More than any other country in the world, the United States today lives in its automobiles. Along with the abundance and variety of cars, however, there have come problems, the most serious of which is safety. Fortunately, much has been accomplished in this field, and each year driving has become, comparatively, safer. But much more remains to be done, for too many Americans have grown careless and lazy in their highway habits. In this issue Rodger Ward, winner of the Indianapolis "500" in 1959, contributes the first article in a three-part series designed to lead U.S. car owners to happier motoring, whether in a city tunnel (opposite) or on the open road. In later issues, Australia's World Champion Driver Jack Brabham will show you how to drive a sports car and England's pretty Pat Moss, a champion rally driver, will discuss motoring under the foulest of foul-weather conditions.
'IT'S MEANT TO BE FUN'
For a long time now, this country has been working up a bad case of nerves over its traffic safety record. Motorists are warned of the slaughter on the highways and advised to drive defensively at all costs. Newspaper and radio accounts of holiday traffic casualties sound like wartime battle reports from Omaha Beach or the Changsha Reservoir.
Nevertheless, after nearly 25 years of civilian driving and 15 years on the speedways, I still believe, as I did when I jumped into my first Model T Ford, that driving is meant to be fun. I also believe that it can be just about as safe for the individual driver as he wants to make it.
January 30, 1961
Admittedly, I race cars, but I haven't the slightest desire to break my neck in an automobile—on or off the track. I race to express myself; racing is the thing I do best. I accept the risk as part of my professional job. As for the highways, I drive on them to get from one place to another as smoothly and enjoy-ably as I can. I like the solid feel of a steering wheel in my hands and a responsive gas pedal under my foot. I think most Americans do, too.
In both cases, it's fun; but the idea of taking pleasure in driving is becoming more and more submerged as this country becomes increasingly jittery about traffic dangers. I think it's a shame.
For one thing, I don't believe a man can be scared into the proper mood in which to approach the art of good driving any more than a boy can be cuffed and kicked into an appreciation of, say, violin playing. For another, the traffic situation isn't as dismal as many U.S. drivers have been led to believe. Turn to the chart on the next page and look at the statistics: a quarter of a century ago, in the year 1936, there were almost exactly as many fatalities as there were last year—38,000. But in 1936 there were only 40% as many cars and trucks in use. Considering the number of miles driven today and the number of cars on the highways, the traffic death rate has declined dramatically. Driving, clearly, is safer in 1961 than it was 25 years ago.
Granted, 38,000 deaths and nearly 2½ million injuries in one year are deeply disturbing figures. They demand everybody's constructive concern. But a jittery driver is a bad driver. What is needed today is not fear but confidence. If motorists are to realize their full potential for safe and pleasurable driving, they must, first of all, be made aware of the solid improvement that has already been made in safety. From there they can go on to acquiring or sharpening good driving habits.
Of all the skills in driving, the most important is concentration. Everyone can appreciate how vital it is to concentrate in racing, where split-second decisions must be made at speeds up to 185 miles an hour. Out on the highway the margin for error is considerably wider. But for just that reason the problem of staying alert is more difficult.
Everything about the Indianapolis "500" tends to keep my mind fully engaged: the speed, the competition, the necessity of getting through the turns at something near, but never beyond, the limit of tire adhesion. On the highway, an extra, conscious effort is needed to keep one's concentration at high pitch. Mile after routine mile goes by. Suddenly a tractor creeps onto the highway ahead from a side road. Any of a dozen minor emergencies like that might occur on a given trip, yet be safely disposed of if the driver is concentrating as he should.
This mental preparedness should begin before a driver ever starts a trip, whether it is a 20-minute run to the office or a 20-day swing around the country. Getting set, getting in the mood, is as important to him as it is to a sprinter tensed in the starting blocks. Anything that increases his capacity for enjoying cars and stimulates his pride in mastering them is bound to make the proper frame of mind that much easier to come by.
His next duty is to be sure, positively sure, that his car is dependable and fully equipped. I wish every driver could see for himself how much effort goes into the preparation of the Indianapolis racing cars. Every car has a crew of expert mechanics. Every critical component is tested for flaws and replaced if defects are discovered. I would never accept an unraceworthy car. Nor would I ever think of accepting second-rate service for my passenger cars. It is false economy of a particularly dangerous kind for a driver to pinch pennies on mechanical upkeep. Thoughtless neglect is just as inexcusable.
Wise owners have their cars gone over periodically at a reputable garage—and without fail before every long trip. Wheel alignment, proper headlight adjustment, brakes, battery, muffler, steering assembly, shock absorbers—these are some of the most important items that all drivers should have checked regularly and conscientiously.
Tire pressures should be checked routinely whenever you buy a tankful of gas. You may not realize how dangerous underinflation can be on the highway. Among other things, it causes excessive sidewall flexing, and this produces excessive heat buildup, which is the great destroyer of tires. The manufacturers' recommended pressures will give-a nice, soft ride.
That's fine in town. But at today's high sustained average speeds on turnpikes, thruways, expressways and the like, those pressures are too low. Have the service station man add three or four pounds to the recommended pressure whenever you take a trip.
As you can imagine, I believe in the benefits of safety equipment. Most of the new cars come with padded dashboards and visors. They all have dished steering wheels to make the steering column less menacing in case the driver is pitched forward. It is up to the individual driver, though, to provide himself with some basic safety equipment—above all, seat belts. There is no more important safety item than seat belts. If they were used by all drivers the drop in traffic fatalities and injuries would be considerable. One of the more conservative estimates made after careful study of crashes by Cornell University research scientists is that universal use of seat belts would decrease major and fatal injuries by 35%.
Seat belts aren't costly, nor are they bothersome to use. They can easily be obtained in all parts of the country. They will be installed on new cars at the factory if the buyers so specify. So far, unfortunately, not many have done so. Eventually, the states may make belts required equipment on all cars. They should.
It is not until a driver's mental and mechanical tune-up is accomplished that he is really ready to take the wheel. As he does, he should sit back comfortably and grasp the wheel in the reliable 10-to-2 position, in other words, with the left hand where the minute hand of a clock would be at that time and the other at the hour position. Both hands should be on the wheel. I know from experience that a person's ability to control a car falls off drastically if one hand is playing hooky. And once on the road, he must be prepared for any of hundreds of different situations.
It serves no purpose to attempt to review here all the things that could happen; as I said before, it does no good to scare people. But there are certain fairly common predicaments motorists get into, and it is surprising how few know what to do to extricate themselves from them. You can see for yourself by trying this little quiz:
What do you do if: 1) A tire blows out at turnpike speeds? 2) Your engine dies at a place where you cannot safely drive off the pavement? 3) You lock up the brakes and begin to lose steering control while making a sudden stop? 4) You are trying to get back on a parkway after fixing a flat? 5) A car approaches in your lane, threatening a head-on collision?
These are questions I often ask myself. They help to keep me alert and aware of my driving. Now that you have had a moment to think them over, check your answers against mine: 1) Brake very gently or not at all; steer firmly to a gradual stop. 2) Park as far to the right as possible; run immediately to signal cars approaching from the rear. At night leave your driving lights on, warn following traffic with flares or flashlight. 3) Immediately lift your foot and then use cadence braking—quick, repeated stabs to prevent the brakes from locking again. 4) Turn your wheels at a deep angle, cut them back as soon as you are on the road. 5) Don't freeze at the wheel. Keep your nerve. First honk your horn and flash on your lights, in case the oncoming driver hasn't seen you. If he doesn't react, or can't regain his lane, pull to the extreme right, putting two wheels or all four off the pavement. If you have to, hit a ditch, a stand of saplings or low bushes or scrape a retaining fence rather than risk a certain head-on accident. For a different head-on situation, while passing another car, see the diagram on page 41.
Every kind of driving requires preparation and concentration; night driving requires the most. More than half of all fatal accidents occur at night, although night traffic accounts for only a fraction of the total flow. At night the driver's field of vision is sharply reduced. There is the glare from oncoming headlights. Check the vision chart on this page, and if you are not seeing properly see an eye specialist. In the meantime, slow down to a speed your eyes can comfortably adjust to.
If you have any doubt about your ability to cope with night conditions, cut your late-hour driving to the bare minimum. I have asked my wife to do the driving on dozens of night trips because, to be perfectly frank, I get sleepy at bedtime. I know Jo can stay awake.
In city driving, the law does not require you to keep cool in congested traffic, but you will be less vulnerable to accidents if you do. Don't ride the tail of the car ahead—especially in fast-moving traffic on city expressways, where rear-end collisions are all too common. Drivers seem to have an impulse to bunch together. Resist it. Remember that many more accidents occur at low, city-level speeds than at relatively high speeds. Have you ever inadvertently walked into a door? If you have, you know what a shock it is. Walking fast, you might be going five miles per hour. Consider what the effect would be of hitting a windshield or steering wheel at only 20 mph—four times that speed, yet a crawl in a car.
Turnpikes present different problems, as do ordinary two-or three-lane highways. The trouble with turnpikes is that a driver is not usually required to do much more than point the car in the right direction. A state of reduced alertness, usually called highway hypnosis, is very difficult to avoid. Sixty miles an hour begins to seem like 30. Possible dangers seem a million miles away.
To fight this condition, shift your driving position frequently, look from side to side rather than continuously down the long, hypnotic strip of pavement ahead, sing, whistle, wiggle your toes—anything within reason. Above all, remember how fast you are going.
Be guided by your speedometer when you have lost your sense of true speed. Maintain an adequate distance between your own car and the one ahead. This should be no less than one car length for every 10 miles an hour of speed—for example, six car lengths at 60 miles an hour. That distance should be increased by several lengths at night or in bad-weather driving (see chart below).
Take care not to fall into the error of believing that your car handles at 60 miles an hour approximately the same way it does at city speeds. It doesn't, and this is important to understand. Consider this situation: you are doing 60 in light traffic on a broad, straight turnpike, keeping pace with the car just ahead. You are following too closely. The car ahead slows abruptly to avoid something you haven't seen. You are too close to escape a collision simply by braking hard. You have to swerve sharply around the problem car into the open lanes. You turn the steering wheel but discover your car isn't veering as sharply as you had expected. You turn the wheel farther. Now you have overcorrected—and possibly you have begun to spin.
Here is what went wrong. As speeds increase, it takes a greater steering-wheel displacement to effect a road-wheel displacement assuring a given turning arc. In other words, you must turn the steering wheel more sharply at 60 than at 20. But since you have had little or no experience in turning that sharply at highway speeds, your first reaction—the critical one—is ineffective.
The lesson, of course, is that you shouldn't have been crowding the car ahead in the first place; you should never, under any circumstances, invite a situation that is likely to put too great a strain on your technique.
Take pains to get into the proper lane well before you are due to reach a turnpike exit. There is nothing as hair-raising as the sight of a driver suddenly slicing across the flow of traffic from the wrong lane to make an exit he has all but overshot. If you are not in a position to get off, go on to the next exit. Do not, under any circumstances, stop and back up to the exit you missed. Driving onto a turnpike, accelerate whenever possible to approximately the speed of the traffic flow before easing in. Watch out for trucks. Because they're big, they seem to be going slower than they are.
Never permit yourself to run the slightest risk of causing a head-on collision. Any driver or passenger not using a seat belt who survives one is lucky indeed. Head-on accidents occur more often on ordinary highways than on turnpikes, where medial strips separate the driving strips, but they happen on turnpikes, too, when drivers fall asleep or try to see the road through alcohol fumes. On ordinary highways the biggest offenders, of course, are those who pass on hills and curves. It may be maddening to slog along behind a creeping car—personally, I believe there should be minimum as well as maximum speed limits on thru roads—but it has never cost anyone a drop of blood, so keep your temper and wait until you can pass safely. All log jams break eventually.
And—take it from a racing driver—leave racing to us.
RODGER WARD, 1959 INDIANAPOLIS CHAMPION
MILES (Ten Billions)
DEATH RATE (Death Per 100 Million Vehicle Miles)
TEST YOUR EYES
Testing exercises 1 and 2 are quite difficult when done with one eye, simple when done with two. Object of first is to bring fingertips together from a foot apart, of second to step forward and touch pencil point. If using both eyes you fail tests, your eyes may not be fusing images properly and you may be misjudging distances, speed. To test depth perception (3), tie strings to front and back of toy car, then park it directly between two others. This is not as easy as it seems. In glare-resistance test (4), look through tube at 100-watt bulb for five seconds in semidarkness. Within seven seconds you should be able to read this page. Your peripheral vision (5) is poor if, while looking straight ahead, you must move your arm forward more than 20° in order to see your hand. Ideally, you should see outstretched hand at 90°.
STOP IN TIME
1 SIGHT DANGER
2 APPLY BRAKES
Ability to stop is crucial. One's zone of safety (i.e., distance between probable safe stopping point and the object to be avoided) decreases as new factors are added. Thus, as shown above, a one-second reaction time, only one-quarter second slower than normal, cuts 30-mph driver's zone by 11 feet; another 10 mph of speed further reduces zone by 35 feet. Add defective brakes, a hill and poor visibility and there may not be enough space in which to avoid a hypothetical deer on highway. The problem is compounded when two or more cars must stop (lower half of chart). In situation where the leading driver sights a deer and stops just in time (line A), the car following at a safe distance (line B) is able to halt 20 feet from the first. But in another case (C), in which the following driver has an extra half-car-length margin and is going just 5 mph faster than he was before, he cannot avoid a crash, nor can he when he has unwisely crowded to within two lengths of the leader at 40 mph.
THREE CITY PROBLEMS...
Nearing intersection, if accelerator jams, usual—and wrong—reaction is to try to retract pedal. Instead, switch off ignition, simultaneously put on brakes.
Entering intersection, if car suddenly appears at left, braking won't prevent collision. Your best bet is to swerve sharply to right, reducing the impact angle.
Crossing intersection, if car bears down on you suddenly, it is better to accelerate hard, get out of the way than to brake or attempt swerving to one side.
...AND ONE ON THE HIGHWAY
1 Head-on collision with Car C threatens you, in Car A, after you have pulled out to pass Car B on two-lane highway. Best solution (1) is to brake hard, let B go ahead, then tuck in behind.
2 Risky solution is to accelerate decisively (2), sound horn, and try to pull ahead of B, who by then should be slowing fast. If B maintains speed you may have to risk forcing him off road.
3 Disaster course would be to swing left (3), closing C's natural escape route and probably insuring a crash either with you or B. The emergency, of course, should never have been provoked.
In the second installment of "Safe Driving," which will appear in the February 13 issue, Jack Brabham tells the whys and ways of expert sports car driving, proper upkeep.