Are You a Good Driver?

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Grassroots Motorsports as Publisher Tim Suddard’s “Starting Line” column.

As racers, we sit secure in the knowledge that of course we’re the best drivers on the planet. We understand car control. We know our cars’ limits. We can put our SUVs within an inch of any Jersey barrier or traffic cone—especially if we autocross. It goes without thinking that we’re good at it.

Well, I have been thinking about it lately. A lot. You see, my son just turned 15, and a few weeks ago I took him to get his learner’s permit. My wife volunteered to take him to the license bureau, but I insisted that I be the one to take him.

I wanted to be there when he got that very important piece of paper. Heck, for car guys, getting your learner’s permit is one of those important moments in life—like graduating from school or getting married. I was damned sure not going to miss it.

As usual, I got hung up at the office trying to sell one more ad and was running late. Since I wanted Tommy to have his first official drive in something cool, I had taken the M3 to the office that day. I was glad I had done so once we were on our way to get his license, because I needed to make some time. As I was roaring down the highway and then flicking that fantastic chassis through the off-ramp, however, the irony of what I was doing really hit home: Here I was taking my son to get his learner’s permit, and what kind of example was I setting?

Sure, I know what I am doing. Heck, I win races. Like all of our readers, I am an excellent driver—just ask me. But on the race track, everyone is on equal footing. Everyone knows where they are going. Everyone is going roughly the same speed. Which is not at all the case on the street.

As I watched my son drive home from the license office, it brought back memories of what it’s like to drive for the first time. Tommy has been driving both karts and cars since he was 8. He can turn lap times nearly as fast as my own. He can back up a trailer, shift anything made, and has good car control skills. Still, he was nervous as heck as he faced pedestrians, stop signs, bicyclists and intersections for the first time. The realities of driving in public are different from those of circling a race track.

I got a couple of even more sobering reminders of this a few days later, when I was in Orlando for the PRI show. We were invited to an evening party, and since I knew that I would want to have a beer or three, I asked a friend to drive. During that drive, this friend instantly starting following too closely, got involved in a cell phone conversation and, frankly, scared me.

Now don’t get me wrong: this guy is a great racer. He has the national titles to attest to his skills. But his driving style got me to reevaluate my own habits.

As a racer, I have no fear of following someone by just a few car lengths at 80-plus mph. Heck, on track we get a lot closer than that—and run at higher speeds. I also don’t fear diving in on someone. On track, that is considered a good pass.

As I get older, I am starting to realize that while my skills are there—and I can boast of very, very few collisions both on track and on the street—I am probably not the most courteous driver. I know that I am not making my passengers comfortable, and I am definitely not setting a good example for my kids.

This style of driving can cause a lot worse than just a few ruffled feelings. The day after my harrowing ride with my friend, I received some very, very disturbing news: My longtime friend, customer and supporter Sylvain Tremblay had just lost his wife in a traffic accident. An overzealous SUV driver clipped another car, then came through the median and hit her head-on. I don’t know the full story—no one probably ever will—but a dear friend has lost his partner. Two boys have lost their mother. And it’s for no good reason.

It wasn’t me and it wasn’t you that hit Carol Tremblay and devastated a family, but it could have been. You can argue that you have too much skill for that to happen to you, or that your performance tires and aftermarket shocks make your car handle too well for an accident like that to be possible. That’s a false belief. We all need to be aware of our actions, and to take responsibility for them. And sometimes that means realizing that in an imperfect world, we need to leave a little more room for mistakes.

I know that I have started to take it a little easier behind the wheel. It may not last, but I hope it does. Honestly, it has been rather relaxing—and now I’m noticing that a lot of other drivers are impatient and, as a result, causing problems.

I have also renewed a promise to myself to spread the word about teaching new drivers proper car control. Now, in my household no child is allowed to drive until they have proven their car control skills in either an autocross, kart or school situation. It needs to go beyond that, obviously, so I have also spoken with The Tire Rack’s Matt Edmonds and pledged this publication’s support for the Street Survival School, a collaborative effort between The Tire Rack, BMW CCA and the SCCA Foundation to teach youngsters how to handle an automobile.

We’re also working with Andy Pilgrim and the Shriners Hospital about ways to promote their efforts to educate teen drivers. The pro driver began speaking to high school students more than 15 years ago about safe driving, and is now working with Shriners Hospital to distribute copies of “The Driving Zone,” an educational DVD he made in collaboration with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the topic. (It’s also available on his website.)

We will do all we can to promote these programs, including trying to get more parents involved. Both of my kids will be going through the Street Survival school as soon as they’re old enough.

I have been writing these columns now for 25 years. I think about every one of them before I start hitting the keyboard. I try to balance them between racing and hot rodding, between serious and not so serious. I try to stay upbeat, not get too preachy and write stuff that you will want to read about. Sometimes, however, the message is just too important to be couched in a bit of entertainment. If we take our driving responsibilities a little more seriously, and put the proper emphasis on educating new drivers, perhaps we can prevent just a few senseless tragedies. I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to a lady who spent her adult life supporting and cheering on some of the most talented drivers in our scene.

If you’d like to express your sympathies directly to the Tremblay family, they have requested that in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The Carol Tremblay Children Trust Fund, 10870 NW 52nd Street, Sunrise, Florida 33351.

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Comments
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matt
matt New Reader
4/15/09 9:26 p.m.

ive always liked these type of storys, not the tragic loss of life thats just a shame and my prayers go out to them. but the principle of regaurdless of how good we are or THINK we are we are not in control of the driver in the suburban doing 90 in the rain, or the teenager chatting it up on the cell phone while checking her make up. we have to leave a margin of error and sometimes even that isnt enough and sometimes there is absolutely nothing we can do but pray. i try and share these storys with my friends and others that have kids or dont but its absolutely amazing at the resistance that is met to taking these types of classes. my neighbors daughter is going for her permit and shes so nervous about driving she couldnt even put the truck in gear. hopefully the more people hear about these classes the more can be changed. heck, even i want to take one of these classes. sometimes going back to the basics can teach ya something. so keep em coming.

mortimersnerd
mortimersnerd New Reader
4/29/09 12:54 a.m.

I appreciate this column a great deal. My wife and I were t-boned by an 18 year old in an F-150 that ran through an intersection with 2 stop signs on it. My wife was driving, but my racing experience wouldn't have prevented the wreck. My 12 week old son was in the car with us. Everyone walked away (I limped-scheduled for hip surgery next month). This was an event that brought home my own driving habits, and the things I do that put others at risk. I don't want to have to live with the idea that I took out someone else's kid because I was doing something stupid. No matter how good a driver I am, I can't control all the variables at the track, let alone on the street. Thanks for the excellent reminder.

spin_out
spin_out Reader
5/1/09 2:38 p.m.

I tought at a street survival school last Sunday. It's just great to see the students noticably improve in just a few hours.

MFE
MFE New Reader
6/5/09 1:10 p.m.

I've instructed with Street Survival for several years now, and while it's tremendously gratifying to pass on what we know and see the development of students throughout the day, it's frustrating how hard it can be to recruit students for the program. Very few 16-21 year olds think they can benefit from it at all, and very few parents understand that it's not a racing school. So I appreciate the recent ramp-up in efforts to promote this program.

misterturbo
misterturbo New Reader
7/24/09 6:16 p.m.

so true so true. looking back at the way i used to drive when i was 16 i am probably lucky to have lasted this long :P My fiance always jokes about how i drive around town: slow like a turtle, always plenty of distance. She drives like a hellion always right up on top of people.

Leave the hot footing for the track and autocross. The only thing that scares me driving anymore is what the "other" guy is doing. And if more people realized what they were doing and paid more attention things would be a lot safer. Nothing scares me more than the thought of driving on the Washington dc beltway (495), where the speed limit is 55, and people do 90...weaving in and out of traffic, while eating a burger, while talking on their cell phone. Ive actually seen people READING the paper on the freeway....i cringe.

Highway8
Highway8 None
8/2/09 4:41 p.m.

I am a Highway Patrol Officer and a regular attendee at HPDE. I had this same type of conversation with myself and my father just 2 weeks ago.

I have been to 100's of collisions andalmost all of them had the same common denominator. Drivers not paying attention and or being in a hurry, and it is not always the guilty person who is involved in the collision. Many times the Bad Driver drives away untouched but his/her actions caused other drivers to react which results in a collision.

It took me a few years into my carrier before I really learned what it meant to be a good driver on the street. It takes car control, a high visual horizon, your eyes need to be moving and checking the mirrors and most important, it takes patiance and respect for everyone on the road. If we get in a hurry on the street we might get where we are going a little faster but its not worth it if I put others at an increased risk of a collision.

I hope to see more and more street survival driving schools so our young drivers can really learn how to be a good driver.

Lut3s
Lut3s
9/12/09 2:09 p.m.

I'll go ahead and confess that I've only been driving for 5 years, but seeing as how I'm only 21, I don't think I need to explain why.

I couldn't agree more with most of what I've been reading in the article, and the comments. Just this morning I was on my to work behind a white neon. We were driving along and passed a crosswalk where this gentlemen decided to make a full-out stop. I obviously wondered what in the world he was doing because I've driven that road literally hundreds of times and there is no stop sign at that intersection. From this and even past experiences, misterturbo, I must agree, "The only thing that scares me driving anymore is what the “other” guy is doing." There's been countless times that I could've been in a wreck by no-fault of my own, (of course in my earlier years, I've gotten very lucky a couple times by noone's fault but me) but by my good graces nothing's ever happened if I can do a safe job preventing it.

Do not get me wrong, I'm a car-guy like the readers of your magazine and I always like instances of "Spirited Driving" but I prefer to keep it on the track and in controlled environments than on the street where there are more variables involved. The best way to get teenagers to listen though is to get other teenagers to talk to them. Let's be honest here, everyone was a teenager once, they should know that teenagers don't listen to anyone but other teens.

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