We’ve already recommended that you look a long distance down the road to anticipate what might happen before it happens, but what really matters is how long it takes for you to stop or change directions before you hit the car ahead of you. We all know that the faster we’re going, the more distance we’ll cover before we can hit the brake pedal, or turn the wheel. We also know that the faster we’re going, the longer it will take to stop, and that we shouldn’t turn the wheel abruptly at high speeds because that will cause the car to swerve.
But we can’t look up our speed and distance in car lengths in some book every time we want to know whether we’re driving too close to the car ahead, or whether the car behind us has enough room to stop if we do have to stop ourselves.
To determine how close you should be to the car ahead of you, all you need to do is count to three. Notice when the car ahead passes a particular point, such as a tree or mile marker. If you can count to three slowly before you get to that point, then you have room to bring your car to a stop, or turn into the next lane, should the car ahead stop or swerve abruptly. No matter how fast you’re going, it will take three seconds for you to get your foot from the gas to the brake, and bring the car to a stop.
What about the car behind you? When you’re passing, or changing lanes, you want enough room to give the car behind a safe space. As you pass the car ahead, wait until you can see them completely in your inside rearview mirror. If you can see them completely in your rearview mirror, it’s safe to move over into their lane. Remember that your side mirrors have been adjusted to cover your blind spots, which are close to you, and that the right mirror says “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”
On the road or on the track, it isn’t enough just to be ahead of the person you’ve just passed before you change your line. You need to be far enough ahead of them to cut over into their path and still give them time to react.
But what about when you can’t see the car ahead? Curves are another place where we often drive faster than we should. After cleaning auto wreckage off curves for many years, the highway departments of America finally figured this out and started posting warning signs, with a suggested speed for that curve.
Unfortunately, most of us see these signs as challenges since we think they are the fastest speed that the highway department thinks the average driver can get their car around the curve. So we see how much faster we can go than the warning sign. “I took a curve at 40 mph that was posted at 20 mph. I guess I’m twice as good as the average driver,” we say.
Too bad that’s not what the sign means. What it means is that, if there is something in the road ahead that you can’t see, the posted speed is the fastest your car can be going and still have time to stop when you do see the obstacle. You can test the laws of physics if you like, but you won’t win.
On an open race track, things will be different. There will be a person on the corner looking around the bend for you, to wave a yellow flag if there’s a problem while you’ve still got time enough to stop. That’s the place to see just how fast you can get the car around the corner, because if the corner worker isn’t waving the flag, you can be sure there isn’t anything there. But on the highway, with no corner worker, it’s best to slow down to the recommended speed. The stalled driver, bicycle rider, or deer you have time to avoid will thank you for it.
That’s enough driving lesson for one day. But if you’ll practice a good driving position, get used to thinking 360 degrees and into the future, and not going faster than you can stop, you’ll be a better driver when your new MINI arrives at your dealer, and be ready for our next lesson in motoring.
Get into the habit of continuously scanning your environment, never letting your eyes pause for more than an instant on any one point before you move on to the next point. Look far down the road, then bring your vision closer. Check your left sideview mirror, then your rearview mirror, then your right sideview mirror. Sweep your eyes across your gauges to check not only that your speed and rpm are where you expect, but also your safety gauges—the gas, temperature, and oil pressure, and “idiot” lights—aren’t signaling any impending problems. Then do it all again, maintaining a complete picture of everything around you that might in any way affect you.
The problem with most drivers is that when they’re in traffic they fixate on the rear bumper of the car ahead of them. If something happens a little further up the road, they don’t notice it until after the car ahead does. Then it’s too late and they don’t have enough time or space to do anything except become part of the accident report.
When you’re scanning all the things in your world—what’s happening far down the road, what the car ahead of you is doing, what’s on either side of you, how wide the shoulders are on the road, what’s behind you and how fast are they overtaking you—you should also be playing a continuous game of forecasting the future.
For example, is that car that just came onto the freeway from the exit ramp ahead going to try to spurt all the way across the road ahead of you and try to cut into your lane? If a car several hundred feet ahead has just put on their brakes, or changed lanes abruptly, could they be reacting to something in the lane that you can’t see yet? Is there a driver tailgating you who might not be able to stop when you do if there is an obstacle in your lane?
The trick is to look ahead, think ahead, and decide ahead of time what you will do if one of the things that could go wrong does go wrong.
A story is told about Juan Manuel Fangio, the famous Argentinian driver of the late forties and fifties—well before our time, of course—in a race in Italy. The photographer on one of the corners said that every time the great driver passed him, Fangio’s front wheel would touch the corner within inches of where it had touched the time before and the time before that, exactly on the fastest line around the corner. Then, on one lap, passing that corner Fangio abruptly swerved wide several car widths to the middle of the track.
An instant later, a crash and smoke from around the corner telegraphed the news of a serious accident. But Fangio’s car came around again on the next lap without problems. He had managed to swerve offline to miss a swerving car that he couldn’t even have seen.
When he talked to Fangio afterward, the photographer asked about the accident. Fangio told him, “Every time I came up to that corner, I could see the crowd looking my way. Then on that one lap, they were all looking the other direction, down the track. So I knew something was wrong and moved off the line so I would have room to handle a problem if there was one there. Sure enough, they had seen the driver ahead lose control of his car and swerve sideways, but I was able to get around him.”
Fangio was not only watching where his car was going, as well as a thousand other details like the condition of the pavement, the feel of his tires, and the gauges on his dash board, he was even aware of what direction the crowd was looking. And noticing a small change in one detail of his surroundings saved his life and allowed him to win the race.
While you may not be able to process information as fast as a famous racing driver from history, you can do the same thing he did. You can be aware of changes in your surroundings, and decide what they might mean to you, so you’ll be prepared to avoid an accident instead of winding up in the middle of it.
Practice this every time you drive so you can react not just to things after they happen, but be ready for anything that could happen. Soon it will seem like you not only have 360 degree vision, but also have the ability to predict the future.
Good Driving Starts Before You Turn the Key
We’re going to start with the absolute basics. How do you sit in your car? As you go faster, you’ll be surprised at the importance of your basic sitting position. We realize it may seem cool to have the seat reclined to the point where the only thing showing above the door sill is a reversed baseball cap. But from that position it is impossible to stay in control when the motoring gets interesting.
As soon as you get in, push your butt back into the seat until your lower back is against the backrest. Now slide the seat forward or back until you can push the clutch pedal all the way to the floor with your left leg straight but your foot at a right angle to your leg. That should put your right foot on the accelerator with your knee slightly bent.
Now adjust the seat back until your wrists can touch the rim of the steering wheel with your elbows straight. In that position, your hands will rest comfortably on the sides of the steering wheel rim with your elbows slightly bent, making it easy to turn the steering wheel. Most important, there should be at least 12-14 inches between your chest and your steering wheel, so that if the air bag explodes it won’t hit you in the chest before it does its job of absorbing your forward momentum.
With you and your seat in the proper position, now adjust the rearview mirrors. The center mirror should show the entire rear window, giving you as much vision directly to the rear as possible.
The Mini Cooper sideview mirrors are there for a specific purpose. They allow you to see the blind spots beside you that you can’t see out of the corner of your eye or in the center rearview mirror. To adjust the left door mirror, lean over until your head is right against the side window. Now adjust the door mirror so that you can just see the left side of your car on the inside edge of the mirror. Adjust the right door mirror by leaning to the center of the car, then adjusting that mirror the same way, so you can just see the side of your car on the inside edge of the mirror.
Now check your whole field of view. The view in your left-hand outside mirror should just overlap the view in your center mirror, and that view should just overlap the view in your right-hand outside mirror. If this is the case, then you’ll have no blind spots in which a car can hide to cause problems when you change lanes or later, on the track when you get ready to make that pass.
You can check this when you get out on the highway. As you pass a car, as soon as you can’t see it out of the corner of your eye, it should be squarely in the sideview mirror. As it passes out of the sideview mirror, it should be completely in view in the rearview mirror.
Now, you can start the car and head out, comfortable, confident, and in control of your car.
Wait a second. Where should you put your hands? Of course, you’ve been told to keep both hands on the wheel – no cruising along with one arm on the window sill and one wrist lazily draped over the rim of the wheel – but at what position? When you took driver training in high school, we’ll bet you were told to keep your hands at “ten and two o’clock” thinking of the wheel as a big clock face. That may have been all right years ago, with large steering wheels and no air bags, but in today’s cars, that won’t work.
For everyday street driving, the best position for your hands is at “four and eight o’clock.” This position is comfortable, allows you to keep both hands on the wheel for quick response in an emergency, and most important, the air bag can deploy without hitting your arms and throwing one through your side window and the other knocking your passenger unconscious.
We should note that if you take the car out on the race track, you’ll probably move your hands up to a “nine and three” position, like your favorite race driver, but on the track you only need to move your hands a few inches each way for most turns, and you want the maximum possible control to cut that corner apex neatly.
One more thing about those hands. A light grip on the wheel is all you need. Squeezing the rim hard and flexing those biceps isn’t going to make the car hold the road any better around the corners. All you will do is tire yourself out.