It's a blog.
In: Uncategorized20 Nov 2009
Today I entered a ramp onto the Pike, and totally lost control of my car. Frankly, I have no idea what happened. It felt like I hit ice, except it was nearly 50 out, so I doubt there was ice. It was raining, but I didn’t hit a puddle, nor was I going fast enough to have hydroplaned. It really freaks me out that I don’t know what happened, but my car began skidding and I lost control. Through dumb luck, I was able to steer out of it and my tires caught just before I would have crashed into the guardrail. In maybe two seconds’ time, I’d regained control of my car and had — quite miraculously — managed to avoid crashing into anything or anyone.
What fascinates me, though, is how many different things I thought in those two seconds. It went from, “They must have changed the steering when I had my car serviced, it feels a bit different” to “Holy crap it’s because I’m skidding across the ramp!” Panic set in, and I went to jerk the wheel, before thinking that jerking the wheel hard was a really bad idea. I went to slam on the brakes, before realizing that slamming on the brakes would make things worse, too. I tried to strike a balance between, “The guardrail is coming up on me fast” and “I can’t slam on the brakes while I’m skidding sideways or I’ll start doing donuts,” and I — miraculously — found just the right balance. I tried to strike a balance between, “I’m starting to go sideways and need to turn sharply to correct” and “Turning too sharply might roll the car,” and somehow — miraculously — got it right.
I’m one of the maybe 75% of drivers who think they’re better than average drivers*, but I’m not so cocky to believe that it was through my innate skill that I somehow managed to avoid crashing despite losing control of my car on a busy onramp. Part of it’s experience, and a huge part is just dumb luck. We can’t do much about the dumb luck aspect of it, but the experience part brings back an old idea of mine.
All throughout school, we learn all sorts of scientific approaches to things. There’s a formula for everything, and you can do some math and get the right answer. In real life, though, it seems like most of what we do is driven by gut. This is especially so in driving. I don’t pay a ton of attention to my speed, in terms of looking at my speedometer, looking at speed limit signs, and computing whether it’s an acceptable margin. I use my gut. It’s easy to say, “I’m going the same speed as everyone else” and know you’re at a good speed, or, “I’m blowing by people so I should slow down,” or even just, “I think I’m going the speed limit, but there’s a sharp turn coming up and it seems like this is too fast.” Likewise, no numbers are involved in computing a following distance. We learned in driver’s ed how many car lengths you should leave depending on speed, but I don’t know anyone who remembers those. We just use our gut. This isn’t to say that I’m haphazard or reckless. “My gut” has been driving for years and is quite cautious. It just means that, at 70 miles an hour, I don’t have time to pull out a pad of paper and compute metrics. I have a sense of what’s safe and what’s not, and I use that.
What’s interesting, though, is that it really seems that the accuracy of your gut is really based on experience, not formal education. Trying to avoid crashing into the guardrail, I wasn’t thinking back to driver’s ed books, I was thinking back to when it happened a few years ago when I hit a patch of ice on a curve (and lost control even worse, yet somehow, again, escaped an accident), along with dozens of minor, “Uh oh, my wheels are spinning!” moments. When you’re going with your gut, practice makes perfect. It’s why fire departments are constantly burning down empty buildings and having drills. It’s why a police officer might fire tens of thousands of rounds at the range, and yet never once have to fire his weapon in the line of duty. It’s why the military seems to train full-time during peacetime. Some day, they stand a chance of finding themselves in a life-or-death situation in which they won’t have time to think. You have to do without thinking, because if you stop to think, you’ll be killed.
So I want to start a driving school that’s kind of like a grad-level driver’s ed. We’d pander to people who’d been driving at least a couple years, if not decades. I don’t think a 16-year-old driver’s ed student will be ready. It’s like getting an MBA: they really want you to get your undergrad degree, work a few years, and then come back for an MBA with a bit of experience under your belt.
There’s all sorts of little things I think we should cover — like sitting in an 18-wheeler with a half-dozen cars parked along the side, and having people look in the mirror and realize how many of them are invisible. But mostly, it’s experience in tricky situations. There’d be a big track like you see new cars being tested on. Hundreds and hundreds of times, you’d be driving along on the track and suddenly encounter some obstacle, like a patch of ice. The first few times you might lose control and crash the (designed to be treated like a bumper car) car into the (heavily-padded) walls. But then the next time around you’d fishtail but not completely lose control. And after a few dozen attempts, you’d hit the icy patch and take precisely the right actions at just the right times, and come out just fine.
There’d be all sorts of conditions: ice, snow, pouring rain on oily roads, mud, gravel… There’d be tons of experience slamming on the brakes in all sorts of scenarios, too. Anti-lock brakes and no anti-lock brakes. Stopping on dry pavement. Stopping on mud. Stopping on ice. Stopping while cornering. (I had to stop sharply enough for my anti-lock brakes to kick in a while ago. If you’re not expecting it, it’s horrifying. You push harder and harder on the brakes and can feel the car stopping more and more aggressively, but then you reach the point where they kick in, and the pedal suddenly goes soft, followed by some god-awful noise and a pulsating brake pedal. It feels like your brakes have malfunctioned.) There’d be tons of practice dealing with obstacles and hazards — a fake deer leaping in front of you, the truck in front of you slamming on its brakes for no good reason, the crazy man in the car next to you reaching for his beer and coming right into your lane. We’d sometimes give the tell-tale warning signs that paranoid drivers look for: a guy weaving a bit in his lane, or looking over and seeing someone gazing intently at their cell phone.
There’d also be mechanical failures left and right. You’d have tires slowly lose air, tires that blew out, and tires that just came flying off. You’d lose your brakes. You’d lose power steering. Your car would overheat. Your engine would catch fire. Your car would stall. You’d run out of gas even though you thought you had a full tank. Pumps and belts would fail left and right. You wouldn’t learn to be a mechanic, but you’d know enough to keep control of the car while you pulled over, and enough to understand what had happened. For repairable things, you’d be able to handle them yourself. And you’d learn a bit of safety that apparently, a lot of drivers never did. The instructor would scream at you if you stopped in the high-speed lane on the mock highway. You’d suffer serious burns if you opened your hood while steam poured out of the engine from a cracked radiator. You’d die when you pulled over because smoke was coming out of the engine and you didn’t think to turn the engine off, allowing gas to keep flowing into the fire.
There are other things I think people should practice, too, but I’m not sure how to give an authentic experience. Accidents, for one. Several years ago I was in a fender-bender that didn’t even bend anyone’s fender. There was a small dent to my license plate. Nothing else. I shook for hours. It’s one thing to teach about how to exchange paperwork and make sure you stop in a safe location to do so. But what about nerves? That’s the real problem, and I don’t know how to simulate that. (And what do you do if the other driver pulls a tire iron on you?) It might be informative to be in the car and have the airbags deploy, to try to give you some idea what they’re like, but I’m not sure how you can do that — my understanding is that it’s fairly routine to break your nose or suffer minor burns, but that the risks are nothing to, say, having your head fall off, so it’s okay. But when you’re sitting in a stopped car and someone flips a switch to show you what happens, the risk is suddenly not okay. Plus, you can’t just reuse the airbags, so this would be really expensive on top of the risk. Traffic stops might be interesting, too, if you could get the right type of officer, someone who walked you through what he was actually doing and thinking. I think the atmosphere has to be right before they’ll open up about some of the not-entirely-secret secrets about the way they work. (If you’re stopped for going 40 in a 35, for example, odds are good that the officer is either really bored, or found you suspicious and is using your trivially-excessive speed as probable cause to poke around.) It might be informative to be asked to get out of the car and be subjected to a search or a sobriety test, too, so you’d know what it was like.
Maybe even some trivial stuff that I don’t think I’m as good at as I could be. I couldn’t parallel-park to save my life. I have a hard time backing out of spots when turning left for some reason. I’m bad at backing into parking spots. The problem is that, because I’m bad at these things, I avoid doing them. I think it’d be worthwhile to practice these things in a controlled environment — backing into spots with parking cones where cars should be, and parallel-parking in really tight spots. All the cars would be course-owned junkers, subjected to all sorts of parking dings and even big dents from crashing into walls because you did really bad cornering on ice, so when you hit a car parallel-parking, you wouldn’t worry that it was a loose cannon’s Porsche.
At the end of the program, you might have been in 250 minor crashes, skid on ice 185 times, had 90 deer or small children leap in front of you, had 40 flat tires, parallel parked in tiny spaces 18 times, been pulled over 9 times, and given two sobriety tests. That’s more than will happen to most people in a lifetime. You’ll “graduate” and get a break on your insurance because you have a certificate from an amazing program. And nothing much will come of it for a while. You’ll be a bit more comfortable parallel parking, and maybe you’ll be more relaxed and prepared if you’re pulled over or get a flat. You probably won’t even realize that you’ve avoided a few potential accidents. But then one day — years, maybe even decades later — you’re going to be driving along some winter day and a small child is going to run into the road in front of you right as you encounter a patch of black ice. It will all happen in a split-second, but it will feel like at least ten minutes as it’s happening. You’ll swerve and miss the child, and you’ll keep control of your car as you simultaneously brake and swerve on the ice. After you’ve passed the child, you’ll consciously process that a kid jumped in front of you, and a moment later, you’ll realize that you were on a sheet of ice at the time. And after you’ve finally processed everything that just happened, you’re going to realize that the few thousand dollars the course cost you all those years ago was worth it after all. It wasn’t that you had great instructors or that you were a good student. It’s that you’ve done it so many times that, when it really counted, a whole series of counter-intuitive actions came naturally to your subconscious mind.
* I’m reciting this statistic off the top of my head, so I don’t know the exact number, but it’s close, as mentioned in the book Traffic.