How Good a Driver are YOU? (Oct, 1932)

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How Good a Driver are YOU?

By Charles S. Slocombe

Safety Adviser, Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles

AMONG the things your best friends won’t tell you is what they think of the way you drive a car. They may feel free to question your taste in clothes, advise you how to run your business or your household, and offer suggestions as to your golf swing. But they know better than to criticize your technic at the wheel. You would resent it. They would resent similar criticism from you. For automobile driving is a peculiarly cherished accomplishment. No driver of any experience likes to admit that he or she is not an expert, or that his or her driving might be improved.

In my work of studying motor accident causes and diagnosing motorists’ driving troubles, I have questioned hundreds of operators involved in collisions. And 1 have found few who were not convinced that their own driving left nothing to be desired and that the other fellow had been at fault. When I showed them conclusively that they had been as much to blame as the other fellow, or even more so, because of certain “kinks” in their driving habits, they were genu- inely surprised. No one had ever before pointed out to them that they had any such kinks.

Such was the case with a young woman who, having figured in a number of collisions, was called to the Registry of Motor Vehicles for a hearing. One of her crashes had occurred at an intersection, where, while making a left turn, she had collided with another car also making a left turn. She explained this by saying she had assumed the other driver was about to make a right turn.

A second time, approaching an intersection controlled by a traffic signal, she had rammed the car ahead, which had stopped for the changing light. In this case her explanation was that since the other driver could easily have crossed the intersection before the light had completely changed, she had assumed he would do so, and had therefore kept on going.

HER third accident had taken place on a straightaway. Some distance ahead, two pedestrians had been crossing to her side of the road. Another car had been coming in the opposite direction, running close to the center of the highway. The pair on foot had crossed in front of it and started over to her half of the pavement. She had had no room to pass between them and the other car, and so, to avoid hitting them, had swerved into the other car’s path, striking it head-on. Asked why she had not slowed down, or stopped, she said she had assumed that the oncoming driver would pull over to give her the room she needed. The accident had been his fault, she claimed, be- cause he had not pulled over.

In each case this young woman had made the same serious mistake: She had tried to do the thinking for the other fellow. And because the other fellow had done the opposite of what she had thought he would do, she had been unprepared for the emergency.

“YOU have come to grief,” we told her, “by making up the other driver’s mind for him. You thought you were doing right in trying to anticipate his action. But that can’t be done.”

“You mean,” asked the young woman, a trifle puzzled, “that I must stop trying to anticipate what may happen?”

“Not at all. You must go farther. But let’s put it another way: The thing you must realize is that in every situation a driver has a choice between two or more courses. Your job is not to decide in advance which course he will take, but to figure out all the things he might possibly do— and be ready for any of them. Take that third accident of yours: Most drivers, seeing you didn’t have room enough, probably would have pulled over for you. But this particular man didn’t happen to think that way. If you had foreseen that he might not pull over, and had slowed down or stopped, there would have been no collision.

“A sign out in the Black Hills country says, ‘Drive carefully; there may be a fool ahead.’ That’s not a bad slogan for you to keep in mind, although, to fit your case more exactly, I’d change it to, ‘Don’t take anything for granted; the other fellow may do the wrong thing.'”

THAT most automobile accidents are caused by bad driving is generally accepted. But that a large percentage of them could be prevented by identifying the bad drivers and curing them of their individual faults is a principle only just beginning to be recognized. Its practical value has been demonstrated in Massachusetts, the first state in which it has been actively applied. It is based on the dis- ( covery, substantiated by tests with trolley motormen and bus drivers, that motorists may be divided into two main classes: The first class is composed of those who have had no accidents at all over a period of years, or only one apiece. The second is made up of those who have had two or more. This latter group, constituting only about 14 per cent of the total number of drivers, is responsible for about 58 per cent of all accidents. In other words, these people are repeaters. They get into trouble time and again, causing damage out of all proportion to their numbers.

Before a study of the records revealed that nearly six-tenths of the accidents are caused by less than two-tenths of the operators, the outlook for accident reduction seemed pretty hopeless. But our Massachusetts experience clearly shows that great reductions can be effected by segregating the repeaters and either curing them or ruling them off the road.

Last December and January we summoned for hearings at the Registry 985 repeaters, each of whom had figured in two or more accidents or violations since July 1, 1931. In that time, they had had 1,937 accidents. In the three months following their hearings they had only 17 accidents; 944 of these repeaters had perfect records.

This improvement was brought about, not by wholesale punishment, but by finding out what ailed each driver and prescribing a remedy. The young woman who assumed too much of the other fellow has had no further collisions since we pointed out her dangerous kink several months ago.

Let’s examine another case, this time of a salesman who had been in five accidents, two of them less than six months apart. He, too, was certain that in no instance had the fault been his. He was, he asserted, neither reckless nor inconsiderate. The descriptions of his five smash-ups seemed at first to bear out his contention. Briefly, here they are: The first time, while passing a car ahead, he was struck by a third car coming toward him. The driver ahead, he explained, had not pulled over enough to give him room to pass. In the second, a similar situation, he was forced, as he put it, to strike the car he was passing a glancing blow, to avoid being hit by the one coming from the opposite direction. The third accident occurred when a child, playing on the sidewalk, started to cross the street just as he came along. His fourth crash took place in the evening at an intersection where the view to his right was obstructed. The salesman said he was proceeding slowly across, after coming to a full stop, when run into by a car entering from the right. In the fifth, he was in the act of passing the car ahead, when its driver unexpectedly made a left turn. It was obvious, he asserted, that in the first two and the last two accidents the other drivers had been to blame. As for the third, the very fact that the child had not been seriously hurt was evidence that he i had not been driving too fast.

That Fate should single out for disaster the same man five times in succession is highly improbable. Feeling that this man must have some weak spot in his driving, we set out to uncover it by questioning him. And what do you suppose his particular kink proved to be?

Simply that he had neglected, on each occasion, to use his horn as a warning.

WE NOT only told him to use his horn in the future, but gave him specific information regarding its proper use. I’ll pass these pointers on in case they might be helpful to you: Lots of drivers do not bother to glance in their mirrors at frequent intervals to see what is back of them. Therefore, before you start pulling out of line to pass the car ahead, blow your horn to notify the driver ahead that you are there. After you have pulled out of line and are overtaking him there will be an interval in which he will be unable to see you. Therefore, blow your horn again, before coming abreast of him, to notify him that you are actually about to pass.

In most cases he will pull over for you, or give you a signal. If he does not, don’t rush ahead, but drop back and blow your horn repeatedly until you get some kind of response from him. Even if he is a road hog, it is better to stay behind him for a while, until you are sure you can get by safely.

And here’s another tip: When you see a child playing on the sidewalk or walking by the roadside, don’t be content with sounding your horn just once. Children go in for daydreaming. To play safe, you must bring him back to earth and make him aware of your presence. Make him look at you. This may annoy him. But it’s better to annoy him than to run over him.

Neglecting to sound the horn—especially when about to pass—is a common failing among motorists. Less common, but no less dangerous, is the trick of placing too much reliance on its efficacy. There was, for instance, a business executive who specialized in accidents at intersections, but who had also had three collisions in the middle of the block. Both types were due to his habit of relying on his horn to clear a way for him. Coming to an intersection, he would honk loudly and long—and keep right on, without bothering to slow down to see whether other cars were coming. In his mid-block accidents he had struck other cars whose drivers had been backing and filling in the act of making complete turns. Instead of giving them time to maneuver, or to beckon him on, he had ? simply sounded his horn and proceeded to cut in behind or in front of them.

“Your trouble,” we told him, “is that you forget the other fellow has rights, too. Your horn is supposed to be a warning signal and nothing more. You’ve been trying to use it as a voice of command, to enforce your own will on other drivers. Don’t give up using it, but get rid of the notion that everybody else is going to jump through hoops because you honk.”

Occasionally we find repeaters who have more than one kink.

One of these was a truck driver who had figured in eight accidents in nine years. Four of the crashes took place at blind alleys and driveways. His first two occurred when, entering main highways, he drove directly into the paths of cars approaching from the left, fifty or seventy-five feet away. In each case he admitted having seen the other car before driving out. The third collision took place when he was backing out of a driveway. His fourth happened when, on the wrong side of the street, he was waiting for an approaching car to pass so that he could turn into a driveway on his right. This time his truck rolled into the other car as it passed.

The four remaining crashes took place at intersections. In two of these he was approaching the intersection so fast that he could not stop before striking cars which had already entered from the right. In the third he pulled to the extreme right before making a left turn and hit a car which was attempting to pass him. In the fourth, again when making a left turn, he tried to cut ahead of a car coming from the opposite direction.

It was not difficult to sum up the truck driver’s kinks. He did not know how to go in and out of driveways, nor how to make left turns at intersections. His judgment of speed was also poor. What he needed was careful retraining by an expert teacher. We made this recommendation not only to him, but to his employer. Our advice was followed and since then he has had no further accidents.

In connection with making turns into and out of main thoroughfares there comes to mind an interesting case. It involves a substantial, responsible citizen of middle age, who could not be classified as reckless, but who nevertheless in three years had six accidents. In his first two, while turning left into side streets from a main highway, he had been struck by cars approaching from his right. In another, while turning left into a driveway, he was again struck by a car approaching from his right. Later, about to make a left turn at an intersection, his car struck a child who had just stepped off the sidewalk on his right.

The similarity of his mishaps supplied the clue to his particular driving kink. Trying to be careful, he had unconsciously fallen into the habit, when turning left, of focusing all his attention on the road or driveway he was turning into, forgetting the road he was leaving. We advised him: “Make a practice of looking all around you when you’re making turns, to see what’s coming from all directions. If you do that, every time, you ought to be able to keep out of trouble.”

To drive safely it is necessary to pay attention to what is happening immediately in front of you, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Some persons concentrate on the road ahead to such an extent that any traffic movement from a side street, or the sound of a horn from behind, is likely to startle them into making a false move.

If you happen to have this failing you can train yourself to overcome it. Be careful, however, that in consciously trying to broaden your field of attention, you don’t swing so far in that direction as to forget about the road ahead.

ONE reason why some drivers become repeaters is that they have never completely mastered the art of driving. They have never been properly taught.

Take, as an illustration, the multiple accidents of a lawyer who compiled the unenviable record of eight in six years. Seven of these occurred in the winter. Why? Because he had neither taken account of unusual road conditions nor grasped the fact that it is more difficult to stop on slippery pavements than on dry ones. Twice he had skidded into cars which had stopped in front of him for red lights. Twice, failing to stop quickly enough at intersections, he had been struck by cars coming across with the lights in their favor. On another occasion, unable to stop in order to avoid hitting a child, he had crashed into a pole.

For a normal driver, one such accident, or two, at most, would have been enough to teach him a lesson. But this man was not the kind who learns from experience. He needed to be warned to observe the condition of the road surface and to regulate his speed so as to avoid making sudden stops. Moreover, he needed re-instruction in the use of his brakes. He relied on them too much, as many drivers do. Two of his other three accidents had resulted from stopping too abruptly.

“You have a very serious driving fault,” we told him; “so serious that it’ll cost you your license unless you overcome it. Get a professional teacher, or some good driver you know, to show you how to use your brakes. And practice. You evidently jam them on at the last minute. That’s dangerous at any time, but especially so on slippery roads.”

The importance of thorough instruction, not only in the mechanics of car operation, but in the principles of safe driving, cannot be overemphasized. As everyone knows, it is easier to develop a habit than to change one already formed. (Ask any golfer.) I was talking the other day with a friend who has a son old enough to qualify for a driver’s license.

“I haven’t let him take the test yet,” this man said, “though I know he could easily pass it. He’s very skillful, as most youngsters are these days, but he has a lot to learn. I’ve been going out in the car with him, explaining why he ought not to do certain things, such as cutting curves even when he can see the road’s clear, and not signaling simply because there’s nothing behind. I’ve been trying to make him understand that if he makes it a rule never to cut curves, he’ll never do it at the wrong time, and that if he makes a habit of always signaling, he’ll never get into trouble by neglecting to do it when necessary.”

This is a plan other parents might profitably follow. It will not only help their youngsters to build up good driving habits from the beginning, but it will make the parents think about their own.

One question I am frequently asked is whether repeaters aren’t all of low intelligence. The answer is “No.” They come from all walks of life. Among them are doctors, merchants, salesmen, housewives, artisans, mechanics, laborers—people of varying degrees of education and literacy.

One study of passenger car drivers showed that the percentages of repeaters classified by occupations were as follows: Housewives, 8.9%; clerks, 6.7%; artisans, 11.1%; merchants, 17.5%; professional men, 19.0%; agents and salesmen, 18.1%.

One of the worst performers at the wheel I know is a journalist of far more than average intelligence. His trouble is not lack of brains, but an innate inability to “get the feel” of a car. Though he has been driving for several years, he has a heavy foot on the throttle and brake pedals. In starting he almost always races his motor and lets in his clutch with a jerk. On the open road this man keeps out of difficulties, but in traffic, where frequent starts and stops must be made, he has a tendency to bump the machines ahead. Though he may never overcome his lack of the driving “touch,” I believe he may offset this handicap by taking care to give himself more than the usual amount of room when stopping behind other cars.

The question of intelligence is beside the point. Plenty of men and women of unusual brilliance have no mechanical aptitude. And the converse is also true.

COME drivers who get into the repeater ^ class exhibit poor judgment of distance because of defective eyesight. For the same reason others, who manage well enough in the daytime, have accidents at night. Some pass red lights of certain hues because they are slightly color-blind. Others get into trouble through inattentiveness caused by worry, or ill health, or both—a frequent combination. Still others have accidents because they are easily distracted. To list all the personal weaknesses of repeaters would be a never-ending task. Each represents an individual case requiring individual diagnosis and treatment. It is impossible to prescribe one cure for all of them. But here is an encouraging point: Most poor drivers can become reasonably good ones by learning to compensate for their own peculiar shortcomings. Even a one-eyed man can drive safely if he makes allowances for his curtailed optical equipment and does not try to operate as though his vision were normal. Certainly there are as many physical and pyschological differences among good drivers as among repeaters. The thing that sets the two groups apart is that the good drivers have managed to make up for their deficiencies by the exercise of extra caution, or by practicing to overcome weak spots.

We have called in drivers who caused accidents only when backing. They didn’t look behind, or they looked behind and forgot to look in front, too; they didn’t signal before starting to back; or they hadn’t learned how to steer when backing. Not long ago, by the way, a woman who was taking her driving test was told by the examiner to back up. “Oh,” she said, “this car doesn’t go backwards.”

WE HAVE called in others who made a specialty of striking cars that were pulling away from the curb, others who struck passing cars when pulling from the curb themselves. We have interviewed fender manglers who had never learned the knack of parking in narrow spaces or of extricating their cars when closely hemmed in. We have met the driver who habitually drifts part-way into an intersection before looking to see what is coming; to say nothing of the one who, approaching a traffic stream, cannot wait for an opening, but must try to barge right in. He’s related to the fellow who cuts in and out of line and passes on curves because he’s always in a hurry.

The accident repeater who is a willful offender, having a driving kink plus irresponsibility, is almost certainly headed for a fatality. From the records of a man’s accidents, traffic law violations, and other delinquencies, it is possible quite accurately to predict his entry into the ranks of the killers. Drivers of this type constitute about one third of the repeaters— a small but very dangerous minority. I do not suggest that you may be a member of this group. But I mention it because there might be an incipient member among the young folks in your family, or in your employ. The easiest way to stop a driver from becoming a chronic repeater is to nip his driving kink in the bud, before it develops into a settled habit.

As for you—the chances are you are not a repeater. You are probably one of the 86 per cent who, according to my investigations of driving records over periods of years, have had no accidents whatever, or only one apiece.

If your slate for the past three years has been clean, it will most likely be clean during the next three years—provided you maintain your driving standard. It is possible, of course, that you may be involved in a crash through no fault of your own. You may be hit by a repeater— though the majority of good drivers seem able to avoid this hazard. Fortunately, repeaters, like gangsters, war chiefly among themselves. They collide with one another twice as often as with good drivers.

If, on the other hand, you have had several accidents in the past, you will certainly have more in the future—unless you find out what is the matter with your driving and eliminate your kink. Analyze your accidents; make diagrams of them and look for points of similarity that will give you a clue as to what you have been doing wrong. And if you can’t figure it out for yourself, talk it over with some other driver.

Maybe your best friend will tell you —if he’s assured that you really want to be told.

  1. Stephen says: August 24, 20115:42 am

    Extremely interesting. What the writer advocates is as I understand it “defensive driving” – hope for the best but be prepared for things to go wrong. I don’t drive, but as a cyclist I try to behave predictably, and to be aware that other road users sometimes do unpredictable things. The hardest problem mentioned with which I’ve had contact is that of a child suddenly rushing out in the road. I have been a passenger in a car when this happened: fortunately the driver was able to stop in time.

  2. Andrew L. Ayers says: August 24, 201111:43 am

    @Stephen: The thing I’m starting to see more of lately has been people stepping out (or wobbling unpredictably – as if they want to step out) into traffic (crosswalk or not) while either talking on a cell phone or texting. They are almost completely oblivious to the world around them. I’m just waiting for the guy in a car on a cell phone slamming into a pedestrian texting. I wonder who’d be at fault…? 😉

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