Behind the wheel, paying attention never goes out of style

When I think about my greatest moments behind the wheel of an automobile, a few experiences stand out. My third favorite memory stems from a collection of moments from high school (in the 80s), when my buddy Mark let me take the wheel of his 1964 Ford Mustang (64-and-a-half, to be precise) a few times. Mark’s father bought the car during the first month that Mustangs rolled off the assembly line and kept it in tip-top shape to pass it along to his son. It was a sweet ride and just one of the reasons why all of Mark’s friends held the highest amount of respect for his dad. My second favorite driving memory dates back to 2006, when I drove a borrowed Ferrari spider from San Francisco to Carmel. I remember turning off the radio about 15 minutes into the drive so that I could listen to the hum from the engine compartment just behind my right shoulder. No CD or radio station could have produced a sweeter sound.

Given the muscular nature of both of the vehicles described above, it might seem odd for me to say that my greatest driving moment took place in a 2008 Subaru Outback-until you consider the circumstances.

Last fall, I took part in ProFormance Racing School’s One Day High Performance Driving Clinic at Pacific Raceways. I went into the session seeking driver-safety tips from school founder Don Kitch Jr, a veteran of the endurance-racing circuit. In the process, I gained a new respect for the fundamentals of driving.

The thought of racing around Pacific Raceways’ meandering track at speeds topping 100 mph sounded like a true adrenaline rush, which it proved to be. But I was surprised by the amount of mental energy that it took to properly negotiate the nine sets of turns that make up the course, not to mention the “street-survival” drills we performed in our morning session.

The experience, which I wrote about for the current issue of Journey magazine, served as a great reminder of why it’s so important to constantly monitor the activity all around you in any driving environment. It also made me realize how so many other people on the road these days seem to take traffic safety for granted. The people who text or talk on their mobile phones while driving are among the worst, but even many who power down seem all too comfortable simply staring just beyond the hood of their cars. Granted, many people are lucky enough to never have a problem taking this approach, but there is a reason why the term “unexpected hazard” exists. When you encounter one, you typically only get a split second or two to react, and knowing your escape route before you have to use it can literally be the difference between life and death.

You don’t have to be a car expert to notice how more and more cars are being equipped with collision-avoidance features, and this is great progress. The overwhelming majority of car crashes are caused by human error, so anything that car makers do to reduce the likelihood of human error makes us all safer. However, I’m concerned that these collision-avoidance features might give some drivers a false sense of security and lull them into thinking that they no longer need to monitor their surroundings for themselves.

When I shared my concern with Kitch, he brought up an interesting point. “I compare some of these new safety features to the spotter I have when I am racing,” he told me. “My spotter never tells me anything that I don’t already know. When he’s saying, ‘Inside, inside, inside,’ or before he says, ‘car closing,’ I already know that there’s a car there, because I’m using my eyes and I’m aware of my surroundings. These new safety features are nice additions, but they should never tell a driver something that he or she doesn’t already know.”

I’m not sure if Kitch’s class is for everybody, but I can tell you this: Taking it has made me more excited about driving than ever before, even if I am still schlepping around in that aging Subaru.