Driving an automobile is surely one of the most exciting things any of us ever do. The joy of independence, thrill of speed and ease of transport of the modern automobile is almost without parallel in history. Flying a plane is probably the only other activity, which is more thrilling. With thrills however come responsibilities. One doesn’t just start flying without enormous training, preparation and thought.
First of all, it is important to appreciate the fact that, while thrilling, driving an automobile on an American highway is probably the most dangerous thing you will ever do! About fifty thousand people die every year on American highways; close to the number of young Americans killed in Viet Nam. There is no wall to memorialize the dead on our highways. Driving the pleasant, courteous back roads of suburbia is like a hike through fecund mountain meadows. A six-lane freeway at rush hour in a thunderstorm is like the battle of Stalingrad… very scary place to be. But not so much so if you are prepared.
Preparation begins the moment you leave the house. Are you alert? Before getting in your car are you as “ready” to drive as you would be ready to walk out on stage or play a game of volleyball? Are you angry, in a hurry, tired? It is okay to drive when you are angry, in a hurry or tired as long as you realize these things and make a conscious effort to purge them from your thoughts once you get behind the wheel. People have been known to get piqued, jump up from the dinner table, shout a few expletives as they run out the door and drive away in a screech of blind rage. This is a good way to end up with an air bag in your face.
So, when you walk out of the house, store or school calmly begin the mental readiness process necessary for good driving. First of all, take note of the weather. Actually, even before leaving such places, notice the weather and, if it is lousy, give yourself more time to get to your destination. Remember, rain means DANGER as in poor visibility and “hydroplaning.” Snow, also dangerous, means the possibility of terrible visibility (white-outs) and icy roads. Snow seems to appropriately scare people (at least it did before the ubiquity SUV’s) but rain, curiously, remains unrecognized as a very serious hazard. Rain is even more dangerous now than thirty years ago because tires are wider and therefore more prone to “surf” or hydroplane. I have experienced hydroplaning myself and seen it happen right before my eyes on freeways; suddenly the car in front of me is spinning donuts at sixty-five miles an hour. Needless to say, older tires with worn-out treads tend to hydroplane more than brand new tires. Remember to turn your lights on in the rain.
Before getting in your car, give it a brief once-over. Has the brat next door abandoned his tricycle in your driveway? Has somebody parked very close to the far side of your car so that if you just back out the same way you pulled in you will clip his fender? What about the tires? A quick glance will suffice to tell you if they are okay. Every now and then you should do a more thorough check with a gauge to make sure the tire pressure is correct; probably thirty-five psi (pounds per square inch). Maintaining proper tire pressure is the best thing you can do for the life of your tires.
Speaking of maintenance, when the time comes when you are totally responsible for your car, the best thing you can do to make sure your car always runs good (when speaking of how automobiles run, we do not use adverbs) is to change the oil regularly.
Anyway, once you are in the car with the seat belt on, start it. Then, while it “warms up” do a quick check to make sure the mirrors and seat are adjusted correctly. Turn your cell phone completely off! Put the CD you want to listen to in the player.
Think about your car for a moment. What makes it run anyway? Virtually every automobile runs on a very old principle called the internal combustion engine. Gas is squirted inside cylinders and then ignited by spark plugs which cause explosions which push pistons down which turn a crankshaft which is connected to a transmission which is connected to drive shafts which turn the wheels. Simple enough. There are some gauges in front of you, one of which is a tachometer which tells you how many revolutions per minute your engine is running, or, to put it another way, how fast (or slow) the engine is running. It is important to appreciate the fact that your car is a mechanical thing with certain needs and limitations. Other important gauges are for temperature and oil pressure. If you see that the car is over-heating you should pull over immediately. For example, if the car has run out of coolant or oil it will seize-up within a few miles. The cost of a new engine is about five thousand dollars.
As you drive away, like the wrestler about to step out on the mat alone against the cross-town rival, the best advice I can give you is, to repeat, drive athletically. Always strive to be the very best driver you possibly can be. The very worst thing anybody can do is to drive indifferently. Driving is a very athletic thing to do when you think about it. You are using every part of your body simultaneously. All at once you are using your feet to stop and go, your arms to turn, your ears to listen and your eyes to see and your body to feel.
Imagine for a moment, the far end of the driving spectrum, the “grand prix” driver. He comes into the turn at two hundred miles an hour, hits the brake with the toe of his right foot for a moment and then immediately with his left foot he presses the clutch while his right foot continues to press the brake while his heel presses the accelerator hard while his right hand shoves the gear shift lever forward to neutral, (this is called “heel and toe” double-clutching) the left foot comes up and the right toe remains on the brake and almost immediately the heel hits the accelerator hard again while the left foot presses the clutch again and his right hand shoves the shift lever into a lower gear for a moment and then, half-way through the turn, engine screaming at the red-line, he shifts into a higher gear and accelerates out of the turn. All this time he is “feeling” his car “drifting” that is, in a “controlled” slide around the corner as he glances in his rear-view mirror to see the guy behind him trying to pass while he is also keeping his eye on his gauges and the rear end of the car in front of him and at the same time his pit boss is telling him, through his ear phones, that he only has three more gallons of gas and needs to make a pit stop on the next lap.
This is pretty much the same situation you will be in every time you are on an interstate freeway in rush hour traffic; just slowed down about a hundred and fifty miles an hour. In fact, the analogy is pretty good because you are, in fact, in a contest; to arrive safely, despite the drunks, hurriers, road-ragers , texters and dreamers. Yes, you should be a little scared, experience a bit of adrenaline rush as you drive. Do you walk out on stage without a touch of anxiety?
A great driver is somebody who drives you home from downtown Seattle in a thick January rain in rush hour and you are so relaxed you fall asleep only to wake up when you have pulled into the driveway in Magnolia.
Great athletes and actors “make it look easy.” Why? Because they have practiced and practiced and practiced until they do things as if by second nature. Additionally, through practice, they develop a sense of anticipation. Every time you drive think about it as practice for becoming an even better driver. For example, as you drive down the freeway, how can you practice becoming a better driver? Smoothness! Driving smoothly is one of the most noticeable characteristics of the good driver. Good drivers do not speed up and slow down unnecessarily. Good drivers do not change lanes all the time. Good drivers are constantly anticipating every second they are behind the wheel. Good drivers are always on “Red Alert,” meaning that they are super-ready for anything that might happen around them.
For example, the great driver anticipates the worst. In life it is good to give people you meet at the party or at work or on the street the benefit of the doubt, to assume the best about them as fellow human beings; to not judge albums by their covers. In your car however, the opposite is the rule of survival: assume the very worst about every single driver out there. ASSUME that that car in front of you might cut you off, assume that that old lady does not see you and is going to pull out in front of you, assume that that pedestrian thinks he is still in Berkeley and is going to step out in front of you, assume that that kid on his tricycle is going to lose control and is not going to stop at the end of his driveway, assume that that truck is going to go through that stop light, assume that that guy behind you does not see the brake lights up ahead and is going to run into you if you do not begin to slow down early. Assume the worst and you will be prepared to survive in the lanes of the lawless.
By the same token, remember that the other (good) drivers out there are going to assume the best about you and your driving. Sounds strange, I know, but the fact is that you too must make every effort to not do stupid and dangerous things. For example, do not slow down dangerously (or stop) when entering a freeway (like little old ladies used to do causing horrendous pile-ups). Do not change lanes unexpectedly and without blinking. Do not tailgate. One of the great chess players said once that the way to win at chess was simply to not make mistakes! Same goes with driving.
The great driver is always looking in his mirrors for all sorts of information. He sees that yellow turbo-charged Honda an eighth of a mile back weaving from one lane to another, and recognizes it as a potential hazard. The great driver notices the battered construction truck up ahead with the loose cinderblocks in the back and gravel dropping onto the highway. The gravel can bounce up and break a windshield; the cinderblock can drop off and cause a terrible accident. The great driver notices that the car in front is weaving a bit from too much FAC after work. The great driver sees the tractor-trailer truck way up ahead about to enter the highway and moves smoothly over into the next lane. The great driver does not use a cell phone or text when driving. The great driver even notices the hands and face of other drivers for clues as to what they might do. The great driver manages to maintain a steady speed throughout all of the above. The great driver does not engage in a discussion of antidisestablishmentarianism while driving on an American freeway at rush hour. Practice makes perfect.
Driving well comes from wanting to drive well. How well do you back up? How well do you parallel park? How smoothly do you negotiate a curvy road. How smoothly, and seemingly effortlessly, do you enter a freeway? How comfortably can you make a “three point” turn on a neighborhood street? For example, a good driver can back up as comfortably as he can drive forward. This will seem quite extraordinary to you as you first begin to drive but it is true. Anybody who cannot back down a street, around a corner, through a gate and into a garage should not be driving. Same with parallel parking. Furthermore, someday, you should learn to back up with only your mirrors the way truck drivers have to. For normal backing-up simply turn way around, resting your right hand on the back of the passenger seat to support yourself, twist around far enough to actually be able to see not just directly behind you but even somewhat out the window behind the driver’s seat and, with your left hand on the steering wheel, drive slowly backward as far as you need to. By the way, don’t think for a moment that you can get away without knowing how to back up well. Au contraire. What if you are on a narrow street in the city and there is an accident or “event” up the street through which you will not be able to drive for several hours. Are you just gonna sit there and study your lines? I don’t think the cars in front of you would appreciate that. They want to get the hell out of there. You will have to back down that street all the way to the corner.
Speaking of practice; someday when it snows, take the car to a large parking lot. Put the pedal to the metal and feel the tires spin. Get up some speed and slam on the brakes and feel how the anti-lock brake system works. Go fast again and quickly crank the steering wheel around and feel the car skidding without turning. Go fast again, turn the steering wheel and pull the emergency brake and put the car into a spin and see if you can do a “360.” Believe me, sometime in your life you will find yourself spinning around on an icy road and it helps to know what it feels like and what you should do.
One thing to keep in mind when you are driving with friends. You are the “Captain” of the ship. It is an old and tested rule of law that the Captain’s word is the final say. If you do not like the way people are behaving in your car simply pull over and explain the old “Captain’s Law” to them. I mean, do not be reluctant to ask passengers to “keep it down” if they are yelling and shoving back and forth about the latest “heart throb” in Hollywood and you are trying to negotiate the I-5 90 East split in the rain at rush-hour.
One final caveat; always drive in such a way so as to make your more discriminating passengers feel totally comfortable. Sometimes I even exaggerate some gestures to emphasize to my passengers my conscientiousness at the wheel. That is to say, always, always, every few seconds glance around your mirrors to know who is behind you and next to you. Keep track of what you see. Anticipate what you might have to do. You are in the middle lane and need to move to the slow lane to take the next exit which is half a mile away. See that white pick-up coming up behind you in the right lane? Notice that nobody is directly behind him. Okay, so when he passes you, simply move over into the right lane without any more than a glance in your mirrors again. You have been watching him, you see him go by you, you know there is nobody else around, why should you turn around like a pretzel in your seat to check again if it is all right to pull into the right lane? You shouldn’t have to be a contortionist to be a good driver. Again, remember that truck drivers never turn around in their seats to see if anybody is behind or along side of them (all they would see is the aluminum siding on their trailer) they have to use their mirrors. The good driver uses his mirrors in the same way.
In addition to always scanning your mirrors, always feel and listen to your car. Any weird noise can be a danger signal. The car should sound and feel good. A strange vibration means something is wrong. Pull over and check it out. If a tire is not flat and the vibration continues then something else is wrong. Take good care of your car. A clean car is a safe car. Think of your car as though it were your horse; a cowboy always watered and fed his horse before his apocryphal visit to the saloon. Its okay to love your car, especially that funky, democratic old Volvo which just might be the coolest car at school.
Finally, drive unto others as you would have them drive unto you.