Lest you think that this blog is all about what-you-should-and should-not-do finger-wagging, let’s remember that driving and cars can be FUN as hell.
As I related in my first post here, I have always simply adored the sensation of being in motion, particularly from the driver’s seat (not so much as a carsick backseat passenger). It’s a primal love, deeply innate, that thrill of being in exquisite control of one’s destiny while hurtling forward in space, and one that is shared by millions of driving enthusiasts all over the world.
Of course, the choice of chariot makes a big difference for some. Countless words of rhapsody have been written about superfast sports cars going from 0 to 60 mph in nanoseconds, about shifting through high-performance, short-throw gears, and finding near-orgasmic highs in road rallying. Nothing quite matches the feeling of having your spine thrown back against your seat when you’re accelerating hot off the line, when you’ve triumphed through that sweet, hip-hugging curve, or when you’re zooming through scenic switchbacks with wind stinging your face and a beautifully responsive machine at your fingertips.
But an equally lovely satisfaction can turn up in quieter moments, like when you drive through a whole series of intersections and manage to hit perfectly timed lights all green. Or you glide through a heavily congested road fraught with left- and right-turners with smoothness and ease, neither braking nor accelerating suddenly. Or the open road beckons you on a quiet Sunday morning or at the start of a long trip. Then driving is pure joy.
For many, however, driving is just the opposite. It can be frustrating, scary, boring, or just plain tiresome, a mere way to get from point A to B, a necessary evil in the routine of one’s day. For some of us, driving is an activity marred by fear. That fear can be the result of previous bad experiences or accidents, a body-sense memory of trauma, a lack of confidence in one’s own driving abilities, and intimidation by other motorists or less-than-hospitable environments. The best way to become a better driver is to overcome your fear and build your confidence, one mile at a time.
Easier said than done, you say? One big way to start reducing your fear is to get to know the limits of yourself and your car, especially in emergency situations. Many enthusiast car clubs, especially German makes such as Audi, Porsche, and BMW, hold driver education events with certified instructors who teach valuable accident-avoidance techniques in controlled environments where you can practice in your own vehicle. The best of them will make even the greenest novices feel welcome and give them the skills to master their vehicles through different exercises in braking, steering, slalom, autocross, and higher-speed lapping.
To see an example of this, here is a video from a driver education event held last May by the Audi Club Northwest (and thank you to the ACNW member who put this up on YouTube):
But even if you don’t have access to such clubs, everyone should take time to get to know their vehicles, especially in inclement conditions. If your tires and brakes are in good shape, the next time it rains or snows, find a big, wide-open parking lot free of obstructions. Turn off all music and distractions. Fasten your seatbelt, open your driver window, and clear your senses. Accelerate to 30 miles per hour, then practice hitting the brakes as hard as possible to find out how it feels and how long it takes to stop. (Chances are, if you have antilock brakes and you brake properly, you will be absolutely amazed at how quickly your car can come to a halt.)
Try steering your car through an imaginary slalom to get a feel for how it responds, making sure to be smooth, not herky-jerky. If the pavement is wet or slippery, try to make your vehicle slide a little or push it into a small skid, paying attention to how the back end responds, if the wheels lose traction and at what point, if the vehicle feels floaty in the least. Don’t be scared; just practice steering out of the skid smoothly, and trying again.
Getting a feel for your vehicle will definitely raise your heart rate and may be quite unnerving at first. But once you do, now you will know how it will respond before you get into a dicey situation, and you can react accordingly. And that confidence will help you relax and enjoy driving a whole lot more. (And some of you just might love finding an excuse to play in the snow this way.)
Check out my video of an Audi Club NW instructor demonstrating oversteer by doing donuts. The idea is to throw the car into a steady drift so that the headlights are constantly facing the cones while the rest of the car drifts in a complete circle on the outside. This is a terrific exercise for getting the feel of your vehicle and using the throttle to control your slide and drift. (Just don’t do what he does at the end and bag a cone on your underbelly.)
In upcoming blog posts, I’ll cover other ways to tackle anxiety at the wheel, how to relax, and how to become more confident in your driving ability. I would love to hear what your driving fears are, how you cope (or don’t), what makes driving fun for you (or not), and if there is anything you’d like to see addressed on this topic.
[Update: In the years since I wrote this post, my view of car control clinics has changed somewhat. While I still believe that they have a place in a balanced diet of driver education, I now feel that overall they can actually be harmful because they can instill a false sense of confidence and illusion of driving skill when, in fact, they’ve merely taught one how to react in a difficult situation with an evasive maneuver. Really, the emphasis should be on not letting yourself get in trouble in the first place. But hazard perception skills and situational awareness are not as fun and exciting (or as easy) to teach and learn as the evasive maneuvers. Still, I maintain that it can be very useful to know what your car can and cannot do and to get a feel for it in less-than-ideal conditions. This needs to be counterbalanced with lessons in human overconfidence and folly.]