The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

How To Make Yourself A Better Driver

by Bob Hagin

August 6, 2001

"Driving is a privilege and not a right." These sage words were in the first driver's license preparation booklet that I studied to first get my driver's license. The year was 1947 and in those days, you could get a California driver's license at age 14 under "special" circumstances. Being a whiner, I persuaded my mother to authenticate the premise that my being able to drive her to her night-shift job was crucial to her safety and the well-being of our family. It wasn't, of course, but the ruse worked and I got my learner's permit.

After some harrowing driving lessons with my brother Don as the instructor, I took my behind-the-wheel test in downtown Oakland and failed. I didn't stop at a stoplight and wound up blocking traffic on the main intersection of that city. Fortunately, I passed some weeks later. Now 54 years later, I'm convinced that I'm a good driver but NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) statics state that most of us are not the safe, heads-up pilots we believe 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 things to learn. These are the better-driver venues I've come up with:

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 an on-site course. 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. None of them are very entertaining but a couple are hosted by comedians. As an alternative to actually sitting in a classroom with a dozen or so other lawbreakers, there are several dozen officially sanctioned cyber-traffic schools on the internet. I had to attend a traffic school some years ago and was chagrined to find 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.

ENROLL IN A DRIVER TRAINING SCHOOL - 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 certified to teach and the training cars are usually required to be safety-inspected 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. Being "old-school," I tend to think that everyone in this country was waiting with baited breath for their local Department of Motor Vehicles office to open the day they were old enough to take the driver's test. I was recently at our DMV office on another matter and after watching the line of people waiting to take the road test, I realized that most weren't pink-checked teens.

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 AutoWeek, Car And Driver and other enthusiast magazines.

Everybody would like to be considered a "good" driver but it means different things to different people. There are many shortcomings that most of us are willing to confess to - but driving isn't one of them.