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Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do in our everyday lives. This is partly true because of the nature of driving, but it is also true because people do some very foolish things. They tailgate, they drink and drive, they look at scenery while driving too fast to watch the road, they back out of driveways without looking, they pass on hills and curves, they overdrive their headlights, and they do a multitude of other things which lead inevitably to accidents. Traditional methods of trying to reduce the accident rate, so for as I am aware, have appealed to reason and emotion, reason by citing statistics and explaining how to avoid accidents, or emotion by dwelling on the human costs of accidents. I would not want to do without these methods, but I think something a little more immediate can be added. I think it is possible to develop an immediate gut-level fear of dangerous situations and practices. This can be done by arranging a series of situations which will result in accidents, but with safeguards to prevent injury. Before describing these situations I will first explain what I mean by a “gut-level” fear.
About a year ago I was walking my dog in a city park. Normally my dog fol1ows her nose, oblivious to all the world except what is tantalizing her sense of smell. In this park is a creek, spanned at one point by a suspended footbridge. The bridge is about sixty feet long, has a sheet metal floor and sides fenced with chain link. It is a perfectly adequate bridge but it does sway a bit. I figured we would go across it and see what might be on the other side. My dog, however, quickly got other ideas. She was no more than five feet onto the bridge when she quickly sensed that something was wrong. Suddenly her sniffing stopped, for her legs were giving her a strong message, a message more important than the most interesting of smells. The message was that the ground was not firm. She spread her four legs wide and stood still. With utmost coaxing I got her about twenty feet out on the bridge, but then she stuck completely solid. She would not go forward. She would not go back. She wouldn’t do anything no matter how hard I coaxed her, Finally I had to pick her up, all fifty-five pounds of her, and carry her back to solid ground. Immediately her legs sent a message to her brain that the ground was again solid, so she went back to sniffing. Several times since then I have tried to get her on the bridge again. Each time she stopped solid at the edge.
Animals have protective reflexes. Some of these protective reflexes take the form of a gut-level fear of certain situations that pose a potential threat. My dog showed such a fear of unsolid ground. Protective reactions such as these are often invisible just because we take them so much for granted. They become visible when we observe closely, or, as in the example I just described, when they pop up unexpectedly. Do humans have any such protective reactions?
Humans certainly do have protective reactions. Again they are not always visible unless we look closely or unless they pop up in unexpected places. A fear of heights is a good example. It has obvious survival value in keeping people on solid ground where they won’t fall off and kill themselves. Someone whose fear of heights is abnormally strong is very much aware of it. It takes intense effort and tremendous will power to go against it. This is especially evident in the efforts some people must put forth to overcome their fear of flying.
A basic body protection mechanism is evident by a very simple experiment. Close your eyes tightly and try to walk around in your own house at a normal pace. Unless you are already blind, or have tremendous will power to suffer banged shins, or have spent months practicing walking around in the dark, you simply cannot walk at a normal pace. You will take one careful half step at a time with arms groping wildly for direction and support. Fear of bumping into things is built into the human nervous system. This is a protective mechanism. Without it a momentary loss of light or sight would have disastrous results. The strength of this protective mechanism is seen in the mental effort it takes to overcome it.
In innumerable ways nature designs animals with built in protections. Many of these protections are purely physical, such as the layer of blubber to protect a whale from the cold, or sweat glands of a human to protect it from the heat. But other protective mechanisms are behavioral - reflexes, fears, or tendencies to act in certain ways - that result in survival advantages. Thus my dog was born with a built in fear of unsolid. ground. This fear is strong. I presume it would override any amount of coaxing or scolding I could do. It would probably be overridden by nothing short of physical pain or some immediate threat to life and limb.
Such fears as my dog’s fear of unsolid ground, or a person’s fear of falling, are not the result of conscious and logical thought. They arise from some level of the brain below the cerebrum. In fact such fears can be found in animals so low that they hardly even have a cerebrum. The term “gut-level” is only descriptive, not scientifically accurate, but I think the term is quite appropriate. Such fears are indeed felt in the gut, I presume as a result of the action of the autonomic nervous system on the intestinal tract. Such fears are strong because they have survival value. Animals who were deficient, for one reason or another, in such fears were at a disadvantage in competition with other animals that did have such fears.
Are there inborn reactions in humans that apply to driving? Do dangerous situations elicit a gut-level avoidance response in drivers? Do drivers feel the fear of a dangerous situation the same way my dog felt a fear of unfirm ground when I took her on the bridge? Or has Mother Nature left us completely unprepared?
There are some defensive reactions that can be observed in driving behavior. A split second before a collision I expect a person would tense up and perhaps throw his hands in front of his face. This would be a gut-level protective reaction. For that matter I expect a careful study by slow motion photography would show quite a number of protective reactions a moment before a crash. Unfortunately this is several seconds too late. What we need. are gut-level fears of situations that have the potential, but not the certainty, of an accident.
If they are to be automatically present, protective reactions must be acquired during the evolution of a species. We have a primate ancestry that included swinging through trees and perhaps this has given us some protective reactions that prepare us for high speeds. Gibbons, and a number of species of monkeys live almost exclusively in tree tops. I should think that a careful study of their body protective reactions would show many reactions that would transfer to high speed driving. Similarly I would expect birds that are accustomed to high speed motion in the air would show protective reactions which would transfer to driving. But unfortunately the most recent evolution of humans has been on solid ground, involving speeds no faster than a person can run. This has not prepared us for the high speeds involved in driving.
Had we evolved during the past two million years with automobiles I expect we would not be inclined to tailgate. We would demand, by a gut-level compulsion, to have a cushion of space around us at all times. I think we do have such a gut-level demand for a cushion of space around us in at least one situation. Put the average person in a corral with a bull or a tiger and he would experience an overriding demand for a cushion of space, no matter how convincingly he had. been told that the bull or tiger was gentle as a kitten. Yet the same person will sit perfectly relaxed twenty feet behind another car doing sixty miles per hour. He has no gut-level fear of this situation, though it presents a substantial danger, because such a situation did not exist in the world of evolving man. Had we evolved with automobiles we would not tailgate, we would not overdrive our headlights, we would not speed on a rainslick road. We would not do these things because it would take tremendous will power to do them, the same will power that a person who fears flying must exert to get on an airplane.
Instead of depending on inborn cautions to protect us when we are driving, we depend on learned cautions. This is obviously all we can depend on, as we cannot repeat our evolution. However there may be ways to make learned caution more effective, more “gut-level”. Phobias are not all inborn. They can be acquired. I have acquired a very healthy phobia of the dentist’s office. Other examples of acquired phobias would be a person’s fear of the cold after he gets caught in a blizzard and almost freezes to death, or a person’s unwillingness to even look at a lake after a boating accident, or a parent’s unreasonable refusal to let her child have a bike after losing another child in a bike accident,
The gist of this article is a number of proposals that are intended to make learned caution more immediate, more on a gut level. The basic idea is to provide situations that are threatening enough to elicit genuine fear or aversion in a person, but still controlled enough to avoid injury. I have not tested these ideas, nor do I expect to be able to do so in the near future. Nevertheless I will outline my ideas and hope that they can someday be put to a test.
The first thing one does in the bump school of driver training is to get a few bumps. The average person thinks of twenty miles per hour as very slow. It is a speed considerably slower than we normally drive, a speed reserved for a few occasions such as passing a school crosswalk or edging out into a crowded intersection. How could anything possibly happen at 20 mph? Of course a great deal can happen at 20 mph. A car can hit something solid at 20 mph with very serious results. The first order of business is to learn by actual experience just what a collision at 20, or even 5, mph is like.
To do this I propose to take an old car, remove the engine, beef up the bumpers and frame, and coast it down an incline into a brick wall. The person inside this car will find out first hand what a collision at 20 mph is like. I personally don’t know what such a collision is like, but I have an idea. I was once driving slowly along a residential street, admiring the scenery, and bumped into the car ahead of me. My head banged the steering wheel hard. enough to momentarily stun me. I regained my senses in a moment or two and got out of the car to survey the damage. There was none The driver of the car ahead wasn’t too happy about being bumped, but neither his car nor mine showed any damage worth reporting to police or insurance companies. This lack of damage, and this was before we bad shock absorbing bumpers, leads me to conclude the impact must have been only about 5 mph. If that is what 5 mph feels like, then what does 20 mph feel like?
I talked about coasting a car down an incline to hit a brick wall at 20 mph. Then I described a 5 mph collision as giving me quite a jolt. Where should we start experimenting? At 20 mph? At 5 mph? I personally would start experimenting at about one mph. I would expect that without a seat belt or a shoulder harness the experiment would start to get dangerous at about 5 mph. I would expect the experiment to start to get very dangerous at 10 or 15 mph even with a shoulder harness and crash helmet.
It might be tempting to provide the learner with a few bumps and then move onto something else. The goal of the bump school is to make the driver cautious, a nd I think a single bump or two would have this effect. However I also think the effect of only a single bump or two might quickly disappear. To acquire a more long term caution it is necessary to get a perspective on bumps. This perspective will come only be experiencing bumps in a variety of situations and in a variety of intensities. There are plenty of people who have been injured in an auto accident, spent time in a hospital, sworn never to be careless again, but then return to their old habits within a matter of months. Isolated bumps, such as one gets in an isolated accident, should not be expected to give a very deep or lasting perspective. Instead, I would expect, the learner needs to experience small bumps, just enough to be uncomfortable, a number of times. The larger bumps, verging on the dangerous must be repeated at least several times. “Superbumps” might even be experienced using crash absorbing mechanisms that are not found on regular cars. With this variety of bumps, and enough learning to put it all in perspective, any caution engendered should be more long lasting.
Once the learner begins to get a perspective on bumps, a conviction that bumps are well worth avoiding, the next step would be to learn how to avoid them. At this point we could return to the classroom and go over the advice and explanation already written up in numerous driving training books. This is worthwhile I’m sure, but more important is to get in the car and learn how to avoid bumps. There are a number of ways to do this.
The first step would be to learn stopping distances, not academically by learning that such andemely dangerous. For such stops from speed I think the “brickwall” would actually be something more like a moveable wooden structure, small enough to give when struck by a car, but massive enough to give a jolt to the passengers of the car. Stopping practice from speeds up to 50 or 60 mph could be done by using mannequins, or perhaps even just a cardboard box placed in the road, instead of the brick wall. This would not give the learner a physical jolt when he miscalculates, but hopefully it would give him a psychological jolt.
I think it occasionally happens that an accident occurs when a car strikes a solid object, but it’s more important to learn to avoid moving objects. Brick walls are not too hard to avoid, but a child darting in the street, the car ahead on the highway, or the car entering an intersection at the wrong time, are involved in a considerable number of accidents. The way to avoid these moving objects is to acquire the habit of keeping an adequate cushion of space all around one’s car at all times. This is not a new idea. We have all been exhorted to keep this cushion of space many times. However to acquire a gut-level demand for this cushion is another thing.
The way to acquire a gut-level fear of hitting child who darts out in the street is to simulate the event as realistically as possible. To do this I would line up a number of cars along the side of a street. Between each two cars would be a person with a child mannequin attached to a pole, so that the mannequin can be shoved out into traffic just in front of a moving car. The learner drives along beside these cars. One of the people with mannequins - the driver doesn’t know which one - shoves his mannequin out and the driver tries to stop in time. To add a bit of realism the mannequins could have heads made of brittle plastic and filled with fake blood. The various factors of this exercise, the spacing of the parked cars, the speed of the moving car, the timing of shoving out the mannequin, and a way of scoring the learner’s performance, would all have to be worked out by experimentation. The idea of all this is that a few good simulations would instill in the learner a gut-level demand for a cushion of space when traveling by a busy school yard.
This exercise could then be turned around. Instead of being the driver of the car that strikes the child, the learner could be the person who is struck. This could quickly get dangerous if done too realistically. One possibility would be to specially pad the front of a car and jump out in front of it as it travels at maybe 10 mph. Another possibility would be to simulate the jolt, but not the accident, by riding a skateboard down an incline into a brick wall. This is the same as the first exercise I described, except now the learner is not surrounded. and protected by a car. Instead he takes his bumps directly on his unprotected body.
Having gone through controlled bumps against a brickwall and having practiced avoiding bumps against a brick wall and a darting child, I think the next order of business would be to practice tailgating. I don’t know if it could be made safe to practice tailgating at 60 mph. There might be no way to control the resulting bumps at this speed. However I think practicing tailgating at about 35 mph could be well worth while. This exercise would require a special track, it couldn’t be done on public streets. It would also require special cars that would take the resulting bumps, effective restraints to protect the passengers, and radio communication between the cars. Then both cars, the forward car and the tailgater, would be connected by a string about ten or twenty feet long. The tailgating car would have to have the more powerful engine. The object of the tailgater in this game is to remain behind the forward car without colliding and without breaking the string. The object of the forward car is to cause a collision or to break the string. The forward car would attempt to do this by unexpected speedups, stops, or turns. The tailgater would attempt to respond to these unexpected maneuvers quickly enough to avoid a collision or breaking the string. The different factors involved in this exercise, the length of the string, the allowable practices of the two drivers, and the allowable speeds, could then be adjusted to develop actual tailgating ability and evasive skill.
It may be argued. that learning to tailgate would increase tailgating. This possibly might be true. I have no way of knowing until I have the opportunity to experiment and find out. My theory, however, is that the bumps acquired in this exercise would be quite severe enough to discourage the practice. My theory is that the average tailgater has never had a bump, or if he has, he cannot put it into perspective. Perspective, as I mentioned earlier, comes from a mass of experience, not from an isolated incident or two. The average driver is driving in ignorance. When some of this ignorance is dispelled, he will be strongly motivated to keep a cushion of space around him.
So far I have described exercises see that prepare one for normal driving under normal conditions. A second major group of exercises, which I will describe only briefly, concerns preparation for mechanical malfunction. I think people as a general rule are oblivious to the idea that something could go wrong with their car while they are driving. This ignorance could be overcome to at least some extent, by providing contrived situations of mechanical malfunction.
Brake failure is among the most dangerous malfunctions that can occur. Fortunately it is easy to simulate. A release valve can be put in the brake line of a car and operated by an instructor sitting in the front seat beside the student driver. The learner and. instructor would then drive around a special course at perhaps 20 mph. At selected times when the driver puts on the brakes the instructor would turn the valve to make the brakes inoperative. This would either cause a crash, or would require evasive maneuvers such as using the parking brake. Other mechanical malfunctions that could be simulated might be the engine dying, the steering locking, the accelerator pedal sticking, or the hood flying open.
In many emergency situations the choice of action is fairly obvious. For example if the accelerator pedal sticks down so that one cannot reduce speed the obvious thing to do would be to turn off the ignition. But would this automatically be done in an actual situation? As another example, if a dog darts in front of your car from one side and. a child darts in front of your car from the other side, do you avoid the child or the dog? Here again the answer is obvious, you should avoid the child before avoiding the dog. But again, is there any assurance that the correct choice would be made automatically.
One approach for preparing for such emergencies is book work in the classroom. Such an academic approach is worthwhile, I am sure, but again I think much more can be done. In a classroom one can only practice in the mind.
Can one practice in one’s mind? Yes, and no. My wife has been telling me for years now that one can practice mentally for emergency situations. I have maintained for years that mental practice - that is, thinking through the possible emergency situation and trying to imprint the right reactions in one’s mind - is ineffective to the point of uselessness. My wife cites as evidence the idea that if one will think the motions of writing “1977” instead of “1976” then one can enter the new year without automatically writing the wrong year on checks and letters. I never quite believed her, but this last January 1 decided to try it. I found that it does work. It used to take me at least through January before I would write the right year. This year, after spending about five minutes a day for several days in mental practice, I had no trouble putting down the right year.
I don’t know what the limits of mental practice might be. Perhaps much more can be accomplished in this way than I had previously expected. If there are emergency situations that simply cannot be simulated, then the bump school of driver training would certainly not reject the classroom approach and mental practice. However I think there can be little doubt that actual practice is much superior to mental practice. The loss of brakes or a sticking gas pedal would be so easy to contrive that it would certainly make sense to go ahead and do so.
A third general category of exercises would be directed toward learning to drive in abnormal circumstances. Low visibility is probably the most common circumstance that creates dangers to driving. Here the bump school would simply call for more bumps, this time caused by low visibility. The tailgating exercise, the darting child exercise, and perhaps others, would be repeated with a foggy windshield.
Icy or slick pavement can be a cause of accidents. Therefore it would seem sensible to learn to drive under such conditions. The way to learn to avoid skidding is simply to practice skidding. The learner would start on an icy road at a relatively low speed. He would then produce little skids by turning or raking too fast. Under the instructor’s guidance he would then advance to higher speeds and bigger skids, with a few resulting bumps.
This part of the bump school is something that I expect is commonly done by a number of people on their own. This is simply because the opportunity presents itself several times each winter. I have no supporting statistics, but I would conjecture that most accidents that happen on ice are “fender benders” rather than more serious accidents, and that this is because people consciously practice driving on ice. However I think it is also true that many people do not take advantage of the opportunities they do have to practice driving on ice. On a snowy winter day the average driver wants only to get to his destination without mishap. He wants to avoid all bumps. Therefore he experiences no bumps. He is supercautious, but supercaution does not develop skill. The bump school of driver training can arrange for practice driving on icy roads with the assurance of safety and with the assurance that bent fenders will not result in a repair bill. Therefore the learner need not be supercautious and he can acquire considerable skill in icy road driving.
Other abnormal conditions that might be covered in the bump school might be d riving on deep mud or snow, driving on loose gravel, driving off and onto a low shoulder, and driving over a flooded street.
I have very briefly described the rationale and content of the “Bump School” as I now envision it. There are many details that I have worked out in my own mind that I have not described here. These details will change when and if the opportunity presents itself to test the main ideas. I hope to report the results at some future time.