by Gina Sestak
Watching other people drive renews my faith in miracles. We ought to all be dead.
That's why I'm convinced that, of all the things I've learned in all the jobs I've held, the most important was the Defensive Driving course I took while working for the Pennsylvania Department of Probation and Parole. [For more about this job, see my post GUNS AND REPORTS, February 10, 2007.]
The course was mandatory. No one could use a state-owned vehicle without it and I hope it's still being required. It ought to be required for every licensed driver.
It's been awhile since I took the course - more than 30 years, in fact -- so I don't have a clear recollection of specifics. Any written materials I may have retained were lost in a house fire. I just remember spending two days in in a large room with other state employees, watching films and listening to people talk.
There were a few basic principles:
* Be aware. This means more than just avoiding distraction. It means paying attention to the cars around you and what they are doing. Pay attention to the road and traffic conditions. I was almost killed several years ago when the person I was riding with failed to notice that we'd entered a construction zone in which the divided highway we were on changed to one lane in each direction. She pulled out to pass the car ahead of us (which had appropriately slowed down), right into the path of an on-coming 18-wheeler. We zigged around the road for a second or so, went airborn, then landed nose down in a ditch, stunned but uninjured. That was a miracle.
* Consider the possibilities. Just because another driver has a stop sign or a red light doesn't mean that driver is actually going to stop. Be prepared to react to the unexpected. While merging onto the Turnpike, I pulled out behind a passing car just as it lost a wheel and came to a virtual stop. I credit the Defensive Driving course for my ability to react effectively. The meant I was able get around that disabled car without hitting any of the cars in the left lane. The alternative would have been to scream and crash.
* Let other drivers know your plans. This means signaling when you intend to turn or merge, flashing the brake lights when you intend to stop, etc. I am amazed at how many people have told me that other drivers "know" what they intend to do. Other drivers are not psychic. They don't even know who you are. They can't read the signs you're seeing, so they don't know that you're in the left turn only lane. They may not know that you have a green arrow -- they might be watching the cross-street light and preparing to pull out as soon as it turns red. So signal.
* Be courteous. You are not the traffic police. Everybody makes mistakes. If someone rolls through a stop sign, it is not your job to chase that car for miles, honking and cursing. If someone is trying to merge into your lane, let them in. If someone is going slower than you think they should, let them go slow. Keep a safe distance between your can and their car and, if you really can't stand following them for another second, pull over and chill out. It's safer that way.
* Proceed with caution. Cars and trucks are big and heavy. They can kill you and, once you're dead, it doesn't really matter which car had the right of way.