I have never, before of since, had a car try to spin out as violently. My comfort zone at that point had probably left for home. What saved me was not dazzling skill, wit or good table manners. It was a nagging internal voice yelling, ďDonít look at the wall, look towards turn two.Ē This was a good half mile away, and if I replay the scene, I can still see the tyre blackened asphalt in the distance. The car slid, twisted, slid some more, really trying to hit something solid, while I worked like an amateur goat wrestler. When I got the car stopped, it was a paperís width from the wall. Had I even glanced at that barrier during the slide I would have missed the only information of use, where I wanted the car to go.
Surgeon Generalís warning. If you are going way too fast for the available traction, no amount of skill, or goat wrestling, will keep you from crashing.
Lest you think experience matters in this business of where to look, it usually doesnít. Iíve sat with thousands of drivers of all ages on the skid pad and racetrack, and when things get hectic, it is the correct use of eyesight that fails first. This is usually accompanied by random pedal applications, like a confused pianist.
Call it the sabre-tooth tiger syndrome. I suspect most of our ancestors, when confronted with that beast, froze and stared at impending doom. A few clever ones looked for an escape route and at least had a chance. Panic occurs when the brain perceives no alternative for action. For words of driving advice to have any effect at all, the person hearing them has to take them to heart like a mantra, lock them in the brain. Of course, it would be far better to have expert training. A skilled instructor is more than a talking head, but rather someone who has an intimate understanding of how cars really work, who can demonstrate right and wrong moves, who makes the whole affair understandable.
Our politicians' more frivolous travel budgets would pay for real, hands-on driver education for tens of thousands. So would the money which goes walkabout during various corporate scandals, or the millions that somehow disappear once any government has a secure grip on power. Okay, that money is never coming back, and lots more will be wasted on studies, committees and fact-finding missions. Therefore, the government is unlikely to fund advanced driver training for all. However, if a driver were paying for a world class one day school out of pocket, it would run between five hundred and a thousand dollars, plus travel. If that sounds like a lot, consider what people spend on fancy wheels, stereos, or even a few dinners out, none of which have much life saving potential.
Sooner or later, just about every driver, no matter how cautious and attentive, will find themselves in a situation where danger starts to fill the mouth with the taste of old pennies. It is good to be ready for that moment with something less inane than ďsteer into the skid and pump the brakes.Ē The eyes have it.