Driving in the Real WorldTM is a change agent for driving safely and efficiently in the real world. Many driver's education programs, especially in the United States, do not adequately train people in hazard perception, risk management, and proper handling of the complex challenges of everyday driving. Through its blog, social media, and upcoming subscription newsletter, DITRWTM offers tips, techniques, and reflections on driving that will improve your situational awareness and may even save your life and that of others.

There is an enormous need to make our roads safer by making it socially unacceptable to be a bad driver in America, regardless of the cause. We must completely rethink how we drive and how we teach it, and then make the driving test something to actually be respected. Driver's ed should also be a lifelong learning process. And I believe that this can be achieved in much more fun, enjoyable, and experiential ways than it is often presented now.

Many people don't realize this, but what makes you a better driver also improves you in many other areas of life. This involves honest self-examination of our core values as both a society and the individuals that constitute it, and truly making the necessary changes to improve our attitudes on the road.

Thank you so much for visiting. I invite readers to share their own experiences and reflections on driving, to suggest ideas on the subject, and to follow me on Twitter (@DrivingReal).

—Mi Ae



Distracted Driving in Washington State in 2017: A Case Study and Why You May Be Already Paying for It


It’s the beginning of March, and Washington State’s 2017 legislative session is almost halfway through. In another month or so, the ultimate fate of several proposed distracted driving bills will be known.

We’ve all heard that we shouldn’t drive while using our cell phones. We see countless bad drivers around us paying more attention to their devices than the road. Perhaps you’re one of them. If you are, I ask you to stop. NOW. Not just because it hurts and kills people (shouldn’t that be enough of a reason?), but also because I’m literally paying for it and likely so are you and hundreds of thousands of other Washington State residents. 

Before we go further, let’s define distraction, because accurate definitions matter. The venerable Oxford Dictionary lists “distraction” as “a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.” Often-cited driver distractions include eating, grooming, wrangling children, talking to passengers, fussing with pets, falling asleep, reading, and operating in-car technology. Of course, the big elephant in the front seat is the cell phone—specifically smartphones that allow us to access email, apps, social media, texting, cameras, and Internet.

Washington was actually the very first state to ban drivers from texting and using handheld devices in 2008, but its laws are now archaic and haven’t kept up with modern smartphone technology. At press time, the current law makes it a primary offense, meaning that a driver can be ticketed for this infraction alone.

Tough To Enforce

So you might wonder: Everywhere I look, drivers are holding their damn phones and talking and texting. Why aren’t the cops out enforcing the law? Well, they are, handing out 2,500 to 3,000 citations monthly in Washington State. But the law is enforceable only if the device is held up to one’s ear or if the driver is texting (or admits to it). If drivers tell police that they were inputting GPS directions or checking sports scores, officers can’t legally write them a ticket, even if they’ve witnessed unsafe driving.

Cell phone records are not typically checked unless devices are suspected as factors in a crash, but even with such records it can be tough to prove in court without a doubt that the driver was inattentive at the exact moment of a crash; phone records also don’t log unfinished or unsent text messages. 

Proposed legislative bills HB 1371 and SB 5289 would eliminate these loopholes by forbidding holding a smartphone, tablet, or other communications device while driving, using dashboard-mounted devices that require more than the tap of a finger (to allow for minimal GPS operation), and watching videos while driving. Fines would remain at $136 for a first offense but jump to $248 for a second offense, and insurers could see cellphone driving violations on driving records.

What’s the Big Deal?

So you might be asking: What’s the big deal? Why not also ban reaching for a water bottle, or fiddling with a radio? Or listening to music?  A third bill, HB 1631, does target activities such as eating, reaching for a dropped item, or tending to pets or backseat passengers that significantly interfere with safe vehicle operation.

The key difference with electronic technology lies in the cognitive load. We think we can multitask but we can’t—our brains simply switch back and forth very quickly. Ever notice how people walking while talking on cell phones suddenly stop moving when they’re in the deepest conversation? Their vision deadens and their brains can’t handle the two tasks at once.

Cell phones also demand our visual and manual attention. Consider these facts:

  • Texting drivers on average take their eyes off the road for up to 5 seconds at a time. At 55 mph, that’s traveling the length of a football field completely blind.
  • Drivers talking on the phone can miss up to 50 percent of what’s in their driving environments.
  • Texting can make drivers 23 times more likely to crash, as profound as drunk driving.
  • It’s not safe to use a device even when stopped at a traffic light; University of Utah researchers have found that drivers can take up to 27 seconds to regain full attention after sending a text.
  • Hands-free and Bluetooth operation aren’t safer—that cognitive load is still present.
  • The National Safety Council estimates that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes annually and is a factor in 1 out of every 4 collisions in the United States.

What makes this technology especially dangerous is our desire to engage with it so compulsively. We’re biologically wired to crave social connection and information. An incoming call or message is the proverbial tap on our shoulder, as Matt Richtel writes of the neurocognitive science in his 2014 book A Deadly Wandering. Ours is a perpetual reward system—answer that siren call, and our brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates our pleasure centers. Respond again, and we get another little dopamine squirt. Once habituated, our brains crave more, getting restless when deprived of stimulation for too long before its next fix.

Based on this neuroscience, I strongly believe this is why so many entreaties to not use our cell phones when driving simply don’t work. It’s not simply behavioral—it’s about overcoming a chemical addiction of sorts (or at least a very strong biological compulsion). It’s not recognizing and addressing the problem for what it is.

Whether a solution lies in devices being put in the mandatory equivalent of an airplane mode when the car is in motion, or aggressive deprogramming of behavior through a 12-step program of sorts, or other alternatives remains to be seen. Consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties will also help.


But What If?

You might be thinking: But what if I have an emergency and need to call or message back while driving? The truth is that our biology has superbly trained us to be slaves to our technology by creating a false sense of urgency, desire, and reward. Danger is abstract for us because most days nothing happens. We’re not good at conceptualizing consequence until we’re staring at its aftermath. And with death and injury, that aftermath can be incomprehensible. It’s always preventable. No call, text, game, or selfie is ever worth it, period. 

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatal crashes rose nationwide by 7.2 percent in 2015; experts believe that the use of smartphones is largely to blame. In that same year in Washington State, distracted driving-related deaths jumped 32 percent to 160, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. That’s just deaths—not counting the 587 serious injuries, 14,601 minor injuries, and 30,195 property-damage-only collisions. That’s more than 5 incidents every hour. Add in thousands more unreported incidents and near-misses, and you get the idea. And that’s just in Washington State.

I never talk, text, or operate my cell phone while driving except for one-touch commands to operate GPS or Pandora; even the latter I keep to an absolute minimum. But several weeks ago, my insurance policy went up several hundred dollars annually. My agent said that the increase was not because of anything I’d done, but because of statewide rate hikes. Turns out that insurance companies are feeling the effects of distracted driving too. Their loss costs—payments to treat injuries, repair damaged vehicles and property, and defend insured drivers in legal actions—have jumped 16 percent over the past two years, and auto rates among Washington State’s top 20 insurers increased 5.9 percent in 2016 alone. You and I pay these costs, even if we aren’t at fault ourselves.

Political Hurdles

In spite of all this, distracted driving bills are challenging to pass. In these rancorous political times, many bills die or survive strictly along partisan lines. Legislators themselves don’t want to give up using their own devices while driving, and like the general public, are in denial or just ignorant about the issues involved.

This was brought home to me recently when I saw the words of one Washington State legislator in a social media post. Asked why she voted against one of this session’s distracted driving bills, she shot back: “This serious issue of people addicted to their iPhones is a cultural problem. We can't legislate responsibility and cultural change. It must begin with us.” 

What?? Can’t legislate responsibility? Cultural change? How about we just walk back those drunk driving and drug impairment laws too? Because our smartphones are the ultimate open container. “Us” isn’t getting the job done. Neurocognitive research has proved that beyond a doubt. Yes, change has to come from us too, but legislators need to be brave enough to take a serious stand for the common good and send a strong message to the cultures they shape and protect. Otherwise, what’s their purpose?

In a country that values personal freedom and individual rights above all else, one might argue that government regulation has no place here. But at stake are lives, well-being, property, and the economy. Personally I’d love the right to drive without fear of someone on their cell phone crashing into me, or my children to walk across the street without threat of being killed or injured by an oblivious red light runner, or to not have to literally pay for the follies of others. Who knows, you just might too.

What You Can Do

So, what can you do? Contact your legislators. Advocate for consistent laws, education, enforcement, cultural stigma, and swift, heavy penalties. Pledge to make cell phone use while driving as socially inacceptable as drunk driving. Make it a priority that you won’t enable yourself or others to perpetuate this dangerous activity.

The single best way to overcome temptation? Shut off your phone completely and put it where you can’t reach or hear it, like in the trunk. If you must use GPS, input addresses before you start moving. If you need to adjust it, wait until you’re safely stopped.

And remember, you’re always modeling behavior for your children as well. By the time they’re driving age, they’ve had at least 15 years of seeing what you do behind the wheel—a little late to tell them “do as I say, not as I do.”


Matt Richtel writes extensively about the cognitive neuroscience behind the attention-eroding effects of technology in A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention—well worth reading if you want to learn more.


Part 2: Anatomy of a Drug Stop with the WSP


A few weeks later, I returned to the Washington State Patrol Training Academy for a very different kind of scenario—the drug stop. This script and setup were elaborate, intending to show cadets both how a drug-sniffing dog works and the legal complexities of such a stop. For this reason, instead of FTOs, district attorneys and other legal professionals were on hand to coach the cadets, as they are the ones that intimately know exactly what causes legal cases to fall apart. If an officer misses documenting a single fact on their paperwork, fails to read the civilian their rights, or forgets even a minor step, that can mean the difference of someone being prosecuted for a DUI or the entire case being thrown out of court with the help of a sharp-eyed defense attorney.

In this scenario, another woman and I are on our way to eastern Washington, where she is going to teach me how to cook meth. She is a long-time dealer and already has a warrant out for her arrest, whereas I have no prior record, and I'm the registered owner and driver of our vehicle. Our drug paraphernalia is in a backpack tossed in the back seat, and a K-9 officer has already hidden a small packet of cocaine under our car for her dog to find.

We are stopped for not wearing seatbelts, but of course my companion is arrested as soon as they run her license and see her outstanding warrant. In this case, two cadets are on hand, which is useful for both questioning people separately and officer safety. As my friend is getting put in handcuffs, one officer asks her how we know each other, and my friend declares we're old childhood friends. Since she's already in trouble and has nothing to lose, she's doing everything to throw me under the bus, even offering to cut a deal with the officers for her cooperation. Meanwhile, I’m telling the other officer that we just met that morning in Seattle in the line at Starbucks, and she needed a ride to Ellensburg and I just happened to be going that way. People lie and snitch on each other constantly in these situations, and it’s up to the officers to try to tease out what is actually happening through separate, careful questioning.

Asked about the bag in the backseat, I tell my questioning officer it’s hers, not mine, and that I don’t know anything about its contents, since I just met her that morning and I’m giving her a ride. He then asks if I’d consent to him searching the inside of the car and its trunk. I tell him no. He then asks if I’d allow a drug-sniffing dog to check out the car. I say sure, the cute dog can come, but I won’t allow an officer to search the inside of the vehicle. I then explain that my pot-smoking brother sometimes uses the car and there maybe a joint or two leftover in the vehicle that the dog might find, but it shouldn’t be anything more than the legal limit allowed (one ounce).

There are a couple reasons for this setup: One is that consent must be obtained for each part of the vehicle. You can tell an officer that s/he can search the inside of the vehicle, but not the trunk, or vice versa. You may wonder about probable cause, but remember that I have no record and I’m the legal registered owner of the car. They have, however, arrested my friend who does have a prior history, so they strongly suspect that the backpack in the backseat (which I‘m saying is hers) has drugs in it. But without proper consent to search and no apparent signs of my driving under the influence, they are helpless to take further action. If I had said no to the dog sniffing the car, they would have had no choice but to let me go (but retaining my friend, of course).

Another point to remember is that marijuana was legalized in Washington State in 2012. I try to cover myself by saying that the car might have weed in it in case the dog finds something, but it also makes a difference for the officers documenting the case. Prior to 2012, all Washington State K-9 units were trained to find heroin, meth, marijuana, and powder and crystal forms of cocaine, but starting in 2013, marijuana was dropped from that list. That means, however, that a mix of dogs is still working, and the dogs cannot alert their handlers as to what kind of or amount of drug they have found; so an older dog might alert for a legal amount of marijuana. Both dogs and their handlers have curricula vitae (CVs), showing their training qualifications, which must be noted by the officer at the scene; omission of such details can strengthen a defense attorney’s case.

Once I have given consent for the car to be searched by the dog, the cadet has to read me my rights and ask me to sign a paper form that I’d been read them. This step is crucial; forgetting it can jeopardize the entire case, right down to actual wording of my rights.

Piper is our heroine for the day, a beautiful and very energetic German Shepherd on a mission—to find drugs and play with her chew rope as a reward. Once she is released, she quickly circles the car, sniffing crazily. Within seconds she has found the cocaine that her handler had hidden on the underside of our Impala. She is also ready to bound inside the car, leap over the front seats, and check out that backpack. K-9 dogs are trained to either paw at or lie down when they find what they are looking for (an important consideration especially when sniffing out a potential bomb—disturbing it could be deadly).

Once Piper finds our drugs, my friend and I are both done for. My companion was handcuffed long ago and placed in the patrol car, but I've been allowed to stand outside unrestrained. The cadets and legal staff discuss other evidence that can be used. It’s generally better to keep people separated because catfights have been known to break out in the back of a squad car, but since a camera is running continuously inside the car, everything being said is being recorded, which can be pretty damning just in itself.

I’d never want to be a police officer in a thousand years. Given the prevalence of guns, drugs, aggressive behavior, and increasing volatility of people under the influence of both legal and illicit substances, the mantra of “there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop” has never been more true. Every stop has the potential to be dangerous. Participating in these training sessions has revealed how vulnerable the officers can be at every juncture. Even the act of reaching into the glove box during a nighttime stop to get my registration papers could mean sudden death for an officer if I decide to pull out a weapon. On the other hand, as an FTO told me, “You can’t live your life in fear or you’d never be able to go out there.”

From this experience, my perception of police officers has really changed. I’ve actually been stopped far more times for speeding than I care to recount (which may be surprising for a traffic safety advocate, but that too has shaped my interest in this field), and while the vast majority of the officers I’ve encountered have been impeccably professional, there have been a few notable exceptions. Sometimes our personal interaction with law enforcement, coupled by media coverage, leads to adversarial perceptions, of an “us versus them” mentality.

This unique opportunity to volunteer and witness how officers are being trained opens the door to seeing situations from an officer’s perspective, and also ask questions of why they are trained the way they are and offer input. More than ever we are living in a time where law enforcement and community need to forge strong, healthy relationships based on empathy and collaboration, not division and fear. To inquire about volunteering, contact the Washington State Patrol Academy at, email them at, or call them at 360-432-7500.



Part 1: How I Got Seven DUIs in Two Nights

It started out harmlessly enough. Flashing lights behind me, a pullover to the side of the road. They can’t prove me drunk, I thought. This will be easy.

“Hello, ma’am, I’m Officer Bill C_______ with the Washington State Patrol. Just to let you know, everything here is being audio and video-recorded tonight. I stopped you because you were weaving back there. Can I see your driver’s license and registration, please?”

Sure thing, I thought. As I reached into my purse for my license and the glove box for the registration papers, the officer’s flashlight beam pierced the darkness and splashed onto my hand, focusing keenly on it. I handed the documents to the officer and he went to his car, but not before he swept his flashlight through the back of my car. In a few minutes he returned.

“Ma’am, I see you have an open beer bottle in the back. We’re going to have to ask you to step out of the car.”


This kicked off two nights of the most unusual volunteering I’ve ever done—for the Washington State Patrol (WSP). Every year, one or two groups of cadets undergo 26 weeks of intensive basic training at its academy in Shelton, Washington, about 25 miles north of Olympia. Once they complete their basic, cadets then enter eight weeks of practical instruction with experienced officers out in the real world.

But during their basic training, they need help from us civilians—as actors on which to practice doing traffic stops. And not just a few individuals—this past spring session, an open call was put out for 256 such civilian volunteer actors over a one-month period. As you might imagine, using cadets and field training officers in those roles don’t provide the best learning opportunity, as they can anticipate scenarios. Untrained civilians offer a lot more spontaneity and unpredictability—exactly the kind that these cadets will see in the real world. The idea is that regardless of what the actor says or does—and I mean anything—the cadets are expected to always behave decisively and professionally.

The actors themselves are a mixed bunch, ranging from high school students to retired seniors, both men and women. Recruiting often comes from school drama and ROTC clubs, but there are many repeat volunteers, including one fellow who has been doing this for years and always comes decked out in full military fatigues, gung-ho to play the badass. Sometimes current and retired WSP officers are asked to participate because they can challenge cadets in specific scenarios. Even the Academy’s janitor has filled in when they’ve run short on volunteers.

On these two April nights that I volunteered, training began around 6 pm and continued until nearly 10. After a quick orientation meeting, the civilians are given fake registration-insurance papers and keys to various decommissioned, unmarked patrol vehicles or cars that have been seized in raids. They are also encouraged to pick out props from a box, which include open beer bottles or cans, plastic fake guns, or even labeled bundles of marijuana. The cadets get into their marked squad cars with their field training officers (FTOs) and us into our vehicles, and we all head out to a nearby business park that has plenty of intersections, parking lots, and looping routes.

Your job is to start cruising at low speeds throughout this park—and just wait to get pulled over. It might take a while, but it always happens eventually. Certainly it’s never fun to be stopped in real life, but this contrived situation truly feels surreal, especially when you see a half-dozen stops all around you. Once you’re stopped, the FTO walks up to your car and lets you know what scenario s/he wants you to play (i.e., suspended license, DUI). They may ask you to be “chippy” (rude, with an attitude). If you want to pull out a weapon, you should ask the FTO first, because their student may be too green and not yet psychologically ready to handle such a scene. But everything else is pretty much up to you, and that’s where the real fun begins.

These nighttime sessions center around DUI stops, which are a huge part of WSP’s duties. Once darkness falls, adrenaline rises and everyone’s on the alert because it’s much harder to see potential weapons hidden in a vehicle. The element of surprise and conflict goes up exponentially, especially if passengers are present.

With a potential DUI, officers are looking for a number of clues to determine if a driver is intoxicated. The most obvious is how you’re driving—if you’re weaving, driving too slowly, fast, or unpredictably—and this prompts them to pull you over. Then they look for other signs—the smell of alcohol on your breath or in the vehicle, a visual check for open containers, and how you speak and act. If they suspect you’re intoxicated, they ask you to step out of the vehicle, where they run a series of field sobriety tests to determine if you’re intoxicated. This includes you visually tracking a small object such as a pen that the officer moves back and forth, a walk-and-turn test with nine heel-to-toe steps in a straight line with your arms down at your side, and a one-leg stand, wherein you raise one foot six inches off the ground while keeping it parallel to the ground without swaying or hopping.

If you fail any of these tests, combined with the other possible indicators, then you will typically be arrested for DUI. For an arrest to occur, four out of six conditions must be met. (In Washington State, breath and blood tests come after an arrest and were not a part of these civilian training scenarios.)

I’ll never win Oscars for my acting, but improvising was a blast as I tried to think of new ways to fluster cadets. I sassed back verbally, grabbed the pen out of the cadet’s hand, pretended not to know English, wandered off from the walk-turn test, lunged for the officer’s gun during a body search, and even did a little evasive driving when getting pulled over (nothing gets officers’ heart rates up like throwing a car into reverse and backing up quickly toward them). I also resisted being put into handcuffs a few times and ended up getting thrown up against the patrol car as the cuffs were tightened, with multiple bruises on my wrists the next day to prove it.

These are all things that have happened to officers in the field, and plenty more. Our actors were sometimes assigned two or three to a car. The more people in a vehicle, the more potential for the unexpected to happen. One incident I heard about that night involved a driver and two passengers. Over the course of the stop, one of the passengers kept breaking out into full song while the poor cadet was trying to interview the driver. With the officer thus distracted, the other passenger snuck out of the vehicle and actually took off with the patrol car—the ultimate embarrassment.


Undergoing seven of these DUI stops in two nights revealed several things. One is that it’s actually physically quite difficult to pass these sobriety tests even when one is sober. I tried on several occasions to do so well at these tests that I would not get arrested, but the walk-and-turn test as well as the one-leg stand proved that my balance under pressure is not as good as it used to be.

Secondly, I was floored by the compassion and respect that the FTOs were instilling in their cadets. Things can get tricky when male officers are doing searches on females (small pistols can easily be tucked inside a bra). One FTO related a story of doing a pat-down of a young woman who started to tremble and cry. He saw that she was not faking this, and she told him that she’d been subjected to so much past sexual abuse and assault that this was her instinctual reaction when a man she didn’t know started to touch her. He stressed to his cadet that you never know who you might be dealing with, and to never ever be flippant or disrespectful, even if they’re just joking.

Although they’d already undergone many weeks of classroom training by this point, some cadets were definitely green, struggling to remember what they were supposed to say and do. Others seemed much more comfortable and almost already the picture of a patrol officer you might meet in the field. But in all cases, they were completely polite, responsive, and professional. The experienced FTOs often asked them what they were being taught in the classroom, which of course the cadets were following to the letter, but then they’d relate real-world stories in which the world is not so black and white but full of many shades of gray. Good contextual judgment is essential when evaluating each situation, they stressed.

Much of the FTO debriefing took place right in front of us actors, and not only that, but the FTOs actually asked us for our opinions of how their students did and if there was anything we thought they could have done better. In a world where American media coverage is saturated with stories of “bad cops” out to get innocent people, this sensitivity and transparency was really eye-opening to witness. Sure, one can argue that liability is an incentive, but you can plainly see the earnest dedication in these young cadets and their hardened FTOs alike. After all, that’s the reason they became police officers in the first place—to help people.

Up next: Anatomy of a Drug Stop.



Driving Miss Nelly

Most of you know that I’m the proud owner of a 2009 E90 335i. But you probably don’t know that I just published a major cookbook. And I’m going on book tour to promote it—for about 22 weeks, all around the country, covering around 50,000 miles—every year for the next three years.

Considering that my beloved Bimmer just hit over 100K, half of her trunk space is taken up by a donut tire (thanks to BMW’s absurd run-flat tire policy), and her reliability isn’t a sure thing anymore, all magic 8-ball signs pointed to a new vehicle in my future. Which one?

Unlike the 335i, this new ride needed to be total utility on wheels. It had to be spacious enough to haul 15 boxes of books and for me to still bed down in the back on occasion, plus have decent horsepower and AWD for struggling up, say, Idaho mountain passes in blizzards with those 600 pounds of books. Given the mileage I’d be driving, a crazy-long warranty was in order. And oh yes, decent fuel economy. Not too much to ask, right?

I quickly settled on a station wagon. And that’s how Nelly, a 2016 Subaru Outback, came into my world, delivered on a torrentially rainy day at a Seattle dealer in early December. She got her name when her cold engine surged one morning in my parking garage. Instinctively I murmured “Whoa, Nelly,” and it just fit. Nelly is the trusty, reliable bay mare who is always there for you and will never let you down. I can’t quite say the same of the 335i, which has had some spectacular on-road fuel injector and water pump failures. (She too has a nickname—PB&J—for she’s the hue of deep raspberry jam on the outside, with peanut-butter–colored leather inside.)

What I didn’t expect was just what kind of driver I’d become once I slid into Nelly’s left front seat.

Obviously, I didn’t expect an Outback to drive the same way as a Bimmer. For starters, Nelly has an automatic (actually a continuously variable) transmission, whereas PB has a manual 6-speed. Both cars have 6 very capable cylinders under their hoods, but Nelly’s Boxster boasts 256 horses, while PB’s inline pumps 300 ponies, with twin turbos for even more ass-kicking off the line. Both cars have AWD, albeit very differently engineered.

Right away some things became obvious. This Subaru is no WRX, and her seats are flatter and wider than Texas road-kill, designed for people three times my width. I never realized before what a sloppy sitter I’ve become in my tired middle age. With no side bolsters to hold me in place, I slump, slouch, and flop about like a limp baby in a high chair. My side mirrors are painstakingly adjusted, but I wouldn’t know it the way I end up leaning sometimes.

I’ve also had to get used to a pronounced floaty feeling—a sensation that I’m not quite connected to the car, or anything for that matter (the seats not holding me in place don’t help). The steering is not as loose as those 1980s Cadillacs you could steer lock to lock with a single finger, but it ain’t anything from Bavaria, either. Isolation lurks in everything, a refined muffledness. The engine is nicely zippy but a bit lurchy, and the lack of a transmission shift only adds to the willing suspension of everything. While the brakes are adequate, they don’t inspire terrific confidence, either.

When they’re sitting side by side, PB looks like a low-rider next to Nelly’s hulking stance. Since their introduction in 1994, Outbacks have been growing taller, and these days they have nearly 9 inches of ground clearance. I love the possibility of perhaps not shredding the underside if I should encounter a surprise deer carcass on the Montana interstate at night, and her height is really handy for those massive Seattle potholes and the lakes within them when it rains hard. I do appreciate the extra visibility and thus feeling of invincibility; if Nelly and I face west on a clear day, I can just about see out to the Pacific. With her clearance and AWD, maybe we could cross it too, if I outfit her with water skis and drive fast enough.

The biggest difference between the two, however, is the presence of a large touch-screen in the Subaru. Here you can access the navigation and audio systems, vehicle information, cover art in your iPod, the weather forecast in Flagstaff, and even how your Apple stocks are doing. I’m no stranger to nice cars, but Nelly sports way more gadgetry than any vehicle I’ve ever owned. By and large Subaru has done a good job with their user interface and voice-actuated systems, but heaps of things can still be fiddled with when the car is moving.

But never fear, because she also comes equipped with a slew of driver-assist technologies. I can set my cruise to maintain a specific following distance, even down to speeds of 25 mph (very nice in urban traffic, actually). Nelly will beep if she starts drifting out of her lane without a turn signal, if she senses I’m about to hit something or another vehicle is alongside me, or if I don’t move when the vehicle ahead goes forward. She can even steer me gently back into my lane if I nod off behind the wheel and apply emergency braking to prevent a collision. If in spite of all this I do manage to get into a pickle, her SOS feature can automatically call in the cavalry if I don’t respond within 10 seconds.

By contrast, the BMW is blissfully analog. No Sirius radio, no driver assist tech, no screens. Not even an automatic transmission, for God’s sake. If I need to use GPS, I just bring up Google Maps on my iPhone and listen to the audio instructions over the car speakers. PB’s seat securely surrounds my lazy body in just the right places, holding me in place like a confident lover. And without a doubt she’s the most athletic, finely balanced car I’ve ever driven, her steering meaty and hefty, going exactly where you point her. Acceleration is instant—she’s raring to go when you are, no questions asked.

At the same time, if you need to de-accelerate, she’s exquisitely attuned to that too. Just let up on the throttle, and she responds instantly without fuss and repeated taps of the brake pedal. If you need to stop—even suddenly—she’s got you covered there too. Her surefootedness makes her first and foremost a driver’s car, giving the person behind the steering wheel tremendous feedback and confidence on what’s happening with the road surface and her path on it. And her response to your inputs rewards you with seductive pleasure, whether you’re just going around the block or across the country. If you’re a BMW owner, you know exactly what self-fulfilling loop I’m talking about.

For the first several weeks I drove Nelly, I felt paradoxically much less safe. Of course, getting to know a new car’s quirks takes a while. But as I slouched in my seat, that floaty, muffled feeling persisted. Normally a very confident driver, I became tentative as I maneuvered Nelly’s huge bulk through traffic. There was that damn screen, which I found myself looking at like a little TV (and away from the road) simply because it was there. And when I touched it and something didn’t work as expected, my driving swiftly deteriorated as I fought my desire (sometimes unsuccessfully) to figure out the problem while still in motion.

I noticed another funny thing. Because I was sitting up high, I was now able to see just how many people were texting or looking down at their phones while driving around me. This was happening just as much before, but when I was sitting lower in the Bimmer and more engaged in my own driving, I couldn’t observe that phenomenon so clearly. I was in no less danger than before, but seeing it from Nelly’s throne sure made me feel a lot more vulnerable now—and I noticed myself becoming more hesitant and paranoid in response.

A few weeks after Nelly’s arrival, I climbed into PB, and instantly I felt at home. Once I was securely strapped in, we were ready for adventure. I felt my pilot instincts shoot up the Alert-O-Meter in a joyful, ready way—toward overconfidence, even. It’s funny: As a driver, my skills and observational ability had not changed, but my attitude and perception, shaped by my vehicle’s environment and feedback, sure had.

It’s a powerful reminder of who we can become, chameleon-like, cloaked in our vehicles.

I’m guessing that many of you reading this post own and drive multiple vehicles. Have you noticed your attitude and skills as a driver changing as you switch out in them, even subtly? And if you’re confident that they don’t, take another honest look—it just might surprise you.

Two months and 5,500 miles later, Nelly and I are getting along quite well indeed. I’ve gotten used to her slightly wallowing ways, and I know she’s going to be a great road-trip car—as long as I keep PB around to remind me what it feels like to be a real driver.



Roadside Survival: Do You Really Have What You Need?


In the course of a single year, I drive about 30,000 miles all over America. In Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, where Ford F150s, Chevy Impalas, and Pontiac Grand Ams rule the roads, my 2009 BMW 335i and I are often hundreds of miles from the nearest BMW dealer—or even anyone who would know what to do with a German vehicle, let alone have parts available should something go awry.

Over the past 20 years and nearly a million miles, I’ve been remarkably fortunate with the dozen different cars I’ve owned, thanks to religious maintenance and rigorous pre-trip mechanical checks. Only twice have I been completely stranded, enough that I had to call a tow truck and wait overnight for parts to come in. The second time was in early September in southern Oregon, when my husband and I were traveling on I-5 from Seattle to San Francisco during a much-anticipated vacation.

In spite of having replaced the electric water pump and thermostat (infamous for failing on this year and model) just 40,000 miles ago as a precautionary measure shortly after I acquired the car in 2012, it suddenly failed on this trip. No drama, no fuss—just a single genteel chime when the overheating symbol came on at 70 mph. Immediately I switched on the hazard flashers, guided the car smoothly across two lanes to a gentle stop on the right shoulder, and shut off the engine. As my husband opened the hood, telltale white steam poured forth and the car spat out coolant onto the pavement. Not much to do but get back in the car and call for help.

As it happened, we were in a less than ideal spot. The highway was starting to curve uphill, and the lanes had significantly narrowed because of the mountainous terrain and the fact that a concrete Jersey barrier divided the roadway in the middle. We still had a shoulder, but it itself was bordered by a 3-foot-high concrete retaining wall on our right, so very little clearance remained between the driver’s side of the car and traffic.

Looking in my rearview mirror, I was quickly alarmed by the target fixation by other drivers who were looking at us but not adjusting their steering. (After all, you will always go where your eyes are looking.) Even with our hood up and flashers on, passenger cars, RVs, and 13-wheeler semis alike were not only not moving over to the left to give us room, but they were actively drifting into our curve and crossing the white shoulder line—barreling directly toward us—before correcting at the last moment and pulling away with maybe 12 feet to spare at 70 mph. Just a bit unnerving.

Being stranded on the roadside can be very dangerous in itself for these very reasons. Given our vulnerability, my husband and I put our seatbelts on, just in case we should get hit—then at least we wouldn’t go flying out the windshield. I called AAA, and we were told a tow truck would be on its way in about 45 minutes to take us to a nearby repair shop experienced in European cars. I breathed a sigh of relief—this was a good stroke of luck out in the middle of nowhere. But as we waited and continued to watch traffic drifting and whizzing past way too close, we decided to get out of the car altogether and hop behind the retainer wall, where we could stand safely some distance from the roadway until help arrived.

According to author Walt Brinker, there are two classes of drivers: One who has experienced a disabled vehicle, and those who will. And he should know—he has provided over 2,000 road assists free of charge near his home in North Carolina. For this retired Army lieutenant colonel and good Samaritan, helping people stranded on the road is both a passion and unique hobby. After observing how many people were needlessly stuck because of improper vehicle maintenance and not having the right items and tools in their vehicles to deal with emergencies, Brinker decided to write Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns to help empower drivers.

I’m normally not a big fan of these kinds of books because frankly, many of them are quite poorly written or contain rather vague content that’s not all that helpful. But this little book is different. In fact, reading it makes me realize what I’m lacking in my own car in the way of tools and supplies, in spite of everything I do carry for emergencies.

Brinker’s book is a scant 110 pages, but a huge amount of excellent information is packed into its small size. Much of it is predictably related to tire issues, but he also addresses what to do if you’ve run out of gas, your engine overheats, you’re locked out of your vehicle, or your engine has cut off and will not restart. He also suggests a list of items to carry in your vehicle to contend with vehicle breakdowns. His mantra, of course, is to be proactive about vehicle maintenance so that you are less likely to be stranded in the first place. He also strongly advises that you practice things like changing a tire in the safety and comfort of your own driveway so that you are not struggling to learn when you’re stuck on the side of a road at night or in adverse conditions.

What I like best about this book is Brinker’s common-sense approach to roadside fixes. This is not a dry, technical fix-it manual, but a succinct, engaging book written in plain language that anyone can understand, with solutions that even people with no mechanical experience can easily follow. And he is extremely specific and surprisingly thorough.

Many times I came across bits of advice that floored me with why-didn’t-I-think-of-that solutions. For instance, a vehicle jack works fine on hard, level ground, but it quickly becomes useless if the soil is sandy, mushy, or uneven. His suggestion? Carry a 8-by-8-inch, ½-inch-thick square of plywood to place under the jack to stabilize it and keep it from sinking into soft ground. Another issue that can make changing tires difficult is not enough leverage to loosen really tight lug nuts; he recommends using a “cheater bar”—a simple 2-foot-long steel pipe that can be slipped over the handle of your vehicle’s lug wrench to double or even triple the available torque.

He tackles vehicle-specific issues as well, such as fuel pump cutoff switches in Ford vehicles and the tendency of pre-2007 General Motors vehicles to have looser battery connectors than normal. He gives tips on changing tires with aftermarket rims, how to get rims and wheels separated when they are stuck together by rust, how to use a paper clip to fix loose battery clamps, why 20-foot jumper cables make for safer vehicle starts versus shorter ones, what to do if your car doesn’t start even though you just poured a gallon of gas in the tank, and ingenious solutions for vehicle lockouts. Sprinkled throughout the book are photos that illustrate specific tools and techniques, as well as entertaining stories of Brinker’s more memorable roadside assists.

Needless to say, this is a book that should be kept in your car’s glovebox, not at home. It’s a must-read for all drivers, novice and experienced alike, and great for new teen drivers, significant others, family, and friends. Even if you have AAA or access to other roadside assistance programs, Walt points out that you may find yourself in situations where you have no phone or satellite reception, the wait is too long or towing services are closed for the night, or the help that does arrive turns out to be incompetent or unable to assist (and I’ve actually experienced all of these things myself).

And for best results, read this book before you get stranded…

In our case, there really wasn’t any way to prevent the sudden water pump failure, outside of carrying our own spare pump and mechanic. And while some of you reading this may have vehicles that demand diagnostic computers, highly specialized parts, and especially trained technicians to fix the simplest of issues, I know there are plenty among you who could benefit from reading this little book nonetheless and being better prepared for the unexpected.

Roadside Survival retails for a mere $14.95, and it may just be some of the best money you could ever spend on your car. It also makes a great holiday gift for your new teen driver, spouse, parents, and friends—in short, anyone whose safety you care about.


Roadside Survival: Low-Tech Solutions to Automobile Breakdowns
Walt Brinker, 2014, CreateSpace
ISBN: 978-1493786817