March 7th, 2007

The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above-average drivers.

– Dave Barry

Let’s face it, we hate everyone else on the road. We’re all absolutely fed up with the terrible drivers. Unfortunately, the bad drivers show no signs of disappearing. If anything, the number of bad drivers seem to actually be increasing. Maybe that’s because we are the very same drivers we hate. Here’s my thoughts on what it takes (and what it means) to be a good driver.

A Brief Detour

Remember how yesterday the guy driving that green SUV nearly hit you when he merged into your lane without signaling? The asshole! What kind of idiot is he?

Well, you did the same thing to me last week. And I did it to someone else the week before that. Everyone makes mistakes while driving. Yes, yourself included. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is a bad driver. It means everyone is human. Keep that in mind next time you see another driver do something really stupid. We all make mistakes, so take a deep breath and just let it go. Fuming in your car isn’t helping you or anyone else.

Have a Driving Goal

The most important thing you need in order to be a good driver is a goal. You should have a clear goal whenever you pull onto the road. I’m not talking about just getting from point A to point B. I’m talking about an overall guiding principle to guide your driving, a driving philosophy, if you will.

Your goal might be, e.g., to maximize safety, certainly a good goal to have. My goal is to promote overall traffic flow. I feel that every driver has a responsibility to other drivers. It’s not just you on the road. It’s a shared resource, and it’s only responsible to try to maximize the utility of that resource. It also turns out that the goal of promoting traffic flow is complementary to promoting safety.

Once you’ve got a goal, you can refer to it to fine-tune your driving. Having a goal won’t put an end to all your mistakes, but you might be surprised how a goal can redefine your behavior in certain driving situations. It’s simple to weigh two options and decide which one will help your goal the most. Constantly evaluating your driving against a strong reference can certainly help you to become a better driver.

An Example: When to Slow Down for a Turn

Lots of drivers slow down before they really need to. They slow down for turns, exits, etc. Some drivers begin slowing down as much as a mile early for highway exits. Let’s weigh this kind of behavior against a reasonable driving goal, and see how it holds up.

  • Safety. By slowing down early, you are no longer following the flow of traffic. You are therefore at a higher risk of being hit by someone behind you who’s not paying attention. If you’re like most of the “early slowers,” you’re also not even braking, you’re just pressing the accelerator more gently, slowing without brake lights, further increasing the chances of an accident. Now, you can say it’s the other driver’s fault if they rear-end you, and that’s fine, but that’s got nothing to do with safety. Increasing safety means you want to minimize accidents, not just minimize the accidents in which a judge will find you at fault.
  • Traffic Flow. By slowing down early, you’re forcing those behind you to slow down unnecessarily. You’re also encouraging them to swerve around you, potentially slowing other lanes down as well (and increasing the chances of an accident, see above). Slowing down early hurts traffic flow unnecessarily.
  • Fuel Efficiency. An interesting argument for the “early slowdown” is fuel efficiency concern. However, in many cases, you aren’t maximizing fuel efficiency by slowing down early. If you slow down too early for some highway exits (e.g., those in which the exit ramp climbs toward an overpass), you’ll have to accelerate again later to reach the end of the exit ramp. You’d likely be better off holding a steady speed and using the exit ramp’s climb to slow you.

As an aside, I also have serious doubts about the efficiency of slowing down while still applying some gas. It seems that for maximum efficiency, you shouldn’t slow down for a turn, exit, or red light until your foot is completely off the accelerator. The wind and the natural resistance of the car’s moving parts will bring your speed down fairly quickly, without braking, if you completely remove your foot from the accelerator. And I can guarantee that your car is burning less fuel when your foot is completely off the accelerator than when you’re lightly pressing the accelerator.

It seems best to slow down only when necessary. If your foot is still on the accelerator, you shouldn’t be slowing down. If your foot is still on the accelerator, then you do not need to slow down yet, and there’s no logical reason to so so.

One More Example: Merging at low speed.

We’ve all seen people merge with highway traffic going 25mph, or try to. It can be infuriating. Rather than just be angry and dismissive, though, it’s again useful to think about why it’s so infuriating.

  • Safety. Merging at low speed is unsafe for two main reasons. First, if you merge moving slower than traffic, someone in that traffic is much more likely to hit you. You’re also more likely to be hit by others behind you who are merging, and who are giving more attention to the traffic they’re merging with than they are giving to you.
  • Traffic Flow. If you merge at low speed, others who are merging behind you are forced to slow down, as are those in the traffic you’re merging with. You’re forcing numerous people to slow down when you merge at low speed. This kind of poor merging can be a major cause of traffic problems on busy highways.
  • Fuel Efficiency. This one’s barely even relevant here. You’re (presumably) going to get up to highway speed eventually. It makes sense to do that before merging. In many (or most) cases, the on-ramp will be sloped downward, which is the perfect place to build speed with low fuel expenditure.

Merge at speed. You should be moving at the same speed as the traffic you want to merge with. Going slower makes it harder, not easier. To be as safe and efficient as possible, always merge at the speed of traffic (but keep an eye out for the guy in front of you trying to merge at 25mph).

Put Your Goal Into Practice

I’m sure you can come up with plenty of other examples of driving problems, so I won’t bore you with any more. The point isn’t just to pick out examples of bad driving, but instead to decide why they are examples of bad driving. When you see someone do something stupid while driving, ask why it’s stupid. Determine why they shouldn’t have done that, so that you can truly know why you shouldn’t do it either.

But don’t stop there. Once you’ve picked your driving goal, use it to evaluate your own driving habits as well. Part of being good at anything is working to improve. If you want to be a good driver, think about how you drive. Ask yourself how you could improve. Find the parts of your driving that don’t fit well with your goal, and fix them.

Being a good driver means asking yourself where you can improve. Having a goal can help you answer that question.

(Update: I’ve changed the title to hopefully better match the tone of the post. The title was written before the actual post, and seemed out of place.)

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