by William Lloyd Stearman, PhD



One of the boasts my students had to put up with was how I have managed to drive since 1936 without an accident, not even a fender-bender (still true as of October 2011). In all fairness, I did not have to spend many years commuting to work by car as do most Americans. On the other hand, however, I drove for years in Europe where many tended to drive like maniacs. My secret was simply observing well-known safety rules. First and foremost, keep at least a two-second interval from the car ahead. The standard way to determine this, as I am sure you all know, is to observe when the car ahead passes an object, say a sign, by the side of the road and then not passing it before counting one thousand one, one thousand two. In bad weather and at night this distance should at least be doubled. My father also recommended doubling this distance when being tailgated. Don’t ever be bothered when cars move into your gap distance. Just fall back to another safe distance. It will only cost you minutes lost on a fairly long trip. Never, even at stop lights, get so close to the car in front of you that you cannot see the bottom of its rear tires. Always signal a lane or direction change even when there is not another car in sight. This should become a reflex action that could some day save your life. Always be aware of what is going on around you and at least a block ahead. At an intersection when a stoplight turns green, look first right and then left before proceeding. Remember, a courteous driver is a safer driver. Give the other driver a break. Help other drivers change lanes and enter from off-ramps safely.
    My father, who was an excellent driver and an excellent pilot, used to say that the most dangerous part of flying was driving to and from the airport, and this was in the days when flying was far more hazardous than today. He also used to say, “Drive as if any of the cars around you could be driven by someone who was drunk, insane or both”--to which I would add “ stoned or distracted.” The three main killers on the highway are intoxication, distraction and impatience, which induces incaution. I continually find it incredible how many people risk their very lives to save at the most minutes and often only seconds. Also, many people risk their lives to maintain their right of way. This manifests itself most often on two-lane highways when one is passing another car and unexpectedly encounters a car barreling down in the other lane without slowing down even when a crash could be eminent. As a 1930s limerick used to go, “Here lies the body of William J. who died maintaining his right of way. He was right, dead right, as he sped along. But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.” I recently read the good advice that if a collision with a car in front of you is unavoidable, always try to hit a rear corner of the car to minimize the damage.  In any case, keep thinking of how you would react in emergency situations, for example, someone suddenly pulling out of a side road in front of you.
    One thing I totally fail to understand is why so many who have learned to drive in recent generations drive as if they were still driving stick shift. That is, they brake and accelerate with their right foot leaving the left foot with nothing to do. I remember when the automatic gearshift came into being, the big advantage was that it freed both hands for just steering and rendered the left foot, which had previously operated the clutch pedal, free to operate the brake pedal. Split-second braking is clearly of prime importance in emergency situations. It is obviously several times faster to brake with the left foot than to shift the right foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal. This is especially true when one drives in traffic with the left foot touching (but not depressing) the brake pedal enabling instant braking. (This has helped me prevent more than one accident.) Not only is this far faster and thus far safer, but it also eliminates “pedal confusion” (also called “pedal misapplication”) that has produced horrendous accidents when, in an emergency, drivers have hit the accelerator thinking it is the brake pedal.  (“Pedal misapplication” was also determined to be the “accelerator problem” that prompted a sizeable, but needless, recall of Toyota cars in 2010.) The fact that there is a name for it indicates that pedal confusion is not just an isolated phenomenon. Traffic safety experts in recent years have come up with a way to eliminate blind spots when using the side mirrors. In correctly positioning them, put one’s head against the left front window and adjust the left mirror so that just a bit of the car’s left rear corner is visible. Then shift to the center of the front seat and do the same thing with the right mirror. When a car is passing, it is first picked up in the center rearview mirror. Before it disappears from this mirror it is handed off to the side mirror. Before it is lost from this mirror it is visible out of the corner of one’s eye.
    It should go without saying that one should never drive faster than road, weather, and light conditions warrant. It’s usually prudent not to drive more than ten miles per hour over the speed limit on highways for safety and to avoid being pulled over for speeding. In parking lots one should creep, just creep in those crowded places. We always buy white cars because white is far and away the most visible color (except, of course, in snow). Also driving with daylight running lights makes one’s car up to six times more visible. This has substantially reduced the auto accident rate in countries where daylight running lights are mandatory and is a highly recommended safety practice. Concentrate all your attention on driving and don’t do anything else. Even conversation with a passenger is as distracting as using a handheld cell phone which is a prime distraction. Texting while driving borders on insanity and is responsible for increasing numbers of traffic deaths.. Of course never drive if one has had too much to drink which is usually more than one beer, one glass of wine or one hard liquor drink unless accompanied by eating and considerable lapse of time after the second drink which normally should be your limit. Determine your own safe limit and stick to it. For some people even one drink is too much for safety.