Psychology / Transportation Safety / Editorial Comments

On the road again -- and again -- and again

May 24, 2011
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You ever think about your driving? Unless you’ve had a recent crash, a DUI, your premiums jacked up, a nearcrash, or a violation that costs you bucks, why, really, would you?

Complacency is frequently cited as a cause or a contributing factor to all stripes of work-related fatalities, injuries, recordables and near-hits - everything from bad lifting technique to not wearing PPE to circumventing lockout-tagout.

But is there anything we are more complacent about than our own driving? I’d say we take it for granted even more than our health and fitness.
 

Fretting and stewing

I think, fret and stew about other people’s driving much more than my own. Things out of my control more than in my control.

My daughter drives four hours to a jewelry party at a high school friend’s place in upstate Pennsylvania. I’m on the phone with her the night before going over directions. “Come on, Dad, I have a GPS. It’ll be fine.” Still, I’ve got my cell phone fully charged and in my pocket all day while she’s going back and forth.

My son delivers pizzas on weekends and during the summer while in college. Sometimes at night he gets lost. I try not to think about it.

Some clown cuts me off. Somebody drives too fast through our neighborhood. Drives too slow. Runs a STOP sign. Pulls out of the “Y” parking lot in a tank-size SUV already gabbing on the phone. They all get my attention, as well as wisecracks, curses, assorted animated gestures. Even minor transgressions, like someone failing to use their turn signal, has me shaking my head.

Do I ever roll my eyes over my own driving? Curse myself out for speeding? Cutting off some poor bugger to make an exit ramp?

Only if I get caught.
 

Pictures from the road

But when I do stop to think about driving, many memories come to mind.

…riding in a cab with my boss from the New Orleans airport on a stormy Sunday afternoon. The cabbie is watching a Saints game on a small black and white TV he has propped up in the front seat. This, along with the way he’s zooming around traffic, unnerves my boss. “Can you please stop watching the TV,” he says. The cabbie turns to us with a hard blank stare that says, “Mind your own business. I know what I’m doing.”

And so he expressed the most common attitude in the world when it comes to driving: “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing.”

Males are particularly sensitive here. Somehow driving is tied up in our sense of identity and selfworth. Don’t question it. Even when we’re lost without a clue. “No, I’m not going to stop and ask somebody. I know what I’m doing.”
 

Reckless role models

Of course we discourage reckless behavior on the job. But we make heroes out of hell-raising drivers. A few summers ago my son and I were in Kannapolis, North Carolina, where Dale Earnhardt, Sr. was born and raised. Downtown are a few blocks centered by a small park known as “Idiot’s Circle.” When “The Intimidator” was a young ’un, he and the other “idiots” would race around the loop. How they took those square corners I don’t know, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be a pedestrian to find out.

North Carolina is also home to The Last American Hero as he’s been called, NASCAR legend and former bootlegger Junior Johnson. Junior perfected a move while he was running ’shine called the “bootleg turn” or “about face,” where, coming up to a “revenuer” roadblock, he’d throw the car into second gear, twist the wheel, hit the accelerator, and make the car’s rear end skid around in a complete arc, then tear back up the road he came down. You can read about it in Tom Wolfe’s famous magazine article, or the movie starring Jeff Bridges as Junior.

What is it about driving that we mythologize hellcats, daredevils, intimidators and lawbreakers? (Junior did 11 months in a federal pen after getting caught at his daddy’s still.)
 

More memories

… last winter one bright Saturday afternoon I headed down Middlemarch Road, a dirt and gravel dotted line on the map just north of Tombstone, Arizona, in search of Cochise’s Stronghold, his formidable rock hideout in the Dragoon Mountains. I passed a sign: “PRIMITIVE ROAD. Caution. Use at your own risk.” Now this got my attention. Certain circumstances will penetrate our complacency. My focus was further sharpened when I turned off Middlemarch to follow a narrower, rockier trail I thought would lead to Cochise’s lair. Unlike my son and daughter, I declined the GPS. I was out of cell phone range. So yes, my complete and undivided attention was always on the ten yards of twisting, tumbling, rock-strewn road directly in front of me. No way I could afford to get stuck out there.

But very seldom are we out of our element driving. The daily commute. The school shuttle run. All the routine trips to the routine stops. No wonder so many crashes occur so close to home. We’re on auto-pilot.

We can also be on the cell (I don’t care if you’re talking into a headset, you’re still distracted). Fiddling with the radio. Daydreaming. Reaching on the floor or into the back seat. Trying to find some address.

… in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, several years ago I went off in search of Wake Forest University, which I assumed was in Wake Forest, North Carolina, naturally. Wrong. The small town of Wake Forest sits 39 miles east of Chapel Hill. The university is in Winston-Salem, 77 to the west. I was only off by 100 miles and change. Poking around the unassuming town of Wake Forest searching for signs to the school I very nearly rear-ended a car at a stop light, and I don’t know how the car behind swerved and missed me.

Another flashback:

… my daughter has her driving permit and we’re on a family vacation in Los Angeles. One summer night I take her up in the Hollywood Hills, to Mulholland Drive, and let her take the wheel. Mulholland is featured in countless films, a twisting, turning two-lane highway following the ridgeline of the Santa Monica mountains and offering fantastic views of downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Call it trial by fire. I figured if she could negotiate the S curves and canyons of Mulholland she could handle driving to school, the everyday stuff. Her mom, back at the hotel, was mortified of course when she heard what we (I) did.

When we first learn to drive, or teach our kids, it’s serious business. Turn the off rap music and pay attention. Both hands on the wheel. Know your blind spots. Then we pass the exam, put the rulebook away, and go about the business of becoming habituated - accustomed - to a lifetime of driving. Future lessons we’ll likely learn the hard way, with red flashing lights in our rearview mirror, etc. I say all this by way of asking: So how was your drive to work this morning?

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