previous / next column
A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
Learning to drive is a process of absorbing many habits. Then later on when advancing your driving skills, you are encouraged to fix even more habits into your head ó and unlearn some, too. The ability of the brain to be programmed like this in countless ways (giving you the opportunity to think about other things) is, well, mind-boggling.
And there is always room in the brain for more such routines! On the other hand, itís not always easy to find the best way to program them in. So here is a short survey of driving habits. Some of them might have eluded your mind, while some I still have trouble fixing into mine...
At least I usually manage to remember the advice to stop well short of a vehicle queuing in front. The benefits of this habit that you might see mentioned are: easier escape past that vehicle if it gets stuck ... space if it rolls back ... extra distance from its exhaust fumes and brake lights ... and room for you to move into, if a following car looks like braking a bit too late.
I can suggest a couple of other reasons for hanging back: if Iím second in line at a T-junction, I would be putting less pressure on a nervous driver at the front by leaving more space. Or if Iím queuing at traffic lights, say, I can move off at the same time as the car in front and then control the rate at which the gap between us increases ó instead of having to delay my start and then maybe see the gap get unnecessarily large.
Thinking of the T-junction again, when I get to the front of the queue I stop some way short of the line if I can. For one thing, an inadvertent stalling of the engine (on moving off) wouldnít then leave me stuck in the path of fast traffic. Alternatively, if the traffic is slow or stationary, I can roll forward a bit as a signal that Iím ready to emerge, without forcing an entry onto the main road ó I often get a sympathetic response to this. It also indicates to the queue behind that Iím awake.
When parking I automatically leave the front wheels straight (or if for some reason I canít, I make sure the steering wheel is angled too, to remind me). This habit dates back many years to when I watched a car that had been parked with its wheels askew being driven rapidly sideways into the adjacent vehicle! And naturally I try to avoid parking next to such an accident waiting to happen.
Then thereís a whole list of habits Iíve picked up even though none of them are likely to be beneficial on any particular day: parking the car in gear ... pocketing the key whenever I get out just for a moment ... locking up when I go to pay for petrol ... putting a seat-belt around the shopping, at least when it consists of a wine-bottle carrier ... keeping an upright back when lifting something heavy out of the boot (it sometimes helps to put your foot in it, so to speak) ... carrying a spare key ... and as advanced drivers do, holding the wheel at ten-to-two and always cornering, braking and changing gear one action at a time. Well, nearly always.
The point is, of course, that you never know when one of these boring routines will suddenly become vital. The steering-wheel, for example, might need to be turned sharply in one direction or the other (or both in quick succession) in an emergency. Itís hard to see how this can be done reliably from any hold other than ten-to-two, least of all the single thumb at fouríoíclock that some drivers apply! Similarly, only the push-pull steering method allows a firm emergency movement in either direction at any moment.
Annoyingly, another basic habit ó locking the car with the remote button ó has become so automatic for me that I sometimes have to go back and check whether the job was actually done.
At the other extreme are things that I should be doing automatically but donít. Twice recently I have known of someone driving off in the morning with an unsuspected flat rear tyre. Since then Iíve made an extra effort to remember to check my tyres before every journey, but with little success. I am now reduced to sticking a piece of paper to the steering wheel when parking, to remind me. Fortunately I have no difficulty remembering to put it in place each time, but only because it looks conspicuously untidy where it sits through the journey.
On motorways, how can I train myself to look into the distance regularly for early warning of trouble ahead? Mrs S (when in my passenger seat) often demonstrates that this is one of the things she is better at!
And on this warm April day, was it only about five weeks ago that I set off for work on fresh snow, reached the first bend and turned the wheel, but failed to change direction? Immediately my foot stamped firmly on the brake pedal, even though I know that this strongest of habits simply extended the skid. So this year I resolve to take a skid-pan course ó but first can someone assure me that after it, I really will be able to break that habit automatically when I need to?
previous / next column