Getting There ..Fast
Jack and Dianne were an item when I was in high school. They were both good looking and seemed to belong together. They were inseparable, spending lunch together every day, and dating every week. They had gone steady for three years and everyone knew that graduation would mean marriage for them. Then the unthinkable happened. Jack was driving too fast and hit a bridge abutment. Dianne spent months in the hospital. When she finally returned to school, her face told the sad story of their wreck. She would never look the same again. And Jack and Dianne never spent another moment together. I donít know if it was because Jack felt guilty, or Dianne blamed him, or Dianne's father chased Jack away with a shotgun, or Jack just couldnít take Dianneís new facial decor. But it ended with the accident. All of us felt bad about the breakup - the wonderful thing that could have been, that an accident took away.
I forgot about Jack and Dianne. It wasn't that I didn't know highway deaths, It was that I was young and invincible. In my radio days in the mid-sixties, I had to sign on the station at 5 a.m. and do the AM and FM morning shows by myself until 8. I was not an early riser - nothing could pry me out of bed except the last minute. It was twenty miles to the station and I would rise at 4:30 or later and drive like a cat with its tail on fire and scream to a stop in front of the station with my radio antenna whipping. I poked the transmitter on at 4:59, slapped the opening record on the turntable, grabbed the news off the teletype, opened my microphone at 5:02 and edited the news as I read it. Thankfully everyone was too groggy at that hour to notice. I had a Ď52 Olds and even though I wouldnít exceed the speed limit in town, I usually cruised to work on the open highway at about a hundred miles an hour (seriously).
If I wanted to drive fast on country roads, I had a í59 TR3. The Triumph had a canvas top and cutaway doors - you could literally reach out the doors and touch the road. It was probably the most fun car you could drive, even though the Triumph Spitfire was even smaller. If you hit anything in a Spitfire, it also doubled as a casket and they could just bury you in it. (Apologies to Triumph - I don't know what they did wrong, but I wish they would bring the TR3 back.)
Deer appear unseen from the edges of the highway, and are running at top speed as often do pedestrians, playing children, and other vehicles. Deer run at about 30 MPH, and this means that running from the cover of trees fifteen to thirty foot to the side, they are going to spend about a third of a second in your lane while you travel another 26 feet. (A running child spends much longer.) Suppose on the way home a car pulls out in front of you. How quickly can you change lanes to avoid an accident without losing control of your car? At sixty is it twenty feet? forty feet? a hundred and sixty feet? Donít know - panic - freeze - crash. At 60 MPH, you canít swerve within 26 feet even in a sports car. In practice, you can watch for specific points on the highway and safely swerve to another lane within fifty feet, if you know how your vehicle handles.
Most people donít know how their vehicle handles, and deer donít stand at a deer crossing sign waving a red flag so you know when to swerve. But even if you could spot them and swerve, you canít outguess a deer. Will the deer slow down? stop? freeze in its tracks? turn around and go back? What will a runner do? A child? Deer and humans are both unpredictable. My Uncle and I were about to drive down an icy hill with a bridge at the bottom and a twenty-foot drop on each side. As we crested the hill, a large farm truck pulled onto the one lane bridge. We couldn't stop on the ice. The farmer watched, panic stricken and frozen at the wheel. He had plenty of time to back up as we slowly slipped down he hill and over the side. Unpredictable. Then add reaction time from the moment you are lucky enough to spot the speeding object and at sixty you are at 50 feet as an inevitable distance for hitting an object crossing your path.
Small children can also go twenty miles an hour. In my subdivision, I approach a driveway that is steeply sloped. You can't see the drive because of cars parked in the street. The kid playing in the drive can't see cars coming. He starts at the top of the drive on a tricycle, builds speed all the way down, and suddenly darts out from in front of a parked car, leaving you absolutely no reaction or braking time.
Hitting things can also be hard on you - if the center of the object you hit is near the top of your hood, it is going to inhabit the front seat with you, very possibly in your place. Deer weigh in at around 300 pounds and their antlers have points. At fifty miles an hour, it gets ugly.
At twenty, I was invincible. After all, I could react quickly as a snake, and I could throw seventy-pounds eleven feet in the air every ten seconds for most of the day in 100 degree heat, and walk off with a hundred pound bag of cement on each shoulder, and I had trained my driving alertness by scanning continuously for cops. What, me have an accident? Had I not been so young and so convinced of my own invincibility, and been a little more experienced as you now know, I would have gotten up a few minutes earlier and had a more leisurely drive to work watching the deer instead of watching for them.
For many years I had to drive more than four hours a day on some of the worldís most crowded interstates, metropolitan streets filled with stop lights, small towns with the stop signs missing, state highways with continuous yellow lines (no passing) with farmer John out plowing the highway at ten miles an hour, and on narrow and winding country roads that would be a lot of fun in a sports car but were not much fun trying to get somewhere fast in a large sedan that handles and brakes comparatively poorly.
Once I stopped on the highway to make a left turn in a rural area with little traffic. I was in a large bright yellow van with giant red brake lights and a large blinking turn signal on a sunshiny day. A little old lady who had just had her pacemaker checked, got distracted by a horse trailer caravan in the other lane and plowed into the back of my van at fifty-miles an hour. She never hit the brake pedal. It destroyed my radio that I tried to use to call for help, bending the rigid metal floor mount backward. Major impact. I was not injured this time - seat belts, shoulder belts, and a head restraint. Not so for the lady, who wasnít wearing a seat belt. She hit the steering wheel, crushing her chest, and all that I and a nurse could do for her was tell her not to move while she sat there in pain. She died later at the hospital.
Race car drivers expect accidents and their protective gear regularly prevents injury and death in extremely violent wrecks at speeds up to 200 MPH. Seat belts work. As one police officer said, who had investigated many fatalities and written about them, "There was always room inside the car between the driver and the impact - they didnít have to die." Accidents come out of nowhere, even when you think you are perfectly safe.
A lesson I learned repeatedly over the years is not to follow any kind of truck or drive beside them. I used to brag that I had seen everything fall off of a truck that could be put on a truck, including parts that the truck itself was made of. It isnít much fun when thirty-pound chunks of tread from an eighteen-wheeler come off and aim for my windshield. But the trouble seems to get larger as the size of the vehicle gets smaller. Nearly every day on radio traffic reports I hear of a ladder in the middle of the interstate, fallen from a pickup truck. One day a pickup truck pulling a trailer with a dune buggy was slowly passing me on the interstate. I heard a noise and looked over at the dune buggy and realized the trailer was no longer attached to the pickup. I smiled politely at the buggy and speeded up to get out of its way. After a few seconds it took to the ditch and did a few farewell flips. Someoneís vacation was ruined.
Another time a truck was coming toward me pulling a trailer. Its trailer also decided to make its own tracks and aimed more or less for me. I altered course. After missing me, it climbed a high cement curb and perched on top of it and another car like a big bird. Expensive perch. In a hurry to get to work? get home? get on vacation? Donít forget to load it properly and attach the safety chain. It can save someoneís life and youíll have more fun.
I now know from experience that if you drive you canít avoid being in accident situations. If there is an accident situation, I have not only seen it, I have been in it - and escaped. Just the other day a minivan crowded into my lane in my space. I saw him, braked and steered left using up all of my lane that I could. I continued on, my feathers unruffled, no long delays, no body shop repairs, no "Iím sorry I hit you, but I donít have any insurance" deductible expenses, no injuries, no police reports. Having driven on average over 100,000 miles a year, these accident situations have happened to me a lot. How do I survive? I think I have been partly skillful, partly lucky, and partly followed a few simple rules that give you time to escape.
It isnít a question of "if" an accident situation will happen, but "when." The trick is in knowing how to shape your environment so you can get out of accident situations safely. The simple rules that will save you from 90% of accidents: If you canít see, you canít avoid an accident - keep all of your windows clean and check frequently around you. Keep a safety bubble of space in front of you at all times so when someone creates an accident situation you have time and room to maneuver. If someone tailgates you, simply leave more room to the front so he doesnít force you into an accident because he canít stop when you suddenly have to. And practice looking for places to go if something happens ahead so that if a real accident does happen you donít panic and freeze. I think that driving video games are an excellent resource for learning accident situation maneuvering.
A couple of times I have had no way out. Once at a three-way intersection I started to take my turn when another car took it. As he pulled through, I moved into the intersection a little more and started to turn, but the next car took my turn. I was now at the midway point of the intersection and began turning. A third car pulled out and struck me. It turns out I had outguessed two of the three bad drivers who were simply trying to stay together through traffic so they wouldnít get split up and lost. You never know what other people are going to do. So I got even better at watching other cars movements at intersections in case it ever happens again, and Iím more careful about launching from the start line at intersections.
Another time when I had no way out, I was driving home in the rain and the temperature unexpectedly dropped below freezing and the city streets became a sheet of ice. I considered getting off the streets and waiting it out, but it was early morning and I was nearly alone on the streets. I reduced my speed and approached intersections at a crawl. Coming from behind me, way too fast for conditions, a car suddenly began spinning. I couldnít move out of the way quickly enough without losing control on the ice. As the car spun by me, his car scraped mine. Moments later he got his car under control, but he didnít stop to take responsibility for the accident. In fact, he raced away at a higher speed, endangering others on the road and at intersections.
I had choices - I could forget the accident and pay the deductible myself, which I am not inclined to do, or I could race after the guy and very possibly cause an accident and injure myself, or I could simply follow the guy while continuing to drive safely. I knew something he didnít. In accident environments - crowded streets, icy roads, hazardous situations, etc., no matter how hard you try you just canít gain more than a few car lengths. Itís like being in a dream where you can only run in slow motion. I carefully followed him for several miles to his place of employment. He was obviously driving too fast because he was late for work. I got out of my car - he was looking for a place to run. At 6í 1" and 210 pounds of pure muscle... OK, OK I exaggerate about my muscle to fat ratio... I just gave him a look that said, "Iím very very tired of this game," and asked him for his insurance information. His insurance paid.
The point is, I see this same driving principle at work daily on the crowded roads that I currently drive. I hate wasting time in traffic - I have other things to do. I have a choice of driving in the right slow lane, the middle lane, or the left fast lane. Most of the time I just sit in the middle lane and chuckle at the fast lane, while catching up on the news and listening to a few tunes. The drivers in the fast lane get right on each others bumpers, try to drive ten to fifteen miles faster than others, and because they cause frequent stops they constantly slam on the brakes and then sit all jammed into a tight string while all the traffic in the middle lane smoothly flows past them. Then they think the middle lane is free and jump into it. Then back to the fast lane which is finally moving. At the end of fifteen harrowing miles, having expended tons of energy and expletives from driving like maniacs, furious and exhausted, they are still beside me in traffic. Well, to be fair they often gain a few car lengths - at 45 MPH, that puts them at home roughly three seconds before me.
Enough from me - here are some words on fast driving from experts who drive really fast:
(Quotes from a story by Rich Ceppos, CAR and DRIVER, Aug. 1986)
Jackie Stewart, racing commentator formerly for ABC and ESPN, is winner of three world racing championships and 27 Grands Prix - more than any other driver. He believes that whether you drive a road car or a racing car, it has to be with finesse. Smoothness. Letís see how that translates into strategy and car handling.
Rich Ceppos of Car and Driver magazine rode with Jackie on the highway and track to learn his driving secrets. Says Rick, "... there's something else going on here. This is rush hour, but where are all the swerves, the sudden stops, the curses? He's threading through this mess with silky smoothness."
Jackie isnít on the road to compete or work out some vague aggressive feeling. "I really think the element of smoothness is of absolute importance, whether you're accelerating, coming off the accelerator, braking, or changing direction. By concentrating to achieve that, you are becoming a much, much better driver. And if you're concentrating more, you therefore become a more considerate driver.
"If you're not considerate, you're riding up their backside half the time and you're not letting them in. You're going to have to get on the brakes, because they're going to cut in anyway in most cases. By undoing that smoothness, by having to swerve, or suddenly getting on the brakes and then accellerating sharply - you know, the 'screw him' attitude - you're no longer the driver I think you should and could be. These are my three C's of driving: concentration, conscientiousness, and consideration."
Jackieís driving attitude gets better handling performance from his car. "When you're hard on the brakes going into a corner, the front end goes down and you introduce significant weight transfer. The suspension, which is all compressed now, can't accomodate the body roll too."
When you are swerving and braking in a turn to make your car take the turn, youíre losing speed and time. Rich concludes, " Once you've seen an automobile handled so skillfully, you'll naturally want to possess the technique yourself."
But more than anything, Jackieís attitude translates into the most important thing - coming home in one piece: "You've got to consider the driving habits of the man you're going to overtake, for instance. Is he the kind who will do something to endanger me? The only reason I won 27 Grands Prix is that I finished more regularly than most people - and in one piece."
A.J. Foyt is another professional race car driver who has stayed alive through a lifetime of racing. He won the Indianapolis 500 four times, more than any other driver. Beyond that, there isn't any kind of auto, race, or track he hasn't triumphed over. He began racing in the days when few safety precautions were taken, and death and serious injury were common throughout most of his racing career. They purchased his first real racing engine, an Offenhauser, from the widow of a driver killed while racing. Accompaniedby his mother's tears and protests, he put that engine in a midget racer, the type his mother had seen flip and crush a driver's skull; a common occurrence. How did he survive and become a premier race driver? In A.J.'s book, A.J., he talks about luck, basic skill, and good driving habits.
Have you ever heard the expression, "He was dead right?" Itís a saying we can apply to someone who did everything legally on the highway, then was killed anyway because of another person's mistake. What can be done about the other guy, the one with our name on his bumper?
A.J. talks about the same problem. "I can make mistakes, like everyone else, and I have made them, but most of the time lately when I've been hurt or I crash bad, It's been someone else's fault. And, I'll tell you, I'm getting pretty damned tired of it."
He says of one driver, "I think he got too high and was trying to get back down in the groove he had been working in. The only problem was, I was already there. He lost it, then he took me with him. Then he says, 'Well, I've set track records and I've been at the front row in Indianapolis. What do I have to do to prove myself?'
"I'll tell him right now. All he has to do to prove himself is use his (deleted) head...most of the time he's just been in everybody's way trying to prove a point."
A.J. says about that type of driver, "There have always been some drivers I have watched very closely, but that's because of the mistakes they might make. I would spin a car on purpose before I would follow some drivers through a hole.
"Not wanting to follow them on the track isn't a case of being afraid. There's no fear involved, it's just good common sense."
"...I didn't make as many (mistakes) because I didn't drive over my head the way they do... There are some drivers who have been around for a long time who are driving over their heads most of the time..."
"I found out early in the game that if I drove over my head, I got in trouble, which is spelled C-R-A-S-H, so there wasn't much point in doing something that was going to come back and bite me in the ass. It's common sense. You've always seen other drivers out there going like the hammers of hell, with the car all hung out, taking chances."
A.J. points out throughout the book that those same drivers, new and old, don't have their vehicles under control, and they don't even know they've exceeded their limit. Driver's abilities vary, vehicles vary, experience varies, tracks vary, the wind varies, days vary.
For A.J., whether it's surviving, or winning, it starts with basic training. Know your limits, know the cars limits, know the driving conditions, so you can keep it under control. In other words, don't drive over your head. A.J. gets a little hot headed, so keeping it under control is tough, and sometimes he loses it. But taking chances is something A.J. avoids. He pits skills he knows against conditions he knows and he comes out a winner. To A.J., that's just common sense. He's hard to dispute.
Training is simply learning the skills the
experts learned the hard way so that you win right away without having
to make all the mistakes yourself. After all, wrecks leave people crippled
and maimed for life, if they donít kill them. Training is a much easier
way to learn.
There's a joke about an employer who screened out drivers he didn't want, by asking them questions with no answers. "You're driving down a narrow mountain road, rounding a curve, with a sheer drop on one side and a stone wall on the other. Suddenly a bus is coming at you and you can't stop. What do you do?" Answered one man, "I say to my partner, 'Wake up, you're gonna' miss the biggest accident of you're whole life."
For a race car driver, the Indy 500 is often over in the first lap, when all the cars are tightly packed and rapidly accellerating. That first lap accident is almost a tradition, and it's usually very big and very bad. If a driver isn't alert, he may miss seeing the biggest accident of his life, the one that takes him out.
A.J. Foyt's career almost came to an end at his first Indy 500 on the first lap. In the first turn, things started going haywire. He remembered what they said in the driver's meeting. "If you see a car spinning on the start, look for a place to go." It was happening just like they said. He looked for a place to go and made it through the melee ahead. Pat O'conner burned to death in that wreck, his blackened arm protruding from the cockpit as an ominous warning to every driver that it could have been them, and it took the fun out of A.J.'s first Indy race.
I run into the Indy 500 first lap pack at stop lights and the fast lane. Twenty tightly packed cars move out, accellerating rapidly, and jockeying for position and a clear lane. Over the next few miles they tailgate and dive for holes in traffic until the faster ones finally get around the others. Then the remainder travel together down the highway holding hands and there's no separating them. The result is, you may be involved in a first lap collision, and you are forced to travel down the highway trapped between cars packed so densely there is no swerve space, and cars cut in leaving no braking space, especially in the fast lane. The solution takes a few seconds. I let the traffic pull away from me as I accellerate more slowly for a few seconds. If the traffic ahead has a problem, I have left myself a place to go. Then by the time I reach the slower ones, the pack has often dissipated and I can pass them quickly and easily.
Like most of us, A.J. Foyt had to keep his temper under control and rely on his skill and judgment. He not only won, he came home alive. Jackie Stewartís driving literally defines skill. He honed his skills to the point he was a very smooth driver. Personally, I finally managed to subdue the feeling of being in a mad rush on the road, and now I enjoy watching for opportunities to be courteous - to let someone onto the highway, to give someone space to merge, to get a friendly wave from someone who appreciates the opportunity. Driving smooooooooothly is a lot more fun.
If it was only speed that mattered, you could strap a rocket to the top of your car and propel yourself down the road at blinding speed until you encountered the first curve. It happens. But with the professionals, he who wins is the man who acquires the most skill.
Comments on the art of empowering others through stories
Empowering others is helping others do what they want to do. How did I design this article to do that? (Hopefully effectively - I'm never sure.)
The opening, which is composed of several first person accounts, does several things.
Also in the second part, I canít create short stories about A.J. Foytís and Jackie Stewartís critical moments in racing like I did in the article about gunfighters. But what I can do is present their own short stories, which are illustrations. Stories, even as brief illustrations, are very important because they engage the audience at a personal level.
In the second part I weave together relevant comments from these menís professional lives with my own comments, to make several points. I try never to forget in writing to put myself in the audienceís shoes and ask, "Whatís in it for me? Why should I care?" So I spell it out: you donít have to make all the mistakes - you will probably die if you do. You really canít know when an accident is going to happen, and seat belts really will prevent injuries. Building driving skill really does make your car go faster, as well as more safely. And racing and winning arenít about being macho and tearing around like an out of control missile - they are about acquired skill.
Notice also that my comments came first in part one, and the experts comments came in part two. Why? If my comments came second, this article might be perceived as a bunch of blow-hard experts preaching advice, followed by me trying to relate their advice to my own shallow experience. That might or might not work. By going first, I told of my real experiences and what I have learned, and then let the experts come along and confirm with additional authority. In this way the authority builds rather than declines through the article. The person can feel empowered instead of feeling in tension from questioning and doubting.
Also I try to ask questions about things rather than just tell about things. This requires people to think. I can say, "How quickly can you change lanes to avoid an accident without losing control of your car?" The audience is now realizing that really don't know, instead of me stating to deaf ears that it could be a problem.
A very legitimate question at this point is, "Is all of this designing manipulative?" The person whose main attitude is one of proving himself through individual conquest and rebellion against what the rest of us respect is not going to be affected by this article. Suppose that you yourself donít want to die in an automobile accident. Would you prefer that a speaker present information that leaves you questioning of him and feeling ill-informed, or would you prefer that he tell you the full truth in the order he knows works best? Itís the same information either way. Poor presentation is damaging rather than helpful. By the way, I'm still learning. : )
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