Defensive Driving Can’t Beat Stupid

I’ve been in love with driving since my first exhilarating experience when I was 12, spending the summer on a friend’s family dairy farm. They had what I think must have been a derelict, gray, windowless floor stick-shift Renault with no seatbelts required based on my memory of its shape. My friend was permitted to drive us bouncing and jouncing — radical jolting — all over the farm, from task to task and the swimming/fishing hole when chores were done.

One day he asked, “Wanna drive?” Does a chicken . . . ? Didn’t take long to learn not to stall when letting the clutch out in first or grind a pound of metal when shifting. The control, the power, the speed, the forbiddance of the act. The tricked-out bike leaning against the porch at home would never be looked at the same.

Most of us remember the mandatory semester-long driving class, mine with Mr. Mukai. The first days on the road. Impatient to have the wheel, which was being shared during one hour with three other driver wannabes. Mukai grabbing the wheel and pulling me off onto the ungraded, unmowed shoulder to teach me and my shrieking passengers how to maintain control and not roll.

The first license earned was a huge accomplishment, the first step in emancipation controlled by the keepers of the keys, reluctant to bestow that autonomy behind the wheel and imposing weighty restrictions with consequences when finally permitted.

As the oldest of six, driving was not only an authentic badge of maturing, but provided an increasingly important venue for escape, solitude, reflection and exploration. I do some of my best thinking while I’m driving. Or cooling down after a confrontation. The need to focus on safely navigating the roads requires the internal emotion to be reduced.

I’ve logged more than a million miles, from dirt back roads and narrow two-lane asphalt to the multi-lane interstates and European “A” and “M” roads and Autobahns. I prefer off-interstate travel, through small towns and communities in terrain which isn’t hypnotically monotonous as the Eisenhower interstate system, built for rapid troop deployment when the Russians attacked during the cold war by following the basic math principle that the shortest distance between two points . . . .  The plan also spawned one of the worst movies ever, Red Dawn (1984).

I’ve driven in 49 of the 50 states — still waiting for Alaska — four of the Canadian provinces, and in two border towns in Mexico including Tijuana and just over the border to Nogales in the state of Sonora.

No more than a half-dozen tickets in that time, a couple of fender-benders which were my fault and two more serious, non-injury ones which weren’t.

And I can’t wait until we have driverless cars, and I have to relinquish control of my vehicle without losing the transportation, privacy and wanderlust functions. This isn’t a new idea. It’s one I’ve held for a long time, since my first friends were killed in auto accidents in high school due to driver carelessness and negligence. In some cases it was there’s. In others, it was the other driver. Or from covering accidents as a reporter. The ones with child victims were the worst.

We all know what our diver strengths and limitations are when in command of a two-ton car, SUV or mid-size truck or a four-and-three-quarter ton large truck. Whether we use our strengths and correct the limitations is another matter.

The one thing you and I don’t have control over is the other driver, his or her experience, strengths and limitations, stresses, medical and psychological history and so on.

Yesterday’s run from Saint Simons Island to Statesboro and back up I-95 was a perfect case in point. The drive is 120 miles, just under two hours with a 70 mph internet speed for all vehicles, including semis. I-95’s 112 miles through Georgia between the Florida and South Carolina borders is referred to as “The Florida Turnpike North” or the “Daytona Speedway for the Rest of Us.” The average speed as I’m writing is roughly 68.125 mph. [https://roadnow.com/i95/current-average-speed-exit-to-exit]. “Average” includes those who drive at the speed limit or less (usually in the No. 1 lane) and the Fast & Furious who routinely run between 90-100 mph in all lanes.

Yesterday afternoon, we had one of those cars you see in your rearview mirror more than a mile back and when you look up again 10 seconds later, they’re drafting like it’s Daytona. I was in the No. 1 lane northbound with cruise control set on a going-with-the-traffic-flow 78 mph. There were two semis chasing a semi wrecker in the No. 2 lane at roughly 75 mph and another semi running about the speed limit in the No. 3 lane.

The driver let me know with his horn that I was slower traffic and supposed to move over. He might have blinked his headlights at me. I couldn’t see them in my rearview mirror, only his hood from about the middle on. But I could guide a sketch artist today on the driver’s features.

I had two choices. Slow down so I could tuck in behind the semis or speed up so I could pass them all and get out of his way. That would have put me over 90 mph. I can drive that fast, but we were nearing mile marker 60 where the McIntosh County deputies have a berry patch for picking up superspeeders.

Georgia has a superspeeder law about which many drivers — both Georgians and out-of-staters — are unaware or don’t care. It adds a $200 state-fee in addition to any local jurisdiction fines where the speeding offense occurs for any driver convicted of speeding at 75-or-more on any two-lane roads or at 85-and-over anywhere in Georgia.

We passed the bear hideout, but none were there. A couple of miles later, I’d gained enough on the wrecker that I’d be able to pull over with another two car lengths and let the tailgater pass.

He didn’t need the extra space. He came up as close to my back end as he could and slid into the gap in front of the wrecker. He must have coated his car’s front and backend with Vaseline before he set out for Ontario. The glare he gave me as he passed like I was standing still was enough for me to pick him out of a lineup of 100 men.

And none of us in that dangerous procession slowed.

Twenty minutes later, we’ve looped onto I-16 north, a two-lane speedway which runs 167 miles from Macon to Savannah. Our kids live 30 miles up what’s been called the most dangerous interstate in Georgia. So much so that the state is denuding the median for miles to save a few lives at the expense of thousands of trees. Drivers and cars don’t kill people in Georgia. Trees do. No word on how many cubic feet of oxygen are being lost per day as a result.

It’s 5 pm., rush hour as Savannah/Chatham County workers head into Bryan and Effingham and Bulloch and other counties to the north in a daily version of the Cannonball Run. It’s also the time of day when the semi convoys of 8-10 or more trucks clog the interstate, jockey around slower carriers from right to the left lane, causing spasmodic slow and go traffic flows.

We’re the safe two seconds behind a logging truck in the No. 1 lane at a respectable 75 mph, not flinching as chunks of bark from raindrop to softball size fly off. Reminds me of the warp-speed transition scenes from the Star Wars movies.

I see a white GMC about a half-mile back in the rearview mirror coming on like the proverbial bat who resides in Hades, weaving in and out. He approaches from the right-hand lane, jockeys into position behind a semi that I’m starting to pass and glares at me.

There’s another Ford Escape behind me being driven by a young woman probably in her mid-20s. She’s one-and-a-half to two car lengths behind me and is trailed by another dozen vehicles.

Without a turn signal, the GMC bozo slides in behind me and forces the woman’s car onto the shoulder. She did a masterful job of controlling the car so it wasn’t sideswiped by the truck’s left-rear panel. And made a controlled move back onto the roadway. A driver who knew what to do.

The GMC was so close that a tailwind gust would have pushed it into my car. I could see the headlights this time. The Jimmy is high enough, if we were filming a Lethal Weapon scene, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) could have put his hand out a broken tailgate window and easily left a hand print on the hood.

The driver didn’t back off. No good putting on the brakes. Disaster. The emergency flashers didn’t phase him. We traveled at least six miles or 4.8 minutes before I could clear the last vehicle in the No. 2 lane.

I moved into the No. 2 lane closer to the semi in that lane than I should have or the law allows. But the guy behind me was more dangerous.

He again put the pedal to the middle, blew by like he’d hit the nitrous oxide button and proceeded to bully people out of the way until he was over a hill, around a curve and couldn’t be seen any more when we’d covered the same ground.

Going home, traffic was light on I-95 South around 9:30 pm. Which means I can see the three cars streaking toward us like guided missiles, weaving in and around the sparse traffic from lane-to-lane. In the day, I would have called it drag racing. As they sped by, two Floridians headed home and a Floridian driver wannabe from New York. All three luxury sedans — a Mercedes, BMW and Lexus.

The angel on one shoulder hoped they got wherever “there” is. The devil on the other wishes . . . . Turns out, a McIntosh deputy had nailed the third one when we caught up about 10 minutes later.

Here’s what I don’t understand. If the speed limit is 70 mph and a driver is pushing 90 mph, he’s going to cover 100 miles 20 minutes faster than the legal driver and 12 minutes faster than I would at 78 miles per hour.

Is that 20 minutes worth a superspeeder ticket or serious injury or death to the driver, passengers and other victims?

That’s why I can’t wait for driverless cars. Where speed and distance and changing lanes and collisions will be moot, and speeding tickets and the need for a superspeeder law to provide additional funding for trauma centers treating accident victims will be as outdated as AM transistor radios or pagers.

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