Category: Safety

By on February 1, 2010

Update: A portal to all of TTAC’s related articles on Toyota gas pedals is here:

Toyota has released their official “fix” for the sticky CTS-made gas pedals on the recalled models affected. From their graphic, it’s difficult to understand what parts are involved, and how they work. Thanks to our recent tear-down of the CTS pedal, we have the pictures and familiarity with the unit to explain it in detail. Read More >

By on October 27, 2009

By on October 2, 2009

Or else (courtesy:safetycertified.blogspot.com)

Sometimes” obvious” is a vague concept for people and nowhere is that more obvious than behind the wheel of a car. The basic rules of engagement on the road are subject to interpretation by many drivers whose personal universe exists within a tight gravitational pull of their physical location.

Read More >

By on October 1, 2009

I would say I've bit off about this much more than I can chew...  (courtesy:zimbio.com)

For all of the uproar around distracted driving this week, nobody seems to know exactly what the problem is, let alone how to stop it. Everything from in-car makeup application to text messaging is being blamed for 6,000 deaths in 2008, some 15 percent of all road fatalities. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has heard stories of heartbreaking tragedy from families who have lost loved ones to distracted drivers, seen the statistics which say cell phone use impairs driving ability to the same extent as a .08 blood alcohol content, and he sees an opportunity to make a difference. That’s an admirable response, but LaHood’s do-right attitude is enveloping his department and administration in a perfect storm of hysteria, opportunism, and quixotic pathos.

Read More >

By on August 23, 2009

Most dogs love to go for a ride. Perhaps it taps into their genetic hunting imperative. Maybe it’s a pack thing. One thing’s for sure: a dog would never question why it has to ride in the back of an open pickup truck. Nor, unfortunately, do hundreds of thousands of pickup-driving dog owners. The Utah Humane Society estimates 100,000 dogs die every year from jumping out of moving trucks. At least as many dogs are seriously injured. And the number of chronic ear and aggravated eye injuries is even greater. So stand back, fellas. I’m going to pour some hate on owners who think man’s best friend should ride in the back of the truck.

Why guys want to take their faithful companions on a trip where Spot gets the third class truck bed seat is a mystery that rivals why moronic “Reality TV” producers don’t go to jail for the wholesale slaughter of viewers’ IQs. When I’ve asked owners about the practice, their answers tend to fall into one of three categories: “who the hell are you to tell me how to take care of my dog,” “he loves it” and “it’s a dog.”

The first answer reflects a misplaced love of freedom; the freedom to raise an animal any way they damn well please (unlike the restrictions placed on their children), without some stranger/cop questioning their methods. Even more basically, it’s the freedom to let their dog live as they wish they (the owner) could: wild and free. In the moment. Without worrying about danger. Or lawsuits. Or, let’s face it, responsibility. Which is where the “right” to stick a dog in the back of a flatbed falls down.

For one thing, Canada and the U.S. have democratically-enacted laws against animal cruelty. Our governments hold dog owners responsible for the health and well-being of their animals. While pickup truck owners don’t consider “Fido rides in back” dangerous and unhealthy, society does. And for good reason. According to Dr. Deb Zoran, a Texas A&M University veterinary professor, “There’s probably not a veterinarian in Texas who hasn’t treated a dog injured from riding in a pickup truck.”

A report in the Canadian Veterinary Journal reported that 21 of 70 dogs thrown out of pickups between 1982 and 1993 sustained multiple injuries. The other 49 had single injuries. An article in Suite101.com provides anecdotal evidence of what common sense suggests: “A Massachusetts SPCA worker claimed they saw an average of one dog a week with a spinal fracture or broken neck from falling or jumping out of the back of a truck. The vast majority had to be euthanized.”

By the same token, drivers are not “free” to drive down public highways with an unsecured load. At the risk of evoking nightmare images, what of the cars behind the pickup, when they’re suddenly faced with the prospect of a collision with a flying or bouncing dog?

But all this stuff about the “social contract” doesn’t register with guys who make their dogs ride in the back of their cherished truck. They’re in love. They see their animal leap into the back with primitive joy. They see the dog yelping with pleasure at passing canines. They get the love when the dog gets out. If the dog loves it, why not? After all, their dog has never jumped out of the truck when it’s moving, or fallen out when jostled. After all, if it had, they wouldn’t be doing it. Would they?

Sometimes I wonder. There are dog owners who simply don’t want to let a dirty dog into their clean cab. And then there are those who believe their canine should be treated as a semi-wild animal, rather than a cherished, fully-domesticated companion. They don’t want to “city-fy” their dog. If they take their dog hunting or working, their “tough love” philosophy may be even more virulent.

The “it’s a dog” defense is also an attack on dog owners who don’t really understand the profound connection between man and nature, dog and nature and man and dog. These canine carrying flatbed owners are proud that their animal is roughing it in the back. Danger is their business.

It can’t be said enough: dogs in the back of pickups is an inherently deadly business. (For the dog, not the irresponsible owner, of course.) And what of owners who park their pickup and leave their dogs in the back, out in the public, where a curious six-year-old is a tailgate leap away?

Some states, even rural ones, have taken action. Oregon, Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, Florida, R.I., Washington and Hawaii have cage and/or cross-tie truck bed rules. In California, Fido has to be belted-up inside the vehicle.

I’m not a big fan of the Nanny State. But if there’s some part of you that agrees that society has some obligation to protect our weakest members, I ask that you contact your local politicians with a simple e-mail, supporting laws to ensure dogs’ safety while riding in a pickup truck. A dog really is man’s best friend. It’s time for us to return the favor.

For more of Jerry Sutherland’s work, go to mystarcollectorcar.com.

By on July 21, 2009

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) woke up to a New York Times hatchet job. “In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel,” the NYT begins, without specifying who, what, when, where or how. But we do get a general sort of why: “They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.” And then, da da DA! “But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.” Dive! Dive! Dive!

So, here’s the “secret” preliminary data (all 266 pages of it). Now, a bit further down the Times article, we get the smoking gun. Allegedly.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, then the head of the highway safety agency, said he grudgingly decided not to publish the draft letter [to Transportation Secretary Norman Minetta “warning states that hands-free laws might not solve” the cell phone distracted driving problem] because of larger political considerations.

At the time, Congress had warned the agency not to use its research to lobby states. Dr. Runge said transit officials told him he could jeopardize billions of dollars of its financing if Congress perceived the agency had crossed the line into lobbying.

The fate of the research was discussed during a high-level meeting at the transportation secretary’s office. The meeting included Dr. Runge, several staff members with the highway safety agency and John Flaherty, Mr. Mineta’s chief of staff.

Mr. Flaherty recalls that the group decided not to publish the research because the data was too inconclusive.

Who are these “transit officials” of which Dr. Runge speaks? And why are we to believe Dr. R’s characterization of events when Mineta’s main man Flaherty says the data was withheld due to its quality?

He recalled that Dr. Runge “indicated that the data was incomplete and there was going to be more research coming.”

He recalled summing up his position as, the agency “should make a decision as to whether they wanted to wait for more data.”

But Dr. Runge recalled feeling that the issue was dire and needed public attention. “I really wanted to send a letter to governors telling them not to give a pass to hands-free laws,” said Dr. Runge, whose staff spent months preparing a binder of materials for their presentation.

DOT telling NHTSA not to play politics? Sounds sensible to me. Now, can the NYT backpedal? Sure!

The highway safety agency, rather than commissioning a study with 10,000 drivers, handled one involving 100 cars. That study, done with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, placed cameras inside cars to monitor drivers for more than a year . . .

Not all the research went unpublished. The safety agency put on its Web site an annotated bibliography of more than 150 scientific articles [here] that showed how a cellphone conversation while driving taxes the brain’s processing power. But the bibliography included only a list of the articles, not the one-page summaries of each one written by the researchers.

“It became almost laughable,” Mr. Monk told the Times. “What they wound up finally publishing was a stripped-out summary.”

It’s a conspiracy! Or not.

Mr. Monk and Mike Goodman, a division head at the safety agency who led the research project, theorize that the agency might have felt pressure from the cellphone industry. Mr. Goodman said the industry frequently checked in with him about the project and his progress. (He said the industry knew about the research because he had worked with it to gather some data).

But he could offer no proof of the industry’s influence. Mr. Flaherty said he was not contacted or influenced by the industry.

In summary, then, we now know the NHTSA is not in the business of releasing preliminary data, which is open to misinterpretation. In fact, suggesting that agency torpedoed a study of 10k drivers because they don’t care about driver safety, or care too much about congressional oversight, is a slur against the NHTSA’s history of protecting American motorists and calling it like they see it.

At least the NYT ends (as do we) with a quote from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Rae Tyson, the spokesman who’s helped us investigate potential fraud re: the fed’s “Cash for Clunkers” program.

Rae Tyson . . . said [the DOT] did not, and would not, publish the researchers’ fatality estimates because they were not definitive enough.

He said the other research was compiled as background material for the agency, not for the public.

“There is no report to publish,” he said.

By on July 9, 2009

On October 31, 2006, Orange County teen Nikki Catsouras had an argument with her father. When Mr. Catsouras left for work, his daughter “borrowed” his Porsche 911. Approaching a tollbooth, Catsouras rear-ended a Honda at 70 mph. The California Highway Patrol took photographs of the gruesome results, the photos were leaked and went viral. Catsouras sued the police for invasion of privacy. Lost in the shuffle: why was Miss Catsouras–a young, inexperienced driver— legally entitled to drive the Porsche?

The issue is pretty easy to understand: should young, inexperienced motorists be allowed to drive high-powered cars? Australia says no. This despite a 2006 study by the University of Western Australia (funded by red light camera income) that concluded that only three percent of young driver crashes involved vehicles with a high power-to-weight ratio. The state of Victoria, for example, has instituted a power-to-weight related graduated license program for young drivers. Since July 2007, a probationary driver can’t drive a car which has:

  • an engine of eight or more cylinders;
  • a turbocharged or supercharged engine;
  • an engine that has been modified to improve the vehicle’s performance; nor
  • one of the nominated high performance six cylinder vehicles which include BMW M and M3, Honda NSX, Nissan 350Z, Porsche (all models) and Mercedes Benz SLK350

As a sign, perhaps, of the laws arbitrary nature, there are exceptions to the rules:

  • diesel powered turbocharged or supercharged vehicles (without engine performance modifications);
  • nominated vehicles with low powered turbocharged or supercharged engines including Suzuki Cappucino 2D Cabriolet Turbo 3 cylinder 698cc, Daihatsu Copen L880 2D Convertible 4 cylinder 659cc;
  • all models of the Smart car produced by Mercedes Benz; and
  • vehicles driven as a part of the driver’s employment and at the request of the employer

So, how did we get here? Back in the infancy of automobiles the “driving high-powered cars fast” concept was simple—you didn’t. “You” meaning the average driver. Throughout most of the twentieth century, fast cars were a specialty item created by and for professional racers, gentlemen racers, and a small (if geographically diverse) cult of hot rodders. Sure, there were plenty of accidents in low-speed cars, and not much in the way of passive safety, but there was a clear delineation between average schmoes in their “normal” mainstream cars and pistonheads in “high performance exotica.”

Then 1964 happened. Before his love of white lines brought him down, high-flying GM executive John DeLorean decided to plunk a 389 cubic inch motor into a $2751 Pontiac Tempest ($296 option). Suddenly, the pimply-faced nerd pumping gas at the corner Texaco station could own a car with 325 horsepower. The muscle car era was born. Engine power increased, to the point where the Tempest (a.k.a. GTO) offered 360hp @ 5200 rpm, 424 lb·ft of torque @ 3600 rpm and a zero to sixty sprint of just over six seconds. Ford and Chrysler quickly adopted the Tempest template.

The muscle car era peaked in 1968, with the 383 hp (pre-emissions) Plymouth Roadrunner—the limbo bar set at an all time low for affordability. While it’s impossible to break out all the variables which led to a dramatic drop in highway fatalities as the muscle car ended, the association of teens, high-powered cars and death was enshrined in popular culture. Dead Man’s Curve anyone?

Fast forward to 2009. If you think technology has made things better, you may be right. Today’s SRT-8, SS and SHO models have safety built in. They offer better brakes and more predictable handling. But the accessibility is a double-edged sword. That Corvette Z06, for example, offers just enough handling to allow an average driver to drive 120 mph off an exit ramp—but not enough to stop him from trying it at 121.

Motorcyclists are the canary in the power-to-weight safety campaigners’ coal mine. It’s now generally recognized that novice bikers shouldn’t be allowed to sit atop machines that can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in three seconds and top-out at 135 mph even if they can afford the price of admission. The UK has the most extensive motorcycle graduated license program: three stages of empowerment based on the bike’s horsepower and speed potential.

What makes a car any different? When you can buy a 400 horsepower motor the size of a sewing machine and put it in a street Honda Civic it’s time to evaluate the guy behind the wheel. When Ford dealers hand the keys to a 500 hp Mustang to a twenty-something enthusiast with a basic down payment, it’s time to ask if he should have a license proving the basic ability to handle the horses.

This is the Henry Ford ‘average guy’ concept of affordable cars gone rogue. Skip the Darwinian argument. Stop it now because the kid that eats a mailbox on the 150 mph donorcycle that he bought with his paper route money might be the next Nobel-winning nerd. If a mandatory performance-driving course makes a difference for bikes, then this bit of nanny state-ism makes sense.

[For more of Jerry and Jim Sutherland’s work please visit mystarcollectorcar.com]

By on June 21, 2009

As part of its “reinvention,” GM wants to leave behind products liability claimants. “New GM” wants to jettison its legal responsibilities to “old” customers who were seriously injured by defective products—including customers who bought products from pre-bankruptcy General Motors who haven’t yet been injured. In this there is precedence. As I discussed here on my Bankruptcy Litigation Blog, Chrysler stiffed products liability claimants when they restructured post C-11. Is this going to be a case of deja vu all over again? Not if I can help it.

I’ve decided to step into the fray by filing this Objection to the GM Sale and this Memorandum in Support. On the brief with me is Public Citizen’s Adina Rosenbaum and Allison Zieve, counsel for the Center for Auto SafetyConsumer ActionConsumers for Auto Reliability and SafetyNational Association of Consumer Advocates, and Public Citizen. I thank the Coleman Law Firm’s own Bob Coleman for his generosity in dedicating the firm’s resources to this important pro bono effort.

TTAC will be following my progress. Meanwhile, here’s a sample of my clients’ stories, taken from the filed objection. The only thing my clients did wrong: buy a GM car. For this act of brand loyalty, they have paid dearly. “New GM” should not be allowed to walk away from their “old” responsibilities.

[Keep in mind, this is NOT a debate over the underlying merits of how much GM is liable for, if anything, in any particular case. Rather it’s a debate over what a bankruptcy court is empowered to do by statute (the scope of section 363), by Congress (the scope a bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction), and by the Constitution (due process).]

  • On August 17, 2004—a week before she was to start college—18 year old Callan Campbell was a front-seat passenger in a 1996 GMC Jimmy when the driver of the vehicle lost control while attempting to make a left turn. The vehicle entered a driver-side leading roll and rolled 1.5 times before ending on its roof. The roof collapsed over Callan’s seat, partially paralyzing her. The strength-to-weight ratio of the GMC Jimmy roof is about 1.9, which is among the lowest of all GM vehicles. GM’s own tests revealed that roof strengths in rollovers should be 3W to 4W. Callan’s paralysis could have been avoided at a mere fifty dollar cost to GM. Callan’s medical bills total $200,000 for the life-saving treatment she received immediately after the crash. Additionally, Callan’s parents have spent $160,000 renovating their home to accommodate Callan’s physical and medical needs as a C6 incomplete quadriplegic. A life care planner has estimated Callan’s current and future needs for extra doctor visits, medicine, durable equipment and home modifications at $4,518,831.00. An economist has predicted her work loss based on total disability at $4,120,538. Callan is also entitled to significant compensation for pain and suffering including loss of life’s pleasures, loss of dignity and independence, loss of the use of her limbs, and disfigurement.
  • Kevin and Nikki Junso are the parents of Tyler, Matt, and Cole Junso. On April 25, 2006, Tyler and Cole Junso were involved a single car rollover accident while driving a 2003 GMC Envoy. During the rollover, the windshield and side windows were knocked out, reducing the strength of the roof structure. The Envoy sustained catastrophic damage to the roof structure, which buckled violently inwardly toward Tyler and Cole. Despite being belted, both occupants were partially ejected from the vehicle during the roll over. Seventeen year old Tyler, the driver, sustained massive skull and neck injuries and died at the scene of the accident. The evidence showed that Tyler’s head was partially outside the vehicle during the roll over sequence, due to the broken window and lateral displacement of the roof structure, and made contact with both the ground and the roof during the accident. The paramedics found Kevin, the passenger, with his left leg out the windshield and his right leg out the passenger side window. Kevin sustained serious injuries to his arms and legs, which eventually led to the amputation of his right leg below the knee.GM has been aware of the significant risks of “occupant excursion” if the safety mechanisms in its vehicles fail. Despite this knowledge, GM failed to introduce cost effective safety measures into its designs, which could have included side window plastics or laminates or seat belts resistant to excessive spool out. Not only has the Junso family lost a son as a result of GM’s failure to correct the strength instabilities in its SUVs, but Kevin has also lost his right leg. To date, Kevin has incurred medical bills totaling $555,204.19, and his future medical expenses are predicted to exceed $800,000.
  • Edwin Agosto was driving his 2000 Chevrolet Blazer on September 22, 2008, when he lost control of his vehicle causing him to cross the center line and strike a tree. After striking the tree, the car once again crossed the center line and collided with a guardrail where it finally came to rest. Edwin’s airbags failed to deploy throughout the course of the entire accident. Because of that failure, Edwin suffered injuries including multiple spinous process fractures, a heavily comminuted fracture of the left scapula extending into his scapular spine and glenoid, multiple rib fractures, a humerus fracture, a subclavian vein injury, and a post traumatic subdural hygroma upon striking his head on the windshield. Due to these injuries, Edwin spent the next two and a half months of his life in a coma.
  • Joseph Berlingieri was parked in a driveway on September 21, 2006 when the driver side impact airbag in his 1998 Cadillac DeVille malfunctioned and deployed. The air bag struck Joseph in his left ear, arm, and shoulder causing trauma injuries including hearing loss, tinnitus, and other serious injuries. The vehicle had previously been recalled for faulty side airbags, and after its repair was warranted to Joseph as being free from defect and suitable for purchase. However, the vehicle was not suitable for use, and was sold to Joseph despite the defective airbag mechanism.

[click here for more inside info at bankruptcylitigationblog.com]

By on May 25, 2009

I’ll never forget my first ride in a BMW. I remember the excitement, anticipating a high speed run in an [echt] autobahn-tuned automobile. The driver never broke Nixon’s double nickel. In fact, he stayed in the right lane for the entire trip. Flash forward to two hours ago, G-forcing through the S-curves into Providence. In the middle of the second bend, a Nissan GT-R zipped by my minivan like it was standing still. Hakuna matata. What a wonderful phrase. Hakuna matata. Ain’t no passing craze. The GT-R driver was there. In the moment. In control. Safe?

I know: all things being equal, the higher the differential between vehicle speeds, the greater chance of a collision or loss of control leading to an accident. Well, yes, all things are NEVER equal. Driving safety depends on a huge number of variables: vehicle type and condition; road construction, condition, width, and camber; weather (as it affects grip and visibility); traffic; driver age, experience, sobriety, skill, general psychological makeup and specific mental state. And so on, including dumb luck.

To say that a speeding GT-R is inherently dangerous is both true and relative. Yes, the mustachioed enthusiast caning the über-Nissan would have been less of a danger to himself and those around him if he’d observed the speed limit. But the question must be asked: safer than what? A caffeine-deprived father in his minivan fighting over the radio with his 11-year-old step-daughter while his five-year-old demands that he retrieve her missing crayon? The kid stunting and flossing in a beat-up Buick Century in the Italian astronaut driving position? What?

I’m not trying to defend a Baruthian speeder with moral relativism. The GT-R driver was breaking a law designed by society for society; he has no moral foundation upon which to base his behavior. Besides, blind eye be damned; he was weaving through traffic at warp speed. Guilty as charged. In terms of the whole actions > consequences deal, I’m with Baretta: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” And that’s from someone who’s done the time, and slowed right down.

Although not necessarily to avoid legal sanction (aging, testosterone levels, children . . . connect the dots). Be that as it is, here’s the bottom line: anti-speeding absolutism is feel-good nonsense. It does nothing to make our roads safer.

Anyone who reads this site knows (if not acknowledges) that there are speeders and there are speeders. There is speeding and there is speeding. Once upon a time, police officers made the distinction between “simple” speeding and dangerous driving. These days, radar technology and an ATM-based law enforcement philosophy has removed informed discretion and eliminated simple common sense.

The fact that we’re debating speeding—rather than road safety—shows how far we’ve strayed from cause and effect. Hyper-speeding is rare and therefore relatively unimportant. Inattention due to fatigue accounts for far more accidents than high-speed hooliganism.

Again, I’m not defending adrenalin junkies who use public roads as a private playground. Not cool. Not safe. Not legal. Call me a hypocrite, but I consider balls-out driving four-wheeled cocaine. I tried it. I liked it. I learned the drug’s downside the hard way. I would NEVER do it again. I would NEVER advocate its use. I would NEVER want ANY of my children to even THINK about trying it.

I’m not alone in my hypocrisy. To those who would string up fast drivers in fast cars without a moment’s hesitation, I say mote. Beam. Eye. Remove. Proceed. The vast majority of American drivers routinely break the speed limit. The same majority that considers themselves safe drivers. Well consider this . . .

If drowsy drivers cause or experience more accidents than speeders, who’s a larger menace: the guy blasting along at twenty or thirty or more miles per hour above the speed limit, focusing his mind on the illegal task at hand, or the driver who thinks he’s safe because he’s driving at the speed limit and so fails to engage mentally in his vehicular progress?

Of course, the safest driver is the one who’s driving at the speed limit who IS mentally engaged in the act of driving. I’m guessing that most of the commentators who excoriated Jack Baruth’s guide to street speeding answer to that description.

In an ideal world, everyone would be like you. You’d never share the road with our speed-crazed, morally lax editorialist/reviewer. In the same ideal world, there wouldn’t be any drunk drivers or soccer moms in SUVs yakking on their cell phones as they blow through suburban stop signs.

Here in the real world, there’s a sliding scale of dangerous “others.” Next time you get in your car, ignore the speedo (for a moment) and check your look in the mirror. Forget about “them” and say hello to the most dangerous driver of all.

[NB: This is not an article about TTAC’s editorial stance or style. Click here for a post on that topic. All comments that raise meta-points about the site will be deleted.]

By on May 25, 2009

If speed killed, we would all be dead. After all, we are rotating around earth’s axis at up to 1038 mph (1670 kmh) and Earth is zipping around the sun at a whopping 66,660 mph (107,279 kmh). Speed’s not a problem. The problem is when we collide with objects that are moving at speeds that are substantially different than our own.  Jack Baruth would have us believe that if we follow the advice he imparts in his “Maximum Street Speed Explained” series, that we can safely navigate American highways and byways, day or night while traveling at two or three times faster than the prevailing traffic norm. Unfortunately, his advice ranges from the obvious to absurdly dangerous (if he’s trying to be ironic or funny, he has very poor timing).

When the misguided double-nickel national speed limit was revoked, freeway accidents and fatalities declined.  When this change went into effect, faster drivers tended not to drive much faster than they already were.  However, the more compliant drivers sped up to the higher norms, narrowing the dissonance between the faster and slower drivers. Accidents declined even though the average speed on roads increased because traffic was moving at relatively constant and predictable speeds.

So when writing a series on how to drive faster, why not impart some advice on the best times and places to avoid traffic, animals and cops so we don’t make a menace of ourselves while indulging an automotive adrenaline fix? I guess addressing this didn’t occur to Jack. Here are a few examples of what we did get:

The obvious:

Your car needs to have its fluids at the appropriate levels, its tire pressures checked and its suspension components torqued. Your tires need full tread, no plugs, no camber wear.

But wait, there’s more:

You, as the driver, need to be alert, sober, rested, and ready to look all the way down the road.

This is brilliant stuff, folks! They really need to start teaching this to high school kids in driver’s ed.

Now for the absurdly dangerous:

Stay to the right . . . We come up on a car-to-be-passed from directly behind. We do this to attract the driver’s attention into his rear-view mirror.

And we mustn’t forget this pearl of wisdom:

Get in the habit of driving on the shoulder. We learn to drive on the shoulder because we’ll have to do it many times in the future, both to avoid panic-swerves and to pass recalcitrant lane-blockers.

Yes, the shoulder, a good place to pass because on US highways there is never any tire shredding debris that one cannot easily see and avoid while hurling along faster than 150 feet per second.

And for night driving, remember:

We don’t use the shoulder at night unless we have to. Confused deer . . . tend to hide out there.

Thank goodness that confused deer know the difference between the road shoulder and main lanes of the freeway. If they didn’t, it could be a problem for someone driving faster his ability to brake or maneuver around in the distance illuminated by headlights.

This next humdinger’s neither obvious nor absurdly dangerous. It is in a category all by itself. I’ll let you categorize it:

Cops expect you to speed in the left lane and they tend to look down the left lane. Stay to the right.

So cops are blind to cars traveling two to three times faster than the rest of traffic just because they are traveling in a lane 15 feet to the right. Uh huh. Maybe Ohio needs to get new cops with better eyesight. In Texas, they’re not so handicapped.

I could go on . . .

Here’s a clue, Jack: this ain’t Germany. American drivers tend to be poorly trained, distracted, easily startled, and unpredictable. Our highways aren’t maintained with the meticulousness required to make them Autobahn safe.  And most of our roads lack the extra high fencing to keep large mammals from using the interstate as a game trail.

When traffic is traveling at a consistent pace and drivers are acting predictably, driving at high speeds on the freeway is a relatively low risk endeavor. But when some jackass thinks that he can weave through the flow at speeds 200 to 300 percent faster without introducing extreme risk to everyone else, no matter how skilled a driver he thinks he is, he is delusional.

Five years ago I attended the funeral of a friend who killed himself in a single vehicle accident while horsing around on his motorcycle. At least he had the decency not to involve other motorists by utilizing seldom-traveled country roads. Of course, that was little consolation to his devastated wife and the autistic child.

If you must prove your mad driving skills, join a club and take it to a track.

By on May 22, 2009

It was just another day at the “Tail Of The Dragon” for the group of experienced sportbikers clustering around the Robbinsville, NC, gas station. Fresh from multiple high-speed runs down the famed road, they were reliving their victories when a long-haired old man in some girly convertible asked them to “show him the fast way through.”

“Fuck off. We don’t wait for old cagers,” was the reply. As fate would have it, they didn’t have to. Five of the six knee-draggers had to yield to that old man in his Porsche-with-panties before the halfway point. The sixth and fastest made a mistake, went off, and snapped his fairing into three pieces. The nice old man stopped and helped him carry his bodywork to the “Tree of Shame” at the Dragon’s end.

Contrary to what you read in Car and Driver, we can’t drive “10/10ths” on back roads. In Speed Secrets, Ross Bentley talks about the bell curve of tire traction. The more we ask from the tires, the more we get . . . but as we reach the limit of traction, the rate of slip increases. As we pass the “peak” of traction, the tires “fall off” at the same rate . . . but now we have no safety margin for gravel, road waves, animals, and whatnot.

We need to stay on the safer side of the tire-traction curve. That means we drive up to the audible squeal but not past it. To make this happen, we drive what I call the “Safe Line.” This is what I teach to novice racing students, and it’s the only “racing line” we can use on back roads.

Approach each turn at the very outside edge of the pavement. For right-handers, this means either the edge of the double-yellow or the far edge of the road, depending on your vision and personal risk tolerance. Brake in a solid, single swift motion, “squeezing on” and “easing off.” If you over-slow the car, that’s fine. Wait longer next time. But don’t re-accelerate this time. When you have completed braking, turn your head past the “clipping point” of the turn, which is either the inside curb or the double-yellow, focus on the exit, and make a single turn-in motion. Keep constant throttle until you reach the clipping point, then unwind the steering wheel before applying throttle for the exit.

Since we are not on a racetrack, we don’t trail-brake, we don’t “adjust” the car in mid-corner with left-foot braking or throttle inputs, and we don’t even think about applying power until the car is pointed properly to the exit. Most importantly, we take the absolute latest apex, which is to say that we wait as long as possible to turn the car into the corner before turning sharply. This reduces mid-corner speed, but it also reduces inadvertent corner exits.

To do this quickly, you need “traction sensing”: the ability to guesstimate potential corner speed the first time you see a turn. I can’t give that to you. You’ll have to earn it over time by steadily increasing the speed at which you approach known corners until something goes wrong.

Racetrack time doesn’t help much here. Racetracks don’t have pavement waves, big bumps, salt, gravel, dead animals, or Amish people in horse-drawn carriages. If you see any of those, you’re either on the road, or you’re at Nelson Ledges Road Course for a “Friday Funday.” Forget what you know about on-track traction sensing. You can be an SCCA champion and still finish your first Ohio backroads drive in close proximity to a guardrail or tree. Ask me how I know.

Between corners, we accelerate at full speed until it’s time to brake for the next. The exception to this is when we run “The Pace.” The concept of “The Pace” is an old sportbike maxim: set a maximum speed between corners and treat it as a hard ceiling. On the backroads group drives in which I occasionally run, that ceiling is 110mph. Go faster than that, even for a moment, and you can go home alone. No exceptions.

If you enter a corner too hot, straighten the wheel and apply full ABS. Chances are you will go off, but you will go off slow. If you find yourself “saving” a turn by braking in the middle, guess what? You had enough traction to make it through on the throttle.

When you are in mid-air from a “whoop,” do not hit the brakes. Relax your hands and make sure your thumbs are clear of the steering, and keep the throttle at the same place you had when you left the ground. Oh, yeah: keep your eyes up for other road users and treat ’em with courtesy, of course. Pass with care.

Part IV is the finale, in which we discuss suburban and urban techniques.

[Click here to read Part I or Part II of this series. Note: as these editorials have triggered some strong emotions, I’ve turned off our no-flaming the website/author policy. Ish. I reserve the right to douse particularly egregious examples, in an entirely first amendment friendly sort of way.]

By on May 21, 2009

The über-wealthy have many fascinating ways to speed on America’s highways, from night-vision goggles to convenient spotter planes overhead. But those of us who toil in the middle class have to earn our velocity by hard graft. Freeway speeding is the crack cocaine of fast-road driving—cheap, easy, addictive, and deadly—and nighttime freeway speeding is both more glamorous and annoying than its daytime counterpart.

Once the sun goes down, we can do a lot more of that left-lane passing which is so near and dear to the hearts of wannabe Europeans, thanks to a trick I call “Poor Man’s Takedown.” Cop cars have “takedown” lights: high beams which flash alternately. We can simulate the effect as follows: While coming up behind traffic in the left lane, switch to parking lights only. When you are a few hundred feet back, flash your brights three or four times, producing the “takedown” effect. As Billy Dee Williams would say, “It works every time,” primarily because it startles Toyota drivers into yielding the lane before their natural territorial instincts can assert themselves.

We don’t use the shoulder at night unless we have to. Confused deer, abandoned cars, and discarded retreads tend to hide out there. In the event that a lane-changing fellow motorist leaves us with no safe lane choice and no time to slow the car, it’s occasionally possible to simply split the lane on the side away from the lateral direction of the lane change. If you are swift enough with it, you might even keep your mirrors.

The time will come when, despite our best efforts to look ahead, watch brake lights, and use our Valentine Ones, we will be clocked. At this point, we have two useful options. We can pull over and wait for the nice policeman, right there across the road from his clocking point (this will sometimes earn us some goodwill), or we can run.

It isn’t really “running” until the cop is directly behind us with his lights on. That’s a felony, and I advise against it. Until then, it’s merely additional speeding, spiced up with some unwarranted direction-changing. When we decide to perform said additional speeding, we need to absolutely abandon the idea of getting where we were going. That’s no longer important. Instead, we need to perform three important tasks.

Task one is breaking visual contact. As long as the cop can see us, we are toast. So it’s time to boogie. Most police sedans with light bars can’t break 120 mph, so we want to get to that speed or better immediately. We look ahead, not behind, or we will surely drive right into the back of a lane-wandering minivan full of multicultural children stroking crippled kittens and singing “Kumbaya.” We can check our mirrors in the gaps between traffic.

With Task One accomplished, it’s time to multiply possibilities. The police handbooks indicate that fleeing drivers almost always turn right. So we get off the freeway and turn left. If we have enough clear air and we aren’t driving something like a lime green Audi S5 or other memorable car, we can cross the median and join the lawful traffic heading in the other direction. If that’s too much to ask, get off the freeway . . . but do it quickly. We keep our speed up, using the techniques I’ll cover in Part III, and we make multiple direction changes.

After a few of these, it’s time to abandon the whip. We get out of the car and walk away. A gas station is fine for this, a restaurant is better, a car lot is best of all. If you have, ahem, a new Ford Flex, why not drive into a Ford dealership and park in a line of them?  Then get away from the car. Guess what? If they can’t prove we were driving the car, we have a fighting chance in court.

If the police manage to catch us, we say we didn’t see them and that we always drive like a maniac. This abject confession of putative stupidity saved, um, a friend of mine from a beating after he led the Ohio Highway Patrol on a 120+ mph chase down Route 71 in a Lotus Seven clone. Sorry, officer! Didn’t see you back there! Gimme the ticket, I’ll sign it!

In cities, we return to the scene of the crime. Police search in an outward circle that expands with time. The one place they won’t be is the place where the search started, so we go there, using left turns. Needless to say, we don’t go speeding with weed, Ecstasy, firearms, or illegal immigrants in the car, because one felony charge at a time is enough.

In Part III, we will learn how to drive back roads at outrageous speeds.

[Click here to read Part I or Part III of the series. Note: as these editorials have triggered some strong emotions, I’ve turned off our no-flaming the website/author policy. Ish. I reserve the right to douse particularly egregious examples, in an entirely first amendment friendly sort of way]

By on May 20, 2009

Let us begin with this: it is possible to go much faster on North American public roads than the law allows. Much faster. If you are interested in exploring the upper limits of this possibility, read on. If you find this idea morally, legally, ethically or spiritually repugnant; please return to your regularly scheduled bailout coverage. If you’re a member of law enforcement, please consider this a work of fiction.

In theory, I’ve been driving “too fast” on public roads for more than twenty years. In that time, I may have learned a lot about what works and what does not. I will share this hypothetical knowledge—bought and paid for in terror, twisted steel and sleepless nights—with you. Or not.

Before we begin, a caveat. The fast-road driver needs more than skill, more than training, more than a fast car. He (and it is almost always he) needs luck. Luck eventually runs out. When that happens, people get hurt. Sometimes innocent people get hurt—if any of us are truly “innocent” in this world. Sometimes the driver will go to jail or beyond that to the penitentiary. Sometimes people die. You have been warned.

To drive truly quickly, you will need a level of preparation and skill roughly equivalent to what is found in NASA’s Time Trial class. Your car needs to have its fluids at the appropriate levels, its tire pressures checked and its suspension components torqued. Your tires need full tread, no plugs, no camber wear.

You, as the driver, need to be alert, sober, rested, and ready to look all the way down the road. The trained fast-road driver scans the horizon and looks to the end of his available vision. That’s where the cops are, that’s where the accidents happen, that’s where you start to intuit the movement patterns of your fellow drivers. Practice identifying cars in the oncoming freeway lanes as soon as they are visible. At any time, you should be able to close your eyes and recite the makes and models of the cars around you.

We’ll use a limited set of the race driver’s toolkit in our pursuit of maximum street speed. Trail-braking is out, deliberate contact is out, drafting is out. Instead, we follow the old Bondurant curriculum. All braking is done in a straight line, every time. If you have ABS, don’t be afraid to engage it. We never steer and brake simultaneously, particularly on the freeway. We don’t accelerate out of turns with the steering wheel “pinched” and we use formula-car hand positioning on the wheel. No shuffle-steer. Ever. This isn’t autocross. Get the wheel straight and put your right foot all the way down.

Traction control is left on at all times, with the exception of when we need a Jarno Donut (to be covered later). Turn the radio down or off. Sit close enough to the wheel that your wrist falls naturally on the rim of the wheel. If you have a CG-Lock, you can left-foot brake. If you don’t, don’t, because when you panic-brake from high speeds you will have nothing to keep your body in the seat. Get your heel-and-toe together, pronto. And for God’s sake, put your seatbelt on because you’ll eventually need it.

We’ll start with freeways. Speeding on the freeway is easy. Anybody can do it. The trick is in maintaining a consistent pace of twice the pack speed or higher. To do this we extend our vision to the horizon as mentioned above and watch the cars ahead. Look for lane changes, look for shifts in traffic, look for drivers who are slow, distracted or wobbly. Most of our passing is done to the right. This offends wanna-be Autobahn drivers, but we don’t care.

Cops expect you to speed in the left lane and they tend to look down the left lane. Stay to the right. Truck convoys are the exception. They will punish you for right-lane passes.

Our passing method is simple. We come up on a car-to-be-passed from directly behind. We do this to attract the driver’s attention into his rear-view mirror. When we are two hundred feet behind, we change lanes (to the right, if possible) and pass as far away as possible. While we prepare the pass, we look at the adjacent lane and we have a backup plan in case the car we are passing wobbles.

If there is no lane, evaluate the shoulder for heavy marbles, dirt, obstacles. If we see those, we dial back the speed to 100mph or less. Get in the habit of driving on the shoulder. We learn to drive on the shoulder because we’ll have to do it many times in the future, both to avoid panic-swerves and to pass recalcitrant lane-blockers.

In Part II, we’ll discuss night freeway driving and basic evasion techniques.

By on April 19, 2009

I oppose driver cell phone usage bans on principle. It is already against the law to drive while distracted in every State of the Union. Even so, several states and many cities have enacted wholesale bans on the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers. Other states and local governments ban teenagers from using the devices or prohibit their use in school zones. So what’s the harm? The additional legislation is surely no worse than wearing a belt and suspenders—by itself either will keep your pants up, but it’s nice to know that there’s a backup in case one of the modesty preservation systems fails. Comforting, isn’t it? NO! It makes my liberty loving soul retch. I say, down with the tyranny of the Nanny State! Nonetheless, the more time I spend outside of my ivory attic and driving America’s highways and byways, the harder it is for me to maintain this ideal.

I must confess that I occasionally talk on the cell phone when I drive. I commute nearly twenty miles to my office each day. I probably average one brief cell phone conversation a day while at the helm. Doing so has never impeded my ability to maintain my lane, react to slowing traffic ahead, or otherwise lose track of where I am or where I’m going. How can I be sure that I’m not making a nuisance of myself while I obliviously chat away on my phone? Call it the finger test; I don’t see any more of them with the cell phone than I do without.

I’m not alone. Four out of every five drivers surveyed by Nationwide Insurance in 2007 admitted to driving distracted. Their list of 26 distractions includes fiddling with the radio (82%); drinking a beverage (80%); operating a cell phone (73%); snacking (68%); and eating (41%). Personally I’m guilty of doing everything on the list except smoking (21%); applying make-up (12%); driving with a pet on my lap (8%); reading (5%); driving while intoxicated (4%); and shaving (2%).

Lest we lose perspective, some of the Nationwide Insurance survey’s write-in responses make it clear that drivers can become seriously distracted even without a cell phone.  “Peed out the window while going down the road. Well, you asked.”—Baby Boomer male, Sacramento [Ed.: Welcome to Sacramento!]. “I wear sandals or slip on shoes 90% of the time. So I always take my left shoe off and put my foot up in the seat. I have a drink in one hand, smoke in the other hand, and drive with my left foot.”—Gen Y female, Memphis. “Shaved legs, eaten a taco, put on make-up and drank alcohol at the same time.”—Gen Y female, San Antonio.

Yet somehow cell phone distracted drivers seem to be causing all of the noticeable problems. I used to presume that people were drunk when I saw an idiot driver cut cross two lanes to turn right from the left lane, meander off the road, drive obnoxiously slow, or make any number of obvious driving errors. Now I think (sometimes out loud), “I’ll bet that jackass is talking on his cell phone!”  I can’t remember the last time I was wrong.

Science bears this out. Multiple studies show that reaction times in drivers using cell phones are as much as a quarter second longer than non-distracted drivers. Hands free phones aren’t much better. The worst results are among elderly cell phone users and multitaskers who try to drive, talk and do something else like eat or paint toenails. A driving simulator study at the University of Utah found that test subjects with 0.08% blood alcohol content performed better than sober subjects yapping on cell phones.

So, there ought to be a law . . . Right? If only it were as simple as passing a law to create our own nirvana. Just when I am ready to break with my libertarian proclivities, I find this headline in the Dallas Morning News: “Study: Cellphone bans in school zones have no effect on drivers’ behavior.” Speed Measurement Laboratories, in a study commissioned by “several law enforcement publications,” monitored school zones in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. They found that as many drivers, about 1 in 10, used their cell phones in school zones during banned hours as they did during non-banned hours. They also found no difference in drivers between these school zones with bans and zones without them. Still, Speed Measurement Laboratories’ front man Carl Fors maintains his support for the National Safety Council’s recommendation for a comprehensive ban of all cell phone usage by drivers, including hands free devices.

Unfortunately, laws can’t always fix things. A constitutional amendment banning booze could not excise America of the moral turpitude of alcoholism. If drivers are going to ignore cell phone driving prohibitions, what’s the point?

By on April 15, 2009

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently performed a series of crash tests to garner widespread MSM coverage to justify their enormous operating budget to the insurance companies that pay for the “don’t tell anyone we’re not from the government” organization’s existence—I mean demonstrate the heretofore unimaginable fact that small/lightweight cars get the snot kicked out of them when they collide front-to-front with medium size cars, despite the fact that the small cars involved received the IIHS’ best possible frontal crash ratings. All this came as no surprise to Mike Dulberger, founder of InformedForLife.org.

Mr. Dulberger is an engineer with an OCD vehicle safety thing. He reckons the IIHS and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety ratings are “confusing, conflicting and incomplete.” Amongst other criticisms, Dulberger slates the two heavyweights for failing to adequately consider the contribution of a given vehicle’s mass to its overall safety. So Dulberger developed has own analysis—SCORE (Statistical Combination Of Risk Elements)—to rectify this and other shortcomings.

As you might expect, the small/lightweight cars crash tested by the IIHS fared badly under Dulberger’s SCORE system. Of the three small vehicles tested, the Smart Fortwo held special significance for Mr. Dulberger. Sherman, set the wayback machine for October 2008 . . .

On that fateful date, Dulberger was asked to share his SCORE analysis with Forbes (magazine), as part of their annual “2009 Most Dangerous Vehicles” article. Dulberger duly fingered the Smart (that doesn’t sound right) as a bit of a . . . well . . . you know.

“Not only does the smart have a high risk due to its low weight (1800 lb),’ Dulberger asserts, ‘it also has the lowest NHTSA frontal rating (three stars, passenger side) of any 2009 vehicle. And because of its top heavy design, the smart has almost twice the rollover risk of the average passenger car.”

In fact, the Smart received one of Informedforlife.org’s lowest ever SCOREs: 130. According to Dulberger, the number represents more than twice his system’s “acceptable” fatality risk. All this he told Forbes.

Unfortunately (for the consumer), Forbes forgot to publish Dulberger’s smart conclusions. He believes the sin of omission was the direct result of objections raised by Smart USA’s President, David Schembri.

Before Forbes ran its piece, Schembri somehow got a hold of Dulberger’s phone number and gave him an earful. The Smart guy declared flat out that his car was safe. After all, the IIHS had rated it “GOOD.” Schembri told Dulberger any assertion to the contrary was wrong, irresponsible and, how shall we put this? Actionable.

And so Dulberger’s smart safety slam was spiked. This is what they published instead:

What’s most important for buyers is finding cars that are safe but also suited to their individual needs. The 1,808-pound, $11,990 Smart Fortwo, for example, is the smallest car on the road and received solid safety ratings for both crashes and rollovers–it didn’t come close to making our list. But that doesn’t make the car the safest or best for a large or tall person.

“The NHTSA data simply does not support that conclusion,” Dulberger insists. “Three stars for passenger side frontal impact is the lowest rating by NHTSA for any vehicle, and three stars rollover is the lowest rating by NHTSA for any passenger car.

“It’s hard to believe that this misrepresentation is a mistake given the fact that I pointed these same issues out to them. . . I guess Forbes believes that ‘safety first’ means testing a manufacturers reaction to its editorial content before publishing.”

Or not, when everyone else goes first. And even in that case, well, it’s hard to read this excerpt from Forbes‘ coverage of the recent IIHS smart debacle the same way, knowing Dulberger’s tale.

In the crash test between the C-Class and Fortwo, for example, the Smart bounced off the C-Class and turned 450 degrees before landing and displacing the instrument panel and steering wheel through the cockpit. The C-Class had almost no intrusion of the front gears into the passenger area.

Granted, the IIHS tests are much more severe than government safety standards mandate, as small-car proponents often note. The Smart Fortwo meets all U.S. government crash-test standards, including a five-star side-crash rating, notes Dave Schembri, the president of Smart USA. It also earned the highest scores for front- and side-crash worthiness from the IIHS itself.

As for the pressure that Smart may or may not have been brought to bear on Forbes, that may or may not have involved advertising, what did you expect? The truth about cars?

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