Sooner or later, even well-schooled know-it-alls find out how much they don't know.
I learned this at AARP Driver Safety. I also learned a number of ways to avoid killing myself. I never thought I'd attend another driving school, but there I was. Seventeen of us were sitting at classroom desks in the Margaret Sherry Library in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Stay on the ball: Have you ever realized that you don't have a clear recollection of the preceding few minutes? I have. And who among us hasn't gotten all wrapped up in the latest Sue Grafton mystery on tape and wondered where the last 50 miles went? It's this simple: If you don't have your mind on your driving, you won't react correctly — or quickly — when some fool puts you at risk. If you don't see it in time, you won't avoid it in time.
Keep out of harm's way: Failing to yield right of way gets drivers in trouble more often than anything else, according to Hayes. So when do you have right of way? Actually, never. "There are instances when you must yield the right of way — at a yield sign, for example — but no instances where you are given the right of way," said Hayes.
Get straight about turning: Think of intersections as danger zones. You can't be too careful when you're entering, leaving, or trying to turn out of one. And when you're waiting to turn left, keep your wheels pointed straight ahead — so you won't be pushed into oncoming traffic should you be rear-ended.
Exercise your neck: You'll want the muscles supple so you can turn your head and see your blind spots. Mirrors are useful devices known to inspire puzzlement if not outright disdain in drivers of any age. You must use your mirrors, and you must use them properly. Some of my auto-writer colleagues maintain that it is possible to adjust the two side mirrors and the inside mirror in such a way that you eliminate blind spots. They are wrong. "You've got to turn your head and check the blind spot before you change lanes," Hayes said.
Do the math: Remember that old high school driver's ed rule of keeping one car length between your vehicle and the one you're following for every 10 miles per hour of speed? It works, but most folks can't accurately project, say, five car lengths on the pavement in front of them, so Hayes advised a better way: pick a spot that the car in front passes and count the seconds. "If you pass the same spot before you've had a chance to count 'one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three,' you're too close." Add a second for rain and two to three seconds for fog or slippery conditions. "There is no advantage to being close to the car in front of you," said Hayes.
Learn from your mistakes: Hayes discussed close calls and taught us to do more than just execute a sharp intake of breath after a near miss. "Ask questions. Could I have avoided the situation? Should I have reacted differently? Was there something I failed to see?"
Watch for off-the-road hazards: Car safety isn't only about driving. "I parked between two big vans in the Walmart lot, because the place was close to the door," said Hayes, who loved to tell stories on himself. "But you can't see your car when it's blocked on both sides. So when I got back, my hubcaps were gone." He suggested seeking well-lighted parking places at night.
Think some hard thoughts: We ended our class work with our workbook's Chapter 11. "We call this the dismal chapter," said Hayes. And it was. Not because it suggested bankruptcy, but because it dealt with the day when our physical condition dictates that we give up the privilege of driving. That's not a heartwarming thought, but sooner or later it happens to all of us.
Our last act before Hayes handed out our certificates was to retake the original test. I scored 100 and don't have red ears anymore. And I think I've put some distance between me and Chapter 11. I suggest that you do likewise.
William Jeanes is the former editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine. This article was originally published in the September/October 2005 issue of AARP The Magazine.