Most of us that fall into the category of automotive enthusiasts fancy ourselves as being above average drivers. Many of us were trained by professionals or we have attended various driving courses to help hone our skill. Unfortunately, there are a large number who have simply gotten by on luck and the wary drivers around them who have managed to stay out of their way.
Time has shown the wisdom on numerous occasions that many have the wealth to purchase high performance machines, but a small percentage spend those funds on driver training. This is akin to the avid golfer who will spend hundreds of dollars on a new driver or putter but believes spending an equal amount on lessons is a waste of time and money.
I have heard it said many times that as soon as we believe we know everything on a certain subject is the very moment we will make a huge mistake. Then the bigger issue is after the mistake has been made, are we willing to admit we fouled up?
Now in all fairness, lets begin by admitting that none of us are perfect, and even the most highly skilled professional can still take a bad step. I cant remember the last time I saw an auto race where there were no accidents at all, and the same can be said for all of the places I have travelled since I have witnessed at least one accident on any given trip.
It is a documented fact that driver error is the single greatest cause of auto accidents, and that can range from the smallest fender bumper in a parking lot to the massive multi-car pile-up on a highway. Some errors can be small with dire results while others can be blatant and have little effect, presumably by the grace of angels.
Close calls and bad moves can generate various levels of road rage, which can in turn create ugly circumstances that stem from the bad judgement it creates. I have been guilty of such offenses, but fate has a way of making life come full circle if you live long enough. There is no dessert more bitter than the hefty serving of humble pie, but like so many other vegetables, what goes down hard can be very good for you.
My motivation for all of this was an incident that occurred on my way to work today. The past few weeks my brain has been occupied with working on my various writing tasks, but mostly distracted with anticipation of our upcoming cross-country drive. This is a vacation that we have been planning and talking about for years, and now that it is so close its gaining a momentum all its own.
As I was heading north on US-1, I came upon one of those left lane squatters; two girls in a small Toyota were obviously chattering and waving their hands all about while their speed continued to slow. A black Lexus was pacing my speed beside me in the right lane, so I was effectively boxed in. I’ve had this happen numerous times and it never fails to be a source of frustration, wishing the car in front would either move over to the slower traffic of the right lane or that the car next to me would stop exactly matching my speed. This continued for more than a mile before the Lexus finally decided to pick up the pace and move past the distracted girls.
I checked my mirror so that I could fall in behind the Lexus and move around the Toyota. There was a dark blue Durango closing in but it looked like I had ample room. Now was the time for my major screw-up, as the Lexus moved ahead I gave my signal and began my lane change. I assumed that I still had ample room to move into the right lane. I will now insert a piece of sage advice given by my father on several occasions…
(Whenever you ASSUME anything, you make an ASS out of U and ME )
As I glanced back to the mirror, the Durango had closed the gap much quicker than I had anticipated, and I skated in front of him by the tiniest of margins. I immediately recalled how many times I have been on the interstate and had a rabid BMW or crazed Import Tuner dive in front of me and how enraged I felt about it, which would be followed with comments about what an idiot driver they must have been. While I wasn’t diving in and out of traffic at crazy speed, the end result here had been the same. The driver of the Durango was livid, and justifiably so.
About another mile passed before we reached a stoplight and the Durango pulled alongside, and the driver immediately stuck his head out of his window so I lowered my passenger window to take my well deserved tongue lashing.
The man’s dark hair was cut in a close flat-top along with a neatly trimmed moustache, which told me he was either military or an off-duty police officer. Given that his initial exchange was pointed and terse, yet contained not a single curse word or accompanied hand gesture, my brain leaned toward off-duty officer.
I quickly explained my mistake and apologized, and while he was clearly still infuriated over the incident, I don’t think that was the response he was expecting. I related with him completely because if he had begun with a string of colorful metaphors, I might not have been so willing to apologize even though I was dead wrong.
He never exploded in rage even though he looked to be on the verge, but instead he delivered a short statement with intensity that might as well have been a razor-sharp broadsword through both my heart and skull.
“You need to be smarter behind the wheel.”
I replied with an honest “Thank you, Sir,” and raised my passenger window before proceeding ahead, and I did so knowing he was exactly right.
I have received above average driver training, I have attended classes, read huge amounts of material and practiced my craft intently. I have put hundreds of thousands of miles under the wheels of my various vehicles in the 36 years I have been driving, and I have done so with very few incidents. While the majority of those were in my youth and I chalk them up to bold stupidity, my adult years have enjoyed a clean driving record. All of which does nothing to change the validity of this man’s statement to me.
When I think of this age of multi-tasking drivers, preoccupied with cell phones, navigation devices and the ever increasing barrage of audio-visual systems being installed in modern cars, I am forced to look even harder at the events of this afternoon. I didn’t have the radio or CD playing, I wasn’t fiddling with an iPod or a phone, and I wasn’t eating or drinking anything. All of the aforementioned things have been done at one time or another in my car, but today was a pure and simple case of letting your mind drift elsewhere.
Maybe this was fate, a warning shot of sorts, or the previously mentioned Grace of Angels, reminding me that 5000 miles of vacation driving that lay ahead could be ended in one fleeting moment of poor judgement.
While the sting of a bleeding ego and the sour taste of humility are still fresh at the time of this writing, they are sensations that will not be soon forgotten. I can still hear the echo of my father’s voice telling me that when someone goes to sleep while you are driving, it is one of the highest compliments you can be paid. People generally wont go to sleep if they are scared, and if your driving provides that fear then they wont even close their eyes.
I think strongly about the fact that when others ride with you, they are entrusting you with their very lives. Today I was riding alone, but it could easily have been otherwise, and while there was no harm done but a close call, the difference between disaster could be measured in inches.
We carguys love our cars and the enjoyment they bring us, but let us never forget that the symbiotic relationship between man and machine is as vulnerable to human error as anything else we undertake. Driving has long been a source of great adventure and enjoyment to me, but like any other skill or craft, we are never too good to keep refining and improving what we do.
So the next time we criticize the driving of another, even though it may well be justified, lets remember to keep training the driver we look at in the bedroom mirror. Not just for yourselves, but for all those who count on you every time you get behind the wheel.
I’ll have my humble pie with a glass of 93 octane ethanol, as I recite the mirror creed, “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”
Never has that been more true than it was today.
-T. August Green