My daily drive to work includes a small stretch along a road that is crossed by students on their way to the local elementary school. It never ceases to amaze me when they – frequently – fail to look for cars as they cross. Worse, yesterday I watched as a teenager, with tiny tots in tow, crossed the road without looking. Here’s a supposedly responsible person, or at least someone deemed responsible by the parents of the smaller kids, blindly leading these kids across a street. Sure, I know my car is relatively small and quiet, but that’s not the point. You look, because your other senses can deceive you.
My parents, and those of my peers, drilled into our heads from a very young age the importance of being careful when crossing roads. “Look both ways” was the refrain. I can’t help thinking that this failure is at least partly due to the overwhelming emphasis on making everything safe these days. In the UK, it’s disparagingly referred to as the “nanny state.” I’m a good, safe driver, so there’s no way I’m going to hit these kids. But that’s just me. A lesser, or impaired driver, is going to kill these kids one of these days. Perhaps that’s why there are are so many roadside memorials. Could it be that parents are no longer teaching their children the basics of safety?
I took Driver’s Ed in about 1976, and I’ll never regret it. Run by the local Board of Education, the program was comprehensive and moderately tough. I know it helped to form my good driving habits. When I see bad driving behaviour in others, I often wonder if they would be better if they had been trained properly.
Forming part of the curriculum was a series of driving-related films. One was the classic “Signal 30,” which was designed to scare young drivers toward safe driving habits. It showed the gruesome results of several terrible auto accidents.
Another film, the title of which might have been “The Big Picture,” followed a guy in a convertible as he drove around a city. A narrator provided the play-by-play. One part in particular stuck in my mind: the driver is at a stop light and there is another car in front of him. The light turns green and the car in front starts moving. The narrator says, “Don’t pull out immediately; wait a few seconds to allow for some space between you and the car in front.”
When this film was made (judging from the cars, probably the 1950’s), the narrator might have been giving good advice. Certainly there were very few other cars on the road in that film. The reality, even in 1976, was that roads were already congested. Fast-forward to 2004, and if everyone took the narrator’s advice, nobody would ever get anywhere, and deaths by road rage would be common. The reality of 2004 is that the old guidelines for vehicle spacing are now useless. For example, there are several intersections in my home town where the advance green light lasts only a few seconds. If everyone moves smartly and keeps it tight, six to ten cars can get through. Following the advice of “The Big Picture” would allow one, perhaps two cars to get through. The result would be disastrous.
Lucky for us, cars are better than they were in the 50’s. Brakes are better, tires are better, handling is much better and we have anti-skid brakes. Cars are able to slow and stop safely in much less space. So reducing inter-vehicle spacing isn’t as dangerous as it would have been back then. But it’s not what we really want. We’d all love to go back to the traffic levels of the 50’s, right? Well, that’s not going to happen any time soon. Some day, fuel prices will reduce traffic to 1950’s levels again, and only the wealthy will drive. Until that happens, we have no alternative but to drive closer together than we would prefer.
What can we do to reduce the danger of driving close together? The first, and in many ways the most important rule is to pay attention. I’ll have more to say about that later. For now, just remember that when the car ahead of you is closer, you have less time to react if they stop suddenly. Second, when you’re close to the traffic in front of you, your vision can be significantly reduced. If you’re unlucky enough to be stuck behind an SUV, you might not be able to see much of anything. You’re increasingly dependent on the driver immediately in front of you for clues as to the traffic ahead. If he’s late on the brakes, your task is much more difficult. New cars are now all equipped with raised brake lights, which sometimes allow you to see what’s happening a couple of cars farther ahead. But you can’t count on that; you just have to be that much more aware.
Driving closer together also creates some particularly dangerous situations, which I’ll discuss in more detail next post.
In my home town, and probably many others in North America, there are now sensors under the pavement at an increasing number of intersections. The sensors detect the presence of vehicles and affect the traffic light cycle at that intersection. You can often see where the sensors have been embedded, as the process leaves circular or rectangular patterns where the cuts are made. The sensors are commonly used where less-traveled roads intersect a major road. This effectively creates an on-demand system, where the light cycle shortens to give a green light to the less-used road when vehicles are waiting there. This makes a lot of sense: there’s no point interrupting flow on a major road when there are no cars waiting on the other road. The sensors are used in plenty of other situations. In left turn lanes, they trigger an advanced green. At busy intersections, they can help to optimize modify the light cycle throughout the day. They can be placed farther from the intersection to kick in when more than a certain number of cars are waiting. And so on.
Surprisingly, many drivers either aren’t aware of these sensors or they are just too dumb to cope with them properly. A few months ago I was at an intersection equipped with on-demand sensors. I was the second car waiting at a red. I noticed immediately that the first car was too far back to trigger the sensor, and sure enough, a complete light cycle went by and we never got a green light. The opposite side got an advance and a regular green, but we never did. I got out of the car, tapped on the driver’s window and explained to the driver that she needed to pull up. She did so and we got the next light. Of course, I’ll never know if she really believed me. She might have thought I was a nutcase and we got the green because it was (eventually) our due. Sigh.
If you’re observant enough to notice the sensors, you can even tweak them to your advantage, with a little experimentation. Near my home there are sensors in a left turn lane that I use regularly. I recently noticed that there are sensors at the front of the lane, and about three cars back. I discovered that the advance green doesn’t kick in unless there is a car sitting on the sensor that’s farther back, so I played around with it. I found that if I triggered the front sensor, then backed up and sat on the other sensor, it would trigger the advance. That’s not usually practical and it could be dangerous, so I don’t try that unless the road is fairly clear in my direction. But if I’m the second car in the turn lane, I don’t pull up behind the first car, I stay back and sit on the back sensor, triggering the advance. Fun, and useful!