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



What Makes a Good and Bad Driver

In preparing for a discussion group recently on the subject, I've been thinking about what makes a good or lousy driver. This is a topic ripe for spirited debate, and it turns out there is as much controversy about what constitutes good driving as there are factors that actually determine it. Is it progress, safety, or smoothness, or a combination of all of these? And is bad driving simply the lack thereof, or do other dynamics have a role as well?

In exploring these questions, I jotted down some notes:


What Makes a Good Driver

A driver who is assertive, not aggressive.

A driver who is not overly fearful.

A driver who looks ahead visually and mentally as far ahead as possible, and strategizes accordingly.

A driver who is smooth with steering, braking, and other inputs.

A driver who does not panic in an emergency situation but has the presence of mind to decide and execute the best action for that moment.

A driver who is self-aware of his/her bad habits and is constantly looking to overcome them.

A driver who knows what leads to accidents (distracting activities, visual fixation, fatigue, etc.) and is proactive about avoiding or minimizing these risks.

A driver whose brain in actively engaged in the piloting activity at hand.

A driver who practices common courtesy and cooperation with all others on the road (drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians).

A driver who knows how to breathe and relax at crucial moments to enhance brain and reflex function at the wheel.

A driver who focuses on improving the drive ahead and doesn’t fixate on mistakes of the past.

A driver who knows when to stop; i.e., knows his/her physical, mental, and emotional limits.

A driver who doesn’t have clutter in the car! (Clutter—or the presence of many loose objects piled on the dashboard, floor, seats, and rear window deck—is not only unsafe in an accident but also may be indicative of a mind that is more easily distracted or situationally unaware.)

A driver who always believes that there is something to learn.

A driver whose attitude is generally positive, not negative.

A driver who recognizes the nuances in life and that the world is in the details. The slightest easing up on the brake pedal, changes in speed, and as little steering input as possible leads to smoother, safer driving.

What Makes a Bad Driver

A driver who is aggressive, not merely assertive.

A driver who is overly confident.

A driver who focuses just on the road directly in front of him/her, and is not anticipating far down ahead.

A driver who is very fearful or overly hesitant.

A driver who is dictated by ego.

A driver who has bad habits and doesn’t even know it.

A driver who pretends he is in a hermetically sealed bubble and drives as though he is the only one on the road. (This takes many forms, from not clearing off their snowy back windows to cutting quickly in and out of traffic to get ahead at a desired speed).

A driver who allows a preoccupation with nondriving activities to override the task of driving at hand.

A driver who lets his car drive him (either through overuse of driver-assist technology or in how his car’s persona dictates how he pilots the vehicle [i.e., sports cars).

A driver who fixates on mistakes from the past.


What do you think makes a good and bad driver? Would love to hear your thoughts.



Car Care: Not Just for Guys Anymore

Do you ever wish you knew when you need new tires? Do you know how to check which fluids go in which reservoirs under the hood? Could you change your own tire in an emergency?

We women annually drive more miles in passenger vehicles than men, not only because we're working but we tend to run more errands, ferry children around, etc. Yet how many of us depend solely on male partners, friends, fathers, or brothers to take care of what needs to be done on the family car or van? In an emergency or during a road trip, would we feel comfortable performing simple tasks like checking the oil (or even know that oil needs to be checked in the first place), jumping a battery, or replacing windshield wiper blades?

Many of us (regardless of gender) don't know the most elemental basics, and this ignorance puts us at risk of a vehicle breakdown or being taken advantage of by unscrupulous mechanics when a crisis does occur. Knowledge is power, and it can make a huge difference in preventing a mechanical incident, or how to handle one.

The Pacific Northwest chapter of the Audi Club has been offering a technical session for women only for several years now, and it's a terrific way for women to get to know their cars in a non-intimidating environment. This is important because females often feel embarrassed to even ask questions for fear of being ridiculed in the often all-male, testosterone-charged domains of service garages.

Amanda showing how to check remaining tire tread.

This tech session is held at a Seattle Audi dealership, where service technicians demonstrate how to check and refill vital engine fluids, check for tire wear and tire pressure, and replace wiper blades. They jack up a car and show how to change a tire. They even put a car up on the lift and talk about the undercarriage, that mysterious underbelly on every vehicle that's full of strange pipes, tubes, struts, and other bits and pieces.

I first visited this two-hour workshop a couple a years ago, and I was amazed at how much some of the attendees did not know. For instance, some weren't aware of the difference between windshield washer fluid and coolant (and it is REALLY not good to pour the wrong fluid into the wrong place). Many had changed a tire before, but found it very helpful to get a demonstration on how to jack up the vehicle properly and the exact sequence of steps for safety.

Along the way, the participants asked many questions about car care: What does it mean when this light comes on in the dash? When such-and-such went wrong, I took the car to another mechanic, and he told me something different. Why does the vehicle make this noise when I've just started it? Questions begat more questions, and animated discussions ensued.

Mike demonstrating the correct way to install a wiper blade.

As braking, suspension, tires, and lights were demystified one by one, the women became visibly more relaxed, comfortable, excited, and empowered. Now they not only knew better how to care for their expensive investments, but they would hopefully feel less threatened the next time they walked into the dealer service area or talked with their mechanics. 

I wish more dealers offered sessions like these. Everyone should get to know their vehicle, ideally first by reading their owner's manual (which offers information specific to their particular vehicle), then doing some basic research on the resources nearest them. Get a copy of Auto Repair for Dummies from your local bookstore or Amazon. Ask your local dealer or reputable mechanic to schedule a session with you to go over basics on your car. And sometimes car care classes are offered at technical colleges and local service garages. Motor Trend also has a useful car care section on its website.

A huge thank-you to Carrie Stewart of the Audi Club Northwest and University Audi for the use of their photos.


Singing on the Ice

These winter days can be extremely treacherous ones on the road, what with sleet, black ice, freezing rain, drifting snow, whiteouts, or any combination thereof blanketing the pavement. Starting in late fall every year, reminders pop up on the radio and news for drivers to be mindful of changing conditions, to slow down, and allow extra travel time. The Internet is suddenly peppered with articles on how to drive in snowy conditions, to steer into or out of a skid, and how to winterize your car.

During 13 years of living in Wisconsin and Minnesota, I learned to drive on snow and ice and everything nasty in between. I’ve plowed through blizzards on the Interstate and rushed to catch planes in windy winter conditions where the slightest quick move would have sent me fishtailing into the ditch along with the 14 other hapless vehicles I saw along the way. I’ve crawled home a hundred miles in black ice at night and waited out whiteout conditions under the shelter of overpasses. But the most valuable winter driving skill I ever learned was something I discovered totally by surprise a couple of years ago.

It was on an epic cross-country trek between Seattle and Wisconsin when I ran into an unexpected snowstorm in an Idaho mountain pass. Thick white flakes were swirling about and visibility was rapidly worsening. I was gingerly crawling past semi-trailer trucks to recover the space cushion between us as we shared lanes partially obscured in snow. As the trucks slowed up near the summit, I struggled to keep enough momentum to not lose total traction myself. It became apparent that conditions were really not safe to drive in, and yet it was far too dangerous to pull off to the side of the road because no good clear spot existed, nor could drivers be counted on to see a stopped vehicle, which in itself was a greater hazard. So I just had to keep going.

My heart rate was up and I was starting to feel adrenalin overloading my jittery body. A tension headache had oozed out of my knotted shoulders and seeped upward, settling painfully behind my eyes. Just out of habit, I switched on my iPod to an operatic Barbra Streisand song, and reflexively began to sing along. To my complete surprise, I discovered that I’d been holding my breath. For how long I had no idea, but as I sang I realized that the very act of deeply inhaling and exhaling to hold the notes made me instantly relax, just enough to take the edge off this supreme tension and soothe me. I loosened my death grip on the steering wheel (which again I’d had no idea I’d been doing), and as I sang, my conscious mind had somewhere to go other than whipping itself into a total frenzy of anxiety. This was the best thing I could have possibly done at this moment. 

Since then, I’ve come to realize that breathing properly is truly essential to good driving. This may sound a bit crazy, but think about it: If you’re holding your breath (and many of us do it all the time without being aware of it), then you’re not taking in oxygen. If you don’t get enough oxygen to your brain, you can’t think. And if you can’t think, then you won’t have the reflexes to respond properly to outside stimuli.

Professional racecar drivers profoundly know the value of breathing and relaxing. A driving coach once told me that he has gotten in the habit of taking a quick breath right before entering a freeway onramp, to ready himself. Since that Idaho snowstorm, I’ve taken to regularly singing Broadway and opera tunes in times of stressful driving, and it never fails to help. Deep breathing (whether by singing or just practicing the breathing) is definitely a safety technique that I believe should be right up there with winterizing your car and putting on your seatbelt.



Banning of Texting

Last week, US news headlines were all atwitter after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended a nationwide ban on the use of all portable electronic devices while driving—including handsfree cell phones.

This announcement was sparked by the NTSB’s final report on a chain-reaction accident in August 2010 in Missouri that involved a pickup truck, a semi, and two school buses, resulting in two fatalities and 35 people injured. A number of factors contributed to this pileup, including road construction and driver fixation on another vehicle parked on the side of the road, but the incident was likely first triggered by a distracted 19-year-old who had been texting.

Phone records showed that he had sent or received 11 texts in 11 minutes just prior to the crash. Since he was among the fatalities, it will never be known if he was actually typing, reaching for his phone, or reading a message at the time of impact, but it was clear that he was cognitively and physically distracted enough that he didn’t see the semi that he rear-ended.

It deeply disturbs me that it’s taken this long for a national texting ban to even be considered in the United States, and it is a testament to how we don’t take driving safety seriously in this country. The vast majority of countries and provinces in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Canada prohibit the non-emergency driver use of handheld devices when operating a vehicle. And even stricter laws apply in Germany, the UK, Japan, and India, where even handsfree devices are forbidden.

Nearly 5,500 people were killed and 450,000 injured in 2009 on American roads in distraction-related accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). While the causes of driver distraction include eating, adjusting the radio, and other activities, talking and texting on cell phones are the most alarming, partly because they involve such sustained cognitive, visual, and manual attention, and because so many more drivers are engaging in them than even a year ago.

Consider these factors:

  • A 2009 Car and Driver magazine test showed that braking and reaction times when texting took two to six times longer than when intoxicated.
  • Drivers who were texting drove worse than drivers high on marijuana, according to a test conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in London.
  • The same TRL study also revealed that drivers’ ability to steer while text reduced by a whopping 91 percent when compared to drivers giving their full attention to motoring.
  • During a three-day Blackberry outage in October 2011, traffic accidents in Dubai dropped 20 percent compared to historical averages. In Abu Dhabi, accidents dropped by 40 percent, and zero fatalities occurred. This is remarkable when you consider that traffic accidents occur in Dubai every three minutes and fatal accidents in Abu Dhabi every two days.
  • Almost 50 percent of all drivers aged 18 to 24 are texting at some point while driving. This fact is even scarier when you consider that this demographic is already the most prone to accidents because of their inexperience with road situations and overconfidence in their abilities. 

Texting and other activities on portable electronics are increasing factors not just in automobile crashes but also in other modes of transportation. In 2008, 25 people died and 135 were injured (46 of them critically) when two trains collided in Los Angeles, with one of the conductors found to have been distracted by text messages he was sending while on duty. And who can forget the 2009 incident where two Northwest Airlines pilots overshot their destination by 150 miles because they lost track of time and location while using their laptops?

Even though 30 US states have legally banned texting while driving as of July 2010, the ban has done nothing to actually change our driving behavior. In fact, a NHTSA study shows that texting while driving has increased 50 percent from just a year ago (and many of us don’t need statistics to tell us that—it’s apparent from just looking at other drivers). Traffic safety officials universally agree that unless people feel that they are at risk of being literally stopped and fined for texting, they will continue to do so.

But from a law enforcement perspective, actually proving that someone was texting or sending an email message (as opposed to making a call or using GPS) and then stopping them for it is extremely difficult. And there are other legal obstacles; in Indiana, for instance, officers are legally not permitted to confiscate a cell phone from a driver to try to determine whether the motorist committed an illicit communications act. 

The funny thing is, everyone I’ve ever talked to about this subject unanimously agrees that texting and talking on cell phones while driving is a bad thing, and yet they almost always admit to having done it at some point themselves. So why do we do it if we know it endangers ourselves and others? The answer lies deep in the heart of human psychology, and it involves feedback/reward/brain chemical cycles, addiction, overconfidence, self-discipline, decisionmaking, and our infinite ability to behave irrationally in the face of logic and irrefutable evidence.

I myself have never texted while driving, but I was one of those people who, even as recently as a couple of years ago, felt that I was an exception and could at least talk on the phone behind the wheel and still drive safely. But after some honest self-observation, I’ve realized that I absolutely cannot be as alert talking on a cell phone (even on Bluetooth) as when I’m not on a phone. (And for that matter, I’ve discovered how distracted I can be even when talking to a front-seat passenger.)

Many people are protesting the NTSB’s proposed ban on all handheld electronic devices, and perhaps rightly so. How is the technology usage defined? (Think about iPods.) Where does it end? (Current exceptions, even for the proposed ban, are made for in-car systems and GPS technologies, for instance.) Why is law enforcement allowed to still use their devices? Will the ban apply equally to commercial drivers (i.e., truckers and their CB radios)? How will it be enforced? What monitoring/privacy issues are at stake? Upcoming blog entries will further cover these controversies, as well as the ramifications of (and solutions to) other distractions, such as eating, drinking, fiddling with sound systems, conversing with passengers, fighting with kids, and operating buttons on the dashboard.

Anything that takes away from your direct visual and mental focus on the road can be potentially lethal, but I personally feel that texting in particular is the new DUI of our modern-day road life. The sustained cognitive and physical concentration required to maintain the activity, layered atop its addictive qualities, make it extra deadly—and irresistible.



Restarting the Engines

This past summer and fall turned out to be seasons of tremendous overextension for me, both personally and professionally. After May, intentions to write regularly on this blog sadly fell by the wayside like hundreds of soggy, windblown leaves on a stormy day.

I traveled a lot this year, especially road trips on an epic scale, even for my usual excessive roadtripping standards. As always, hours upon hours spent behind the wheel on the highway is where I do my best thinking, and over the thousands of miles this summer, many things crystallized for me. Among them are a much more precise vision of my upcoming book that is purpose of this blog, a plan of action for my research, and what I’d like to accomplish with my book—which is no less than changing how people drive in America on a national scale. To this end, I plan to take the next year and a half to vigorously research, interview, travel, drive, and learn.

I look forward to sharing these ideas with you in the coming entries, and happily resuming my writing here. Among the upcoming entries this winter will be reflections on learning to drive stick shift, the vagaries of navigating through traffic at Costco, how women can (and should) get more education on caring for their cars, and how singing might be a good thing to do while driving on icy roads.

As always, I would love for you to comment here on the blog, share your experiences and thoughts, and suggest ideas for future blog entries and the book, anytime. The more the merrier!


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