Happy Fall! This month, I’m so pleased to introduce Will Thornton, a driving instructor who teaches near Houston, Texas. Will just wrote a book called Are We There Yet? The Epidemic of Risk, Aggression, and Distraction: Its Impact to our Nation’s Roads, and a Practical Program to End the Resulting Deaths and Wrecks. I’ve known Will for several years through several mutual connections when he was an instructor in Seattle, and I was very pleased when he contacted me for input on his book. His perspectives on safety, risk, and habit are well worth paying attention to, regardless if you’re a novice or experienced driver.

For readers of this blog, we have a special offer for you! Will is offering signed copies of his print book for $15.95 ($19.95 with shipping and handling). Please visit his website at zerorisknow.org for more details. Email Will if you’d like to contact him directly with any questions: [email protected]. Will’s book is also available on Amazon and all other major booksellers, but ordering directly from him means he’ll get up to 70 percent more profits as a self-published author.

Will was also interviewed by the CW39 television of Houston on October 20, 2020—just in time for National Teen Driver Safety Week. You can watch him through four different links here

Enjoy and stay low-risk! —Mi Ae

Contact Information: Will Thornton, zerorisknow.org, [email protected]

Will Thornton, driving instructor and author of Are We There Yet?

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ML: Tell us a little about yourself and what you do. How did you get interested in your line of work? After all, most kids don’t think, “When I grow up, I want to be a driving instructor.”

WT: I am a dad who has lost his only son in a vehicle crash, which led me to become a driving instructor for nearly 15 years. I currently teach in a town outside Houston, Texas, named Sienna. I prefer the title of “driving coach” over “instructor” because it more accurately depicts what I do. Like a basketball coach, I run my students through exercises and maneuvers to build low-risk habits so they can become consistently safe drivers. I began my journey in 2006 when I realized I needed a career change, and I responded to an ad to become a professional driver trainer. Part of my own grief healing came from helping parents and kids alike realize how being safe is only half of the equation to actualized safe driving. Helping others avoid the loss of a loved one from what is often an entirely avoidable crash, wreck, or collision has become my goal for all those that I have taught. In the last six years, I’ve gone beyond just teaching defensive driving skills to my students toward giving them a much deeper understanding of the inherent risk of driving. I found that unless a driver consistently applies low-risk habits, they’re really not a safe driver.

ML: You just wrote a book that focuses on risk and hazards, among other things. Tell us about it and what inspired you to write it.

WT: My initial inspiration for writing Are We There Yet? was that despite the valiant efforts of educators and governmental regulations, drivers are still crashing into and killing one another. I thought that teaching defensive driving skills was enough until my research revealed that far too many of us are greatly undereducated about and grossly unaware of their actual physical driving risk. “Safe,” as I talk about in my book, is only a concept. Over 70 percent of drivers are either unaware of their actual risk or choose to ignore it. An apathy hangs around the idea that driving is and will always be inherently dangerous and that crashing and dying are inevitable parts of driving.

As I explored risk and human behavior, I started to realize that one thing missing is the ability of drivers to obtain, build, and maintain consistent habits that allow them to remain safe. Take, for example, when a driver waits in an intersection at a solid green light to turn left, or on a flashing yellow arrow. This positioning that many methods teach leads us to think this is okay to do without ever considering the actual risk it places on the driver of that car and the drivers around them. The question never asked is whether it’s high-risk or low-risk to do. The answer is simple: Yes, it is high-risk, because it puts the vehicle in an already compromised position for being hit by another, less observant driver.

It’s a bit simplistic to say this, but the entirety of my book just barely scratches at the surface of what the World Health Organization has called an ongoing epidemic. Even with the current global numbers, the COVID-19 pandemic has not begun to even approach the staggering loss of life that high-risk driving has caused since 2012.

Will and his son Merlyn, who died in a vehicle crash a year later.

ML: One thing I love about your book is that you actually take the time to define the word “safe.” This term gets bandied about a lot, but if you ask 10 people how they’d define it, you’ll likely get 10 very different answers. And what other subjects does your book cover?

WT: The book covers everything from human behavior to how being safe is only a concept that cannot be realized unless a driver actively seeks to manage their actual driving risk by applying consistent, low-risk habits. Each section of the book features low-risk driving exercises that, if consistently performed, lower not only the odds of being in a collision but also reduce the stress from dealing with the high-risk behavior that over 70 percent of drivers currently display. I also discuss how defensive driving skills are only as good as how consistently a driver is applying them. Defensive driving by its very name denotes stress and being on guard all the time for high-risk driving. But what if you could more easily predict a high-risk situation, or even avoid creating one in the first place? Wouldn’t that be worth the effort? Most of us who drive are interested in only one thing—getting there as soon as possible. Thus, the title for the book.

It’s important to remember that you cannot control risk, but you can manage how you visually and physically handle a vehicle to keep it at a low risk all the time. I also cover how pointless it is to excessively speed, and even how being cautious can also be high-risk or low-risk. I also discuss how risk is either passive or active. Risk and safety are two sides of the same coin; unless you consciously address your risk, simply stated, you are NOT safe. I also relate how driver training in general needs to actively move toward teaching what risk is, not just in the classroom or online with bloody crash videos, but on the road itself during those far too few hours spent with a driving instructor. A huge need for paradigm shifts from just “being safe” to being and staying at low risk with our vehicles is sorely needed if we ever want to reduce our very high death and crash rates in the US.

ML: Who should read your book?

Anyone who is at all serious about avoiding crashes or losing a loved one because of another driver’s high-risk behaviors. Whether you’re an experienced or novice driver, I promise you’ll find this book to be well worth your investment. Whether you’ve been in multiple crashes or have an inherent fear of driving, the low-risk exercises laid out in each section will, once consistently applied, take you from the high percentage chance of being in a collision down to less than five percent.

WT: What are some of your strategies for teaching new drivers, especially ones with problematic attitudes toward risk?

When I sense a new driver who doesn’t understand what their risk is, the main thing I share is that the vehicle they’re thinking of racing on the road or trying to show off for their friends can become a two-ton weapon in just a few seconds or less. If you don’t respect the physics—and risk is your own personalized reality of physics—you will crash, or you will die. Not if you will, you will. And just because you may not doesn’t mean that if you persist in the high-risk habit, that you will not crash one day. Even if you don’t, just the stress you put on your body and mind will destroy you over time.

When I see the “I-have-to-do-this-drivers-ed ho-hum attitude” from a student, I often share the story of my own loss as well as why the attitude they project toward me is the same one that got my own son killed. No driver is invincible to the blatant disregard of the physics of movement. The following quote from my book sums this up very well: “Driving in itself is not inherently dangerous, but to an even greater degree than flying and sailing, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect of the physics involved should they be disregarded by the driver.”

ML: You talk in your book about not being able to control risk, but that we can only manage its effects. That’s an interesting premise, as many of us believe we can lower risk by driving more safely. Can you explain what you mean by this?

WT: Let me answer that with a counter-question. What is being safe? All of us, from the formally educated to the kid who learns to drive on the farm from grandpa, have what we all individually think are safe habits and skills. Many of us learned some good habits as well as bad ones, or we picked up habits that are now high-risk. The main problem here is that what you think is safe driving may be very different from what I think is safe driving and vice versa. Actual risk being or not being accounted for will always determine the outcome of a given decision taken. Risk is a constant factor that’s always going from high to low, as well as passive or active in how it’s being perpetuated and more importantly responded to by a driver. The only way you can ensure being low-risk is by being consciously aware of your risk level at any given moment of time.

“Risk” is much like the word “safe”; neither word has any real impact unless you can manage the very thing that makes either word even possible. Consistently managing that risk is absolutely required for being safe, and that control can be realized only through that process of deciding to be at high-risk or low-risk in the actions you take as a driver.

ML: One of the best parts about your book, I feel, is how to establish effective, consistent habits, such as increasing your following distance, paying attention to stopping distance, and doing more rearview-mirror checks.

WT: Many of us who have undergone driver training learned some form of defensive driving skills. Over time, as we became experienced drivers, we gradually became complacent and neglectful, eroding our ability to maintain low-risk management of our vehicles. Those habits are either high-risk or low-risk in nature. Take the quite common habit of speeding excessively. For a long time, we may not experience any negative effects from going 10 to 15 mph over the posted limit. But then this action becomes a habit. As I’ve mentioned, risk is either high or low, or passive or active, but we must make the continuous effort to be consciously aware of how our habits will either serve or hurt us. I offer a range of concrete exercises that empower you to start building that awareness—which is the first step to reducing risk—and then over time start actively changing your bad habits, one mile at a time.

ML: If there’s just one thing you’d want new drivers to know, what would it be?

WT: Become and stay consistent in applying low-risk skills and habits. Many schools call them “safe skills,” “safe habits,” or “defensive driving.” But this is only half true unless you practice and consistently apply them. As dogmatic as this may sound, until drivers give up letting their egos make the driving decisions and start paying consistent attention to the constant risk, we’ll continue to crash into and kill one another.

ML: And if you had just one thing to tell their parents, what would it be?

WT: Be an example to your sons and daughters of what low-risk driving looks like. They start learning how to drive from you long before they ever get behind the wheel of a car, as early as five to seven years old. If you drive with a cell phone in hand, don’t be a hypocrite and demand that they don’t. The quickest route to alleviating your stress and worrying about how your sons and daughters are driving is making sure your actions match your words and the demands you put on them to be safe and a low-risk driver.

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