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What’s Wrong With Dallas Drivers

Johnny Rutherford Waves a Yellow Flag
By Preston Lerner |

MY FATHER IS ONE OF the nation’s foremost experts on bad drivers. Oh, he’s not with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or anything like that. No, sir, he got his expertise firsthand: his father was a summa cum laude graduate of the goose-the-gas-pedal, stand-on-the-brakes school of chronic tailgaters, and his mother is quite simply the worst driver I’ve ever seen.

Now, we’ve all seen dozens of truly rotten drivers, but I’m not talking about somebody who has trouble parking: I’m talking should-be-classified-as-a-lethal-weapon. That raises a larger question. Why is it we only know two or three good drivers? And how come we’re always one of them?

Our driving ability plays a strange role in our psychological makeup. Most of us don’t mind being called uncoordinated, unfashionable, immature, or incorrigible. But don’t call us bad drivers. Men, in particular, would just as soon have their virility questioned. I mean, when was the last time you saw an ol’ boy climb out of his pickup, stick a pinch between his cheek and gum, and drawl, “Hell, no, I can’t drive worth a damn. Never could. And my daddy’s worse than me. Why, I seen a monkey over in Abilene that could drive better than the both of us put together”?

Perhaps we are victims of our own prosperity. In many nations, owning a car is considered a privilege. (Driving a dirty car, in fact, is a ticketable offense in the Soviet Union.) But here in the U.S., car ownership is virtually our birthright, and driving is one of the natural stages of life: you’re bom, you go to school, you reach puberty, you learn to drive. Hence few of us take driving seriously, and bad driving is considered an amusing peccadillo rather than a tragic flaw.

Tragically, our casual attitude toward driving translates into myriad casualties. Nearly 50,000 Americans die in traffic accidents each year. Last year, the death toll in Texas was 3,568. That averages out to 2.4 Texans per 100 million miles-an all-time low, and down from 14.6 in 1937. Are we experiencing a sudden wave of carefully skilled drivers? Not at all. Most experts attribute the decrease in traffic deaths to cars that handle better and are inherently safer; to tires that grip better even in bad conditions; to improved highway engineering and the mandatory use of seat belts. If anything, it’s conceivable that driving skills have deteriorated in the past half-century.

Remember how easy it was getting a license to drive? You had to be able to see. Then you had to pass a written examination geared to an eighth-grade reading level and a driving test that was over before the air conditioning started working. And what was the most difficult part of the driving test? Parallel parking, of course. Now, there’s a driving technique that can really save your life in an emergency.

To prepare drivers for the real world, those driver’s exams should contain some real-world questions. Such as: one January night, you’re driving along Interstate 30. You hit a patch of ice as you cross a bridge. Suddenly, your car is sideways and you’re hurtling toward the right guardrail at fifty-five miles an hour. Do you: A) Hit the brakes, B) Hit the accelerator, C) Turn to the left, D) Turn to the right, or E) Chug what’s left of your beer. The correct answer, believe it or not, is D. The technique, commonly known as steering into the skid or applying opposite lock, is based on one of the cardinal principles of car control: when the car is skidding, it is out of control. By steering into the skid, you regain control and are then- and only then-able to take life-saving action.

Steering into a skid isn’t difficult. With a little practice, it becomes almost second nature. The problem is that sliding toward a guardrail at fifty-five miles an hour probably isn’t the best of all possible times to start practicing. And all too often that’s exactly what happens.

“Driver education doesn’t go nearly far enough,” says Johnny Rutherford. As a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Rutherford, of Fort Worth, is arguably the best driver in the Metroplex. He grants that driver education does an admirable job of steering novices through commonplace situations, but he says the system fails to teach them how to react to life-threatening emergencies. “Most people don’t even know what happened when they have an accident,” Rutherford says. “They lock up the brakes and freeze at the wheel. They’re screaming so loud when they hit they can’t even hear the brakes squealing,” he says. Rutherford proposes a tough remedy. “I think in order to get a driver’s license, you ought to have a certificate from a driver education class, and you ought to have a certificate from a school of high-performance driving.”

But while most of us can’t afford to spend the time and money required by such a school, there are some basic lessons all of us can learn. Says Rutherford, “I think concentration is the biggest ingredient that people tend to lose. You often find yourself driving down the road, and when you pull beside somebody and look over at him, you know that he’s not paying any attention, that driving is the last thing on his mind.”

A few other tips from the experts:

●Don’t stand on the brake with both feetwhen you see trouble approaching. Onceyou lock up the wheels, you’re helpless.

●Keep both hands on the wheel at alltimes, at or between the 9-and-3 or 10-and-2positions.

●Always wear your seat belt. Besides saving your life in an accident, they give you abetter feel for the behavior of the car bykeeping you from sliding around in the sea

●Adjust your mirrors properly and checkthem constantly. You never know whenyou’ll have to switch lanes abruptly.

The last piece of advice comes from myfather. He says you ought to assume thatnobody out there knows what they’re doing.And, as he always likes to remind me, thereare 25,000 parts in an automobile but it onlytakes one part to wreck it-the nut behindthe wheel.

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