I live in a hilly area of high-crowned, barely two-lane back roads. There are no center lines, lots of blind corners, hills and crests; and not much traffic. You could say it’s an enthusiast's paradise. But then… stupid drivers. It happened to me last week, for the third time in a year. A driver without the slightest situational awareness put me into a ditch, leaving me yelping moronically and bleating my horn while they sped off. This has got to stop.
In the last couple of years, the four o'clock rush has provided a perfect illustration of vehicular inattentiveness. That’s when the contractors and service guys in vans and pickups and the boys in the local U.S. Military Academy cadre jump in their big trucks and race home. Fortunately, I get to view the show from the opposite-direction traffic. It’s an inbound kamikaze squadron. Negotiating our only four-lane, I can almost hear Darrell Waltrip: “Lookit, lookit, they’re three wide into the corner and somebody’s gonna wreck!”
On the back road shortcuts, I meet guys in compact cars coming the other way. A simple, mutual flick of the steering wheel to move aside and we're by each other. But the pickup-and-SUV crowd hews to the crown of the road. It’s move off the road or be killed.
Folks, I'm not talkin' Alzheimered grandmothers or soccer moms on cell phones. These are NASCAR dads with toolboxes in back who imagine that on a good day they could give Junior a run for his money. And yet they’re obviously unable to put their enormous right front fender any closer to the edge of the road because they haven't the faintest idea how much clearance is available.
To me, this lack of spatial awareness (SA) is the clearest sign of a national diminution of driving skills. And yet America’s driving instruction (and tests) still teaches new motorists that their safety depends on maintaining a “safe margin of distance”– rather than focusing on SA and car control. That’s two kinds of stupid.
Once upon a time, positioning skills– rather than simple speed– were the mark of an excellent driver. Ken Purdy’s classic book Kings of the Road contains a wonderful chapter about the Italian racecar driver Tazio Nuvolari. Though I’m working from 40-year-ago memory here, the author relates how Nuvolari accepted a dare to drive through an ancient stone arch. The passage provided his monoposto Alfa-Romeo with two inches of clearance on each side. Nuvolari did it at a triple-digit speed. With ease.
In Germany, Autobahn-repair rubber cones sometimes funnel two lanes into a space earlier taken by one. Everybody slows, positions and keeps moving. In New York, Michigan or California, traffic comes to a standstill whenever they cut the flow down to a single-lane merge, since nobody could deal with such proximity. I always wonder what Europe must be like for the American rental-car drivers who can’t make it down their small-town streets without clipping side mirrors.
It’s hard to know which came first: American cars without enough road feel for proper positioning or American drivers’ lack of interest in cars with enough road feel for proper positioning (never mind cornering). In any case, the result is truly frightening.
I’m an EMS volunteer. Our ambulances can’t even use our town’s quite ordinary Main Street when we’re in a hurry; we’re too likely to come up against somebody in an SUV who has to fearfully get out of our way and inch past, even with a foot of clearance on either side.
At the risk of offending someone with the truth, it’s often a woman who has no more business driving a 6,000-pound truck with fingertip light power steering than she does piloting a Lear. But she likes the visibility and her husband insists. (My own doctor’s wife tells me that she loathes her towering Toyota Land Cruiser, but her better half feels better knowing his wife is encased in so much metal.)
If you don’t count my time aboard a Farmall tractor, I learned to drive in 1952, and the olden days were a time when you worked on your own skills and pretty much assumed everybody else on the road was reasonably competent. These days, I spend far too much of my driving time looking out for the other guy– whether it’s the duallie Ram half in my lane, the Expedition bearing down unchecked in my rear-view mirror at the stoplight, the woman who looked left and right and then pulled out 20 feet in front of me awhile ago (in EMS, we call them “looked but didn’t see” crashes) or somebody inexplicably crossing from their lane into opposite-direction traffic.
Drunk? Distracted? Simply lost control? We’ve seen ‘em all, and they’re usually fatal for somebody. All too often the other guy,
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the only realistic hope for increasing public safety on our roads is the automated car. Personally, I can think of nothing worse than surrendering control of my vehicle to a microchip. But then, like you, I’m not the problem.