In a recent editorial on TTAC, Jack Baruth described a harrowing incident that nearly led to the demise of his beloved Volkswagen Phaeton. The editorial claimed the incident was the masturbatory fantasy of every “driver training” and “active safety” advocate. He concludes that he lived to write another day not because of his driver training, but rather dumb luck. Not so fast, Mr. Baruth.
From his story, we know that Jack was operating a vehicle capable of .82 g’s lateral acceleration at a rate of 123 MPH in the left lane of an AASHTO-compliant interstate highway. As a crash was unfolding in front of him, he recognized that his only avenue of escape was partially blocked so he rapidly decelerated to a speed of 70 mph and then executed his first steering input.
By his own admission, Baruth’s only inputs: hard braking and slow steering. What we don’t know is whether solving this particular problem in the way that he did required the skills of a highly trained driver, the technological wizardry of computer aided driving systems or whether the outcome can be attributed to just plain luck. To see if we can’t figure that out, we’ll have to take a closer look at the three critical components of this and every other behind-the-wheel emergency: the driver, the vehicle and the environment.
Because the crash took Jack by surprise and presented a relatively complex set of problems, it most likely took him 1.2 seconds to understand the problem and come up with a plan to resolve it. It likely took him another .3 seconds to get from the throttle to the brake pedal. By the way, that’s not me saying that; it’s Dr. Marc Green, the world renowned psychologist whose 34 years of research into driver reaction time is universally accepted by accident reconstruction experts around the world.
By then, Jack VeeDub had traveled 271.22 feet.
Based on Jack’s recounting of the tale, the first steering input was made at 70 mph. At that speed, the tightest radius his black panzer would be able to tolerate before it began to slide or lift was 398 feet.
For argument’s sake, and given that Jack had to drop two wheels off the road surface in order to get his 6.24 foot wide car around the problem, let’s say there was 5 feet of clear pavement for him to work with. That means Jack would have had to turn the wheel at least 255.5 feet from the crash in order to safely execute the maneuver in question.
That’s assuming he was capable of operating the vehicle at peak efficiency under significant stress, which is the sort of stuff Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher are made of. While that’s not likely the case, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was capable of operating his vehicle at about 85 percent of peak efficiency, in which case he would have had to turn the wheel no less than 277.5 feet from the crash.
Because we’re a little short on hard data, we’ll make a generous assumption in favor of jack’s marvel of German engineering. We’ll estimate that it required 230 feet to bleed off enough energy to drop from 123 mph to 70 mph. So, to hear the story as Jack tells it, and to solve the problem in the manner he described, he would have needed nearly 779 feet—or close to 46 car lengths—of distance to make his decisions and take the actions he did without overreaching the existing driver/vehicle capability envelope.
With that much room between himself and the problem, had he simply slammed on the brakes when he first noticed the crash he would have come to a stop more than 300 feet from the crash site and have avoided all the other theatrics.
Based on that fact, I dare say that on that fateful day in question, Jack did not find himself in a life or death situation. Nor was it one that required advanced driver training, the technological wizardry of ESC, or any amount of luck to resolve.
All things considered, this story told by Jack, from the dramatic fashion in which it unfolded to the conclusions he draws from it is not the masturbatory fantasy of some “driver training” or “active safety” advocate. This fantasy is his and his alone.
Having said all that, there is some indication that advanced driver training played a role in this scenario, even if it did originate in the author’s fertile mind. After all, weren’t we told that he immediately recognized that “at his current speed the right lane was unreachable”? Now that’s a skill you just can’t get from a basic drivers ed course.