[APAK logo] Issue #71, December 13th, 1996

Hood-Mounted .50 Cals
by Victor M. Gonzalez
Staff Writer

The recent writing about driving has finally compelled me to merge with the conversation. Though I don't really care if it continues beyond this. If you're already bored by the subject, by all means pass me up.

I think Ted White's definition of an aggressive driver is a little bit inaccurate. What he defined with his first driving essay was a good driver. An aggressive driver implies to me someone to whom the need for advancement overtakes the need for safety.

But Ted's reaction to the multi-car pile-up was the best possible reaction. He defended his health. To have stopped almost certainly would have meant getting hit. So the essay made sense to me, though the moniker doesn't fit.

There has been a lot of talk lately about "road rage," the condition that inspires freeway shootings and intentional accidents. I, for one, drive way too much. It's part of my job. I have felt anger on the road, and I've had plenty of time to analyze it. I've also written dozens of newspaper stories about serious injury and fatality accidents, and some of those have made me mad as well. To begin to understand driving, it's good to look at the sources of these feelings.

The primary factor is the tension induced by driving. Since I'm within an inch of death when I'm on the road over 30 mph, the need to drive correctly absorbs most of my attention. If I don't look at the road for more than a few seconds, hitting something or at least going off the road becomes an imminent possibility. My eyes must remain on the road, my hands on the wheel, my feet on the pedals, and my butt in the seat. I am captive to the need to arrive at my destination.

Otherwise I'd stop and get out. The destination drags me by the nose, behind long strings of red brakelights, through windstorms and carnage. I go to a place where I have to do something, or where I feel comfortable enough to get out of my car and sit down.

Getting there is often not very fun. It can be; manipulating a machine competently and feeling the micro-gees or topping out the rpm meter is fun, on an open road. The concentration required for driving pays off in thrills and intensification of self-worth through skillful shifting and sheer survival. My favorite part of the movie Cobb is the snow driving scene, in which the sportswriter chases the aged baseball star down miles of a curvy snow-packed mountain road. The focus required to keep the cars on the road when a four-wheel drift is the only way to change direction is evident. Like rock climbing or hang gliding, driving can be a death-defying sport.

But the concentration required to average 5 mph in stop-and-go traffic without hitting the car in front of me is drudgery, a frustrating and endless process that only serves to get me where I want to be later than I want to be there.

Most of my driving is pretty casual. Even in medium to heavy traffic, in good conditions, driving is a fairly routine task. I have to concentrate, but I'm not on adrenaline. The two things that require the most concentration (not including the further task of navigation) are driving in slow or nearly-stopped traffic, and driving very fast or on a very curvy road.

No situation is entirely predictable. No matter how alert I am, there are other drivers who might make irrational decisions I can't avoid the aftereffects of. Once a vehicle is at 60 mph, it doesn't matter who makes the error. The effects will be serious. Driving on the freeway is like being in a room filled with people holding loaded and cocked .357 magnum revolvers at arms' length. Every now and then, someone pulls a trigger.

If someone -- even accidentally -- really fired a shot and missed me by inches, it is unlikely I would associate with that person thereafter. In fact, returning the action with physical violence, or at least police intervention, would occur to me. But other drivers bring me within a similar distance from death all the time. I'm so used to it that I hardly even notice unless it is a particularly near miss. I just take a quick look at my options and hit the brakes or speed up or evade, whatever keeps me alive. But in the background is an urge to cut the car off, get out and yell "You almost killed me!" at them, just as I would do to the person holding a smoking handgun.

(A minor point about momentum: with weapons, the impact energy of a round is measured in foot-pound-seconds, essentially velocity times mass. The impact power of a vehicle is based on the same equation. It is easy to imagine why a motorcycle would cause less damage, and absorb more, than the car it hits. The same is relatively true for a "Silkwood Special," such as a Geo Metro, versus a 1973 Oldsmobile. So shouldn't traffic fines be based on both elements, rather than just velocity? The truckers who have the most mayhem potential would then have the greatest incentive not to speed.)

Really, a bigger killer than speed is following distance. There is no doubt that any accident is worse the faster the vehicles are going and the heavier they are. And some drivers do go so fast they go flying off the road. But speeds could reach design maximums (80 to 90 mph on most U.S. interstates) with relative safety, if every car gave the car ahead adequate distance.

A recent accident on Interstate 5 involved 42 vehicles, including several semi-trailers, and killed one woman. The massive wreck was caused in part by all three of the factors that I think are responsible for most accidents: following distance, driving for the weather conditions, and careful passing. A squall had just raised the oil off a dry road; a car going late for an exit tried to slide across several lanes; after the initial impact, no one had a chance to stop before hitting something.

Following distance is the province of fools: tailgating doesn't in and of itself improve drive times. It can improve passing possibilities in dense traffic, and it can intimidate drivers into moving over. I'm happy to say that U.S. law is thoroughly supportive in this matter: if I hit a car from behind, it's almost always my fault.

Weather is very simple: reduced sight lines and reduced traction. Therefore, other factors like speed and following distance must be adjusted to maintain a relatively safe situation.

The etiquette of passing is more complicated. Given that cars can drive very fast, and that interstates can handle the speeds, it is naive to think some drivers won't always take advantage. Some days I want to do that, some days I don't. But I don't begrudge those who do. Traffic will always move faster on multi-lane roads, for everyone, if speeds in particular lanes remain consistent from car to car. A slow car in a fast lane will always cause some drivers to pass on an inside lane rather than drive slower. Passing in an inside lane usually involves a speed adjustment for slower traffic, and that's where things go wrong. It is insane to drive 85 mph in the farthest inside lane, where other cars are trying to merge from zero. But the same speed, given good conditions and light traffic, is fairly safe in an outside lane. Turn signals, when used correctly, are also very useful in dense situations. A typical case: a car in lane one and a car in lane three, neck and neck. Both decide to shift to lane two. Most of the time, one driver notices and jerks back.

Enough. If you've made it this far, I apologize. Let me conclude: It is one thing to cry that too many drivers have little respect for safety and should slow down and be more careful. That is certainly true. But good reflexes, lots of experience, and a deliberate alertness are not to be put down. Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do on a regular basis. People who never ride in cars probably increase their chances of living to 70 by a noticeable margin.

I fully support the right of people to drive the speed limit. Much of the time, I drive the speed limit. But doing the speed limit in the fast lane -- given that there are other options -- is unneeded and unsafe. On the other hand, people unable to drive the speed limit safely shouldn't be on the road. If perceptions, reflexes and mental attitude can't pull it off, it shouldn't happen. Incapable drivers are fodder for the trauma centers.

So how was Harborview?

[APAK logo] Issue #71, December 13th, 1996

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