One of the biggest differences between my new job and my old one -well aside from being treated as both a human and a peer- is the commute. My previous commute was about 2 blocks, and them is small town blocks where it actually only worked out to about a half a mile. The new job is 48 miles each way, but most of it on highways and the freeway during off peak hours, so it’s not really all that bad. Now that I have to spend two hours a day in the car though, I can tell you firsthand that the 12 bucks a month for commercial free radio is so worth it.
Having to make the drive everyday, I have been finding out that all the stereotypes about people and the way they drive are pretty accurate. Not to say that every guy that is driving a convertible is exactly 50 years old with a small dick, or that every SUV is being driven by a blonde woman on a cell phone, but enough of them are that I can tell that the stereotypes are at least grounded in fact (although I haven’t actually yanked the pants down on any of the guys in the sports cars to check penis size).
One thing that I have learned while driving around on the outskirts of a huge metropolitan area is that a lot of people tailgate. I’m not talking about the type of following close enough to put you a bit out of your comfort level either, I’m talking about cars following at a distance of less than 18 inches from the car in front of them. I’m sure that the people who are doing this assume that their superior driving skills will be able to keep them from getting into a collision (and a note to everyone out there: most wrecks are collisions not accidents. In order for it to be an accident, it must necessarily be unavoidable. Unavoidable means that driver error didn’t play a role. So say an axle snaps and your car rolls over, that is an accident. If you are following someone too close and smash into them when they lock up the breaks, that is a collision, it can’t be an accident since it was your action that directly caused it. Just because you didn’t do it on purpose doesn’t mean that it was an accident), but it just doesn’t wash. First off, if they indeed possessed superior driving skills they wouldn’t be following so close to begin with. Secondly, humans all have roughly the same reaction times in given circumstances, regardless of how good a driver you are, or how good your vision is, it takes the same amount of time to react to what you see. Give or take a couple thousandths of a second.
There are two simple ways to judge if you are following at a safe distance or not (well three I guess. Since if you can read the dash instruments on the car in front of you, you are following too close). These are the ones that they teach in driver’s ed. The first one was always pretty vague and subject to your ability to measure distance. It says that to follow someone safely, you should maintain a distance of one car length per 10mph. That method works pretty well for driving on surface streets, but that would mean that in order to fit that definition, you would have to be about 70 feet behind the car in front of you on the freeway, which I think we can all agree is just too much distance. The other method is the 2 second rule. Which is pretty self-explanatory. You should be passing any given landmark two seconds after the car in front of you. This one works pretty well since the distance will increase as speed increases. Two seconds is a good distance to be following at anyway, since human reaction time is about .8 seconds. If you are 2 seconds back and you see the car in front of you lock up the brakes, it will take you about .8 seconds to register it and hit your brakes as well. But since the car in front of you may have better brakes, you may need every bit of the 2 seconds to stop before you hit them.
Of course no one, myself included, ever really follows those rules. The only time I will actually maintain a full 2 seconds behind the car in front of me is if I am being seriously tailgated by the car behind me. You see, I don’t want to get into any collisions, even if they aren’t my fault, and I also know that it is going to take the guy behind me about .8 seconds to react if I hit the brakes. If he is following me at, say, waytoofuckingclose, he is going to hit me if I have to lock up the brakes. So I give the car in front of me a cushion that will allow me to to touch the brake pedal just enough to make my lights come on for a half a second or so before I start braking. That should give the guy behind me enough time to react to seeing the brake lights and hopefully avoid a collision. Probably also reinforcing the guy behind me’s belief that his superior driving skill can keep him from smashing into the car in front of him. But what do I care as long as that car isn’t the one I’m in?
But how to know if the guy behind you is following too close to stop safely? If you can see a bit of pavement between you and him in the rear-view, give that guy a fucking medal; he is at least 2 seconds behind you. If you can see his bumper in the rear-view, he is probably far enough behind you to react if necessary, this assuming that he is paying attention to what he is doing. If he is close enough that you can’t see his headlights, he is way too close and you will have to make an extra effort to keep him from hitting you if you do have to brake suddenly. If you can’t even see the hood of the car behind you, he is going to hit you, and it probably doesn’t matter what steps you take to try to avoid it.
And that is Donnie’s guide to safe following distances in a nutshell. Also, and totally unrelated to actually driving, you can walk around a parking lot and pick out cars of people who habitually tailgate. Since that type of driving leads to braking hard, often, it tears the brakes up. Cars should have an even amount of brake dust accumulated on all four wheels, but if they habitually tailgate it will wear the front brakes out 10 times faster than the rear ones (since the front brakes do about 2/3 of the work in normal circumstances, but that amount goes up significantly when the full weight of the car is thrown onto them by locking them up at freeway speeds). So people who habitually tailgate will have a much thicker coating of brake dust on the front wheels than the rear ones. Which also generally leads to having to replace the front rotors with every brake job, thereby doubling or more the cost to maintain the brake system. That information is, of course, completely useless.
All of the judging of distance and increasing my following distance to accommodate the jack-ass behind me is done pretty subconsciously at this point. In fact it doesn’t really even bother me anymore. Well, most of time. Sometimes, though, a situation will develop that I just know is going to lead to a collision. I found myself in one of those situations a couple of days ago.
On a two lane road with a 65mph speed limit (one lane each way, undivided), a girl in a green Ford Taurus was following me so close that I couldn’t see the hood of her car in the mirror, just her face. She was talking on a cell phone. I was behind a Budweiser delivery truck that was going about 5mph less than the speed limit, but oncoming traffic made it impossible to pass. We were a few miles away from the Blackwater Trading Post (which is actually just a small store that specializes in beer sales. They sell a lot of beer, being that they are the first store you can buy beer at once you leave the reservation -beer sales are forbidden on the reservation). I want to pass the beer truck, so I am staying close enough to him that I can get around if a spot opens up in the oncoming traffic. I made an attempt to go around, but had to fall back when a car turned onto the road from a side street. The girl behind me came inches from hitting me and, well, that pissed me off.
She nearly hit me when I accelerated to go around the truck then just let off the gas. If I were to have to hit the brakes she, being so distracted on her cell phone, would surely hit me. Knowing that the beer truck was most likely going to be stopping at the trading post, which requires coming nearly to a stop on the 65mph road, I needed to get that girl behind me to fall back a bit. But since I was already a touch miffed (if you are going to tailgate, pay attention, damn it!), I decided to use the “scare the holy fuck out of her” technique. I fell back from the beer truck just a bit, and smashed the brakes with my left foot. I only hit them for a fraction of a second, and I accelerated hard with the right foot immediately to keep her from hitting me. In the mirror, I saw an expression of terror on her face as she locked up her brakes. She also dropped her cell phone. What I did was foolish, sure, but it usually makes them fall back a bit, since now they are worried about the maniac in front of them. Not this girl. She picked her phone back up and got right back on my ass.
At this point, we are maybe two minutes from getting to the trading post. I still think the beer truck is going to stop there, and the traffic still won’t allow me to pass. The girl behind me is going to hit me when we have to stop guaranteed. My only other option is to slow way down, which I did. I just let off the gas and coasted my way down to 40 or so. There still wasn’t a break in the oncoming traffic, but the girl passed me anyway, forcing me and two oncoming drivers to pull partially off of the shoulderless road. Dumb bitch. Anyway, since the beer truck was going under the speed limit, I caught back up to them just before they got to the trading post. The truck put on his brakes to stop to make the turn and…
Wait for it…
Wait for it…
The girl smashed into the back of the beer truck.
I dialed the local police on my cell phone (yes I know the number, don’t ask), and pulled off the road. I grabbed a sheet of paper from my leather binder (still in the car from the job interviews in September and October), and started writing out a witness statement (which I am an old hand at at this point, again, don’t ask).
When I saw the guy get out of the beer truck, I went over to talk to him. His name is Lenny, he used to deliver to the store I worked at. We were looking at the back of his truck, which took only minor cosmetic damage, and talking about me, actually. He hadn’t seen me since I quit working at the store here in town, so there was some catching up to do. The Taurus was pretty fucked up though. The front end of it was smashed up accordion style (well the hood was), with the requisite smoke billowing from it. The girl was crying, begging us not to call the police -which Lenny had already done as well- screaming that if she got into another wreck she would lose her license.
The cop arrived only a few minutes later. I went to his car to give him my witness statement and let him check my ID. I let him know that I was on my way to work and all my contact info was already on the statement. I was back on the road within ten minutes, and made it to work on time (of course I am usually about 20 minutes early since I leave early enough to account for getting stuck in traffic).
The whole thing leaves me wondering though. How many wrecks has that girl caused? If you aren’t driving drunk, how many collisions do you have to get into before they actually take your license away? 3? 5? Hmm. What if it was like that for other things as well? Say you shoot 2 people and the judge says, “okay, that’s it. You shoot one more person and we take your gun away!”