Know Your Car

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And a smoother, safer driver you'll be
From the right seat it was clear that my student in the high-performance driving school was approaching the hairpin corner far too fast. But he braked only lightly. "Brake," I urged. "Brake hard!" I pleaded. "BRAKE! BRAKE!" I screamed. Yet he acted as if he'd trapped a kitten's tail between pedal and foot, then we went bounding off the road. Later, I asked what, if anything, was he thinking. "I was afraid of skidding," he said. My response: "You'd rather crash than skid?" No answer.

Street Savvy
Many-if not most-accidents occur with the driver braking or cornering at less than half of their vehicle's capability. They seem to prefer hitting a tree, the guardrail or another vehicle over pushing the brake pedal harder and/or turning the steering wheel more.

Another observation: The bigger the vehicle, the less the driver is likely to know its exterior dimensions. I often see drivers of giant SUVs with left tires on the center line of a two-lane road. They're apparently shying away from construction barrels that threaten from a frightening six feet away from their right side mirror. (Yet another observation: Husbands who think that if their wives are terrible drivers, they ought to buy them giant SUVs. Not all of these are my brothers).

The vast majority of American drivers don't know the width of their car, much less their vehicles' potential in an emergency. We'll offer some tips on how to become part of the skilled minority. If you learn your vehicle's dimensions and capabilities, you will be a safer, smoother driver and have a much better chance of avoiding accidents.

Thread the Needle
To learn your vehicle's dimensions, build two (or more) inexpensive markers using PVC tubing and three-way connectors (additional 90-degree connectors will make them more stable, be creative). Make the upright section at least as tall as the outside mirrors. Place these markers (on an empty parking lot, or a street in an under-construction subdivision) about a foot wider than the mirrors and drive through them. Next, position them in front of the car and pull up to within 12 to 18 inches. Now back to within the same distance. If you learn your vehicle's dimensions, you'll know such things as whether you can thread the needle in an urgent situation or whether you'll have to perform a panic stop.

Find a lightly traveled section of freeway that features raised lane markers, often called Bott's Dots. Practice hitting the markers with your left tires FIRST, then the rights as you safely change lanes. Signal first! You can do the same with pinecones or dirt clods on an empty parking lot. With this knowledge, you'll know how aggressive you'll have to be to dodge road debris and how close to objects you can drive without fear of striking them.

Be a Trucker
Put your newfound acumen to the test where the DMV conducts the skills test for Commercial Driver's Licenses. During the CDL test, the trucker must place the bumper of his rig within a two-foot stop box, back straight down a painted corridor representing an alley, negotiate a forward serpentine, back into a dock that's 90 degrees to the alley, or perform other maneuvers. Maybe those who can't do with a car what truckers can do with an 18-wheeler shouldn't be allowed on the road. For a more rigorous test, narrow the "alley" and tighten the serpentine with traffic or soccer cones. (Check the web site of your state DMV for details on the CDL skills test and test-site locations. Plan to go there when the DMV is closed).

No Fear
The accelerator can get you out of almost as much trouble as it can get you into. Yet, a large portion of the population seems petrified of pushing the pedal to the floor. These are not owners of Vipers---people who have purchased the right to be concerned about their ride's awesome acceleration. Rather, it's those who drive much more modestly powered vehicles. It's time to get over your fear of acceleration. Find a lightly traveled freeway or straight section of deserted back road. Without disrupting traffic, let your speed bleed down to just above the legal minimum. Then gas it! Slam the pedal to the floor and hold it there until you reach the speed of traffic flow. If you feel the need to lift off the gas before that point, get all the way off the pedal and allow speed to slow back to just above the legal minimum and try again. Do not run at partial throttle: Use either wide-open throttle or none. Try this from several speeds until you get a good feel for how quickly your car accelerates.

Modern anti-lock braking systems (ABS) are amazing, life-saving devices. Sadly, few know how to properly use them. That's especially troubling because it's so simple. All you need to know is the Three-S technique----Stomp, Stay, Steer. In an emergency, STOMP the brake pedal to the floor as if you're trying to kill a cockroach. Next, STAY there. Hold the brake to the floor no matter what happens. The ABS computer will prevent the tires from skidding. Finally, STEER around the obstacle. It's vital that you practice this before an emergency. Steering should come only after you've mastered Stomp and Stay.

If you don't have ABS, maximum braking is a lot more difficult. Race drivers attempt to push the pedal as hard as possible but without skidding the tires---a difficult skill to master, expensive too if you lock the brakes and flat-spot your tires. However, in a "We're gonna crash!" emergency, don't worry about skidding the tires. Pound the pedal to the floor. You'll scrub off more speed with the brakes locked than you will by pushing the pedal too lightly. If you choose this route, it's critical you don't turn the steering wheel at all. If you release the pedal with the wheel turned, the front tires will go from no- to full-steering authority. The car will shoot off in whichever direction the fronts are pointed, either into oncoming traffic or the ditch.

Parking Lot Grand Prix
It's difficult to find a safe, legal place to discover how your car corners in an emergency. An autocross is about the only low-cost option. Autocross is like Grand Prix-style road racing, but conducted in parking lots at low speeds (less than 60 mph) and with no barriers to hit. Check to see when the local chapter of Sports Car Club of America ( is hosting an autocross school for novices.

We'll leave you with this one final thought.

Pay Now
Like a lot of things in life, if you don't own up to and pay for your small errors, they may turn into big, expensive catastrophes. Let's say you fail to notice your exit in time to make a smooth move to the right. You can choose to jam on the brakes and wrench the wheel and hope other drivers (who you, seconds ago, labeled as boneheads) skillfully accommodate your drastic maneuver. Or you can go down to the next exit, turn around and come back. The latter may cost you 10 minutes or so. The former could cause a huge crash and, on a heavily traveled freeway, will certainly create a stop-and-go situation that may last hours). The choice is yours.

by Joe Hollingsworth /

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