It’s been a few weeks since the anger over losing my beloved F-150 has faded, as if losing my truck was more important than the fact that I was not seriously injured. According to the United States Department of Transportation, male drivers aged 16 to 29 are the most dangerous people on the road.
The guy who hit me and totaled both vehicles in the process was 28.
As much as I want to be in denial about it, I was a young driver and fitted that category perfectly. My angst towards the guy subsided when I remembered the accidents I had caused, and how I became more respectful of the machines I drove over time.
When I was 18, or so, I borrowed a co-worker’s 1965 Plymouth Valiant with a push button transmission. It was black with red interior. I lived up north and was driving on a clear road, except it was covered with black ice. Due to my inexperience, I failed to recognize it and lost control of the car. I ended up down an eight-foot embankment, the car smashing dead on a boulder. The rock didn’t move, but the front of the car was pushed back quite a ways and it was totaled.
I only suffered a scratched knee when it busted the 8-track tape.
Of course, there was a cost to my poor driving and I had to reimburse my co-worker for what the car was worth to the tune of $40.00 per paycheck, a lot back then. I felt bad about the whole thing, but at least there was no one else involved in the crash. After that, I was a little less careless. I would have the occasional distraction, like hitting the rear bumper of a car waiting at a yield sign when I was too preoccupied to see if the road was clearing up so I could get on the freeway.
But I still drove too fast, especially in wintertime, and would lose control of my car once in a while and hit a curb.
I became much more responsible when I had the good fortune of taking a defensive driving and skid control course. It is one of the best courses I have ever taken, still putting into practice what I learned so many years ago. The main thing I realized is I was following too close, and I can see to this day how many people tailgate. The other thing I realized was an overconfidence in the braking ability of cars. Aside from driving too closely and having little time to react, braking also takes time.
From the moment your brain tells your foot to switch to the brake pedal, it may already be too late. So, I’ve learned to keep my distance, at least three seconds behind, not two, and to know the limits of the car, and not just in terms of braking. Speeding was the last thing to be stricken off my list of do’s and don’ts. I even lost my driver’s license because of too many speeding tickets.
The defensive driving course helped me countless times. There was a particular trip in winter when the sun was shining. I was driving a 1989 Thunderbird LX, climbing a hill next to a large body of water. The combination of moisture from the lake, sun, and cold air had turned the road into an ice rink. On the other side of the hill, I came upon a surreal sight. At least a dozen vehicles had skidded off the highway. There was a Greyhound bus way out in the field, the driver outside waiting.
None of the cars had overturned and no one was injured. They were waiting for the police and tow trucks to come along.
There was no one else on the actual road except me. I decided not to stop and made the conscious effort to stay away from the brake pedal. Had I stopped, I would likely have ended up off the road, or been an obstacle for future traffic since there was not enough space on the shoulder. Besides, there was nothing I could do and there were enough people around to help one another. I glided safely past this particular spiderweb of winter and eventually to the ice free pavement up ahead.
Another time, I was driving my friend’s Chevy Lumina on the I-5. We were off to Seattle to attend Bumbershoot over Labor Day weekend. My friend was up front in the passenger seat and his two sons were in the back seat. The traffic was heavy, but we were making good time by staying in the left lane. All of a sudden, a Honda Accord positioned in the center lane loses a wheel. The Accord does a 180 but stays in its lane coming to a stop. The driver, still wondering what had happened, was now fearful of being hit head-on by the cars following behind.
I drive past the Accord, still in the left lane, but the wheel was bouncing ahead. It’s all happening at 60 mph too. We don’t know where the wheel is going to end up and a guy driving a Grumman van in the slow lane doesn’t know either. He is afraid of getting hit by the wheel and as he tries to avoid it, makes his way through the center lane and into our lane. We are gradually being squeezed between the van and the median barrier. I apply the brakes slowly and manage to avoid the barrier and the van. Thank you, defensive driving course.
We made it okay to our hotel near Seattle Center. I particularly enjoyed the Brazilian Girls, the New York Dolls, and the icing on the cake, Iggy Pop and the Stooges. “I want to be your dog.” Yeah, man! If you’ve never been to Bumbershoot, it’s worth putting on your bucket list.
I cannot count the number of times the skills I learned during that course helped me out of jams. It seems too easy to obtain a driver’s license. At least it was when I started driving. I’m not judging. I was an overconfident and irresponsible driver in my youth. When young, we think of ourselves as invincible and oftentimes, we carry that to our senior years, especially when we sit behind the wheel.
In fact, a refresher course should be mandatory for all seniors of a certain age. I know so many “old guys” who should not be driving, but won’t give it up. They will lose their freedom, maybe their identity if they stop driving. For the young, defensive driving should be greatly emphasized as it teaches respect for a vehicle, something we all should have the moment we grab onto those handlebars or that steering wheel. This is challenging to inculcate since today’s cars are much safer and reliable, which only adds to the false sense of security.
Michael Bellamy is the author of our Memory Lane series. He enjoys driving his 1997 Lincoln Mark VIII LSC and until an untimely collision claimed it, his 2001 Ford F-150 7700.