The “Big Picture?”

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.

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