Feature Story

HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF A BETTER DRIVER

by Bob Hagin

June 19, 1998

Everyone feels they're great drivers and couldn't possibly improve their driving skills. "I've had a license for 50 years" a contemporary recently told me, "and there's nothing I don't know about it."

But a few hours on the average American road or highway will substantiate what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statics put forth: most of us are not the safe, heads-up drivers we consider ourselves to be, and that all of us, from novices who are just learning to drive, to road-veterans who have been driving for decades, have something to learn.

Advanced driver training is offered in some other countries (England comes to mind first) but in the U.S., it's mostly catch-as-catch-can. These are the better-driver venues I've come up with:

ATTEND BEGINNER'S DRIVER TRAINING SCHOOL - Being California-based, I tend to think that everyone who has reached the driving-permit age has gone through a high-school program and pestered his or her parents into putting in the required number of stressful hours in the passenger's seat. But there are many millions of adults in the U.S. who don't have a driver's license and for whatever reason, suddenly find it necessary to learn to drive. Getting the permit to learn is the easy part and from then on, things get tougher. The best method of getting hands-on experience is to sign up with a state-licensed driving school. The instructors are licensed by the state to teach and the training cars are usually required to be examined every six months or so. In most cases, the schools guarantee that you'll get your driver's license no matter how long it takes. In some cases, it takes a long, long time.

ATTEND RACING DRIVER'S SCHOOL - While racing driver schools mainly concentrate on students who want to develop such skills as trailing- brake through a turn, drafting for maximum "pull," proper apex approach and other aspects of wheel-to-wheel competition, many of them offer "street" courses that concentrate on behind-the-wheel accident avoidance, reactions to abrupt changes in road surfaces, etc. The latter used to be simulated on a skid-pad that consisted of a paved area covered with motor oil to which a coating of water was continually added to simulate driving on ice. I'm told that this technique is passe now and that modern schools like the Bondurant academy in Phoenix use an under-the-car device that has the same effect, but is controlled by the on-board instructor. An interesting course offered by the folks at Bondurant is their Executive Protection Program. In it, chauffeurs learn high-speed cornering to avoid pursuing bad guys, how to make 180-degree turns within an area no wider than the length of the car and other techniques that go contrary to a chauffeur's normal low, slow and smooth driving style. Driving schools of this caliber can be found in the classified sections in the back of On-Track, AutoWeek and other enthusiast magazines.

GET A MOVING VIOLATION CITATION - In most states, if you get a ticket for a minor driving violation, you get the option of either paying the fine and having the information go on your insurance record or having the infraction dismissed on the proviso that you go to traffic school. If you find yourself in this situation, take traffic school. They're usually one-day weekend events, eight or so hours in duration and if you keep an open mind, you'll probably learn something that will make you a better driver. The videos are somewhat corny and comical in order to keep viewers awake and on occasion a bit gory although those "scene of the accident" films are now out of style. I attended a traffic school some years ago and was chagrined by the fact that the instructor was a moonlighting teacher from the high school where I taught. He made great sport of my plight in the teacher's lunchroom the following Monday.

WATCH VIDEOS ON DRIVING - Several years ago Robert Urich hosted the National Driving Tests, a one-hour TV special sponsored by Valvoline Motor Oil. Valvoline put another on a year later and again, Urich was the host. The format was intriguing: its four parts were divided into such aspects of everyday driving as accident avoidance, response to accidents, reaction time and a host of other on-the-road everyday experiences. The correct response to each scenario was assigned up to four points and viewers were invited to test themselves to see if they were "Highway Heros" or "Highway Terrors." In addition, there were four groups of on-screen test-takers that included four taxi drivers in Boston, four newly licensed teen-agers in Santa Rosa, California, four female "gray panthers" in Sun City, Arizona and four DMV traffic examiners in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a tough test and the on-screen winners were the pros from Boston. I bought a copy of the show for $30 from the producers but I recently called the Valvoline public relations department in Lexington, Kentucky and was told that Valvoline no longer offers the test on video because the show is now dated (the guest stars have aged considerably) and the company doesn't plan to sponsor an updated version. That's a pity, since it was the most comprehensive video on driver improvement I've ever seen and if you can possibly hustle-up a copy for yourself, it will make you a better driver - if you're honest with yourself.

And honesty is the key word here. There are a few things that most of us will confess to being bad at - but driving isn't one of them.

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