I won’t for a second assume that anyone drives the way I do — but in some cases, maybe they should.
I’ve not been driving for 71 years, of course. I got my license when I was 16, so I’ve only been driving for 55 years. In that time, I’ve accrued a number of habits for various reasons, usually because of some incident that scared the bejesus out of me, or at least got my attention. Whether these behaviors make sense to you will probably depend on your own experience.
I almost always cover the brake when approaching a green light. Those green lights are sneaky; you never know when they might turn yellow and leave you having to decide whether to slam on the brakes or go on through the intersection. I learned this lesson the hard way, by flunking my first driver’s license test. I was approaching a green light that turned yellow at the last second, and rather than slam on the brakes and risk ending up in the middle of the intersection, I went on through. Wrong. The examiner told me I could be ticketed just as easily for running a yellow light as a red one. I protested, of course. “But I might have ended up in the middle of the intersection.” In a completely unsympathetic voice he said, “Then you were going too fast.” So yes, my foot usually hovers over the brake when I’m approaching a green light. I’d almost prefer the light be red when I arrive, so I don’t have to worry about it.
I always maintain a safe following distance. There are plenty of reasons for doing so around here, not the least being having to see around big trucks and not wanting to get hit by any of the rocks and gravel dropped by or kicked up by other cars. And in wet weather, you don’t want to drive in the spray of the vehicle ahead of you. The problem, as every driver knows, is that your safe following distance is perceived by others as an invitation to cut in front of you, forcing you to drop back some more, inviting someone else to cut in, etc.
It’s also a good idea to keep some space in front of you when traffic is stopped or slowed, in case the guy behind you is distracted and plows into your rear end. That happened to me once, and most of the damage to my car was on the front end because he pushed me into the car in front. And of course, leaving some space in front gives you a bit of room to move if it looks like that joker behind you isn’t slowing down.
If the lights are changing and traffic is stopped in all directions, and I’m the first car in line when the light turns green, I hesitate to move. If I’m the first one into the intersection and no one else seems to be moving, I have a little moment of panic: Did I really have a green light? Why isn’t anyone else moving? Maybe I didn’t hear the ambulance or train that’s coming …
Oh, trains. I’m not real comfortable crossing railroad tracks, even if there are no signals, no flashing lights, no lowering gates. Years ago we, the huz and I, were driving somewhere after dark. Main Street crossed the tracks right next to the train station and we headed across. Suddenly we were blasted with one of those godawful diesel horns or whatever it is that engines have and looked to our left to see a giant headlight looming above us about 50 feet away. For a split second, we knew we were dead. Toast. Kaput. Luckily, the engine was stopped at the station; if it had been moving, I wouldn’t be telling the story today.
I cringe when someone turns from a side street into a lane on my left side. I can’t help it. It happens all the time in city traffic, and that incoming car usually doesn’t hit you. But let it happen just once, like when a 16-year-old driver misjudged the lane she was turning into and instead turned right into the side of my car, and you’ll start cringing, too.
I go to my brakes as soon as I see brake lights ahead of me. You never know if the cars ahead are momentarily slowing or if they are all making emergency stops. Best to be prepared. I had a terrible scare once when the cars ahead suddenly stopped dead under an overpass at the bottom of the hill, and the cars behind, just over the crest of the hill, couldn’t see and were still approaching at 70 mph. As each car screeched to a stop, less stopping distance remained for the next car. A crash was inevitable. I wasn’t driving at the time; I was in the passenger seat holding my infant son (no infant car seats in those days). We debated whether it would be more dangerous to stay put or pull into the median, as several other drivers had done. Before we could decide, a giant flatbed truck fully laden with pipe came roaring over the hill behind us. Rather than plow into two lanes full of cars, the trucker cut over to the median and wiped out the cars that had pulled over. So yes, brake lights coming on in the middle of an expressway jammed with 70-80 mph traffic freak me out.
Situational awareness. Defensive driving. I’m a believer.
There’s one other thing that isn’t so much a driving habit as just an emotional response. Emergency vehicles. Fire trucks and ambulances. I try to be extremely aware and give them as much room as I can as quickly as I can. Not just because it’s the law, but because sirens mean someone is in desperate trouble, and every second counts. I remember several different house fires in our family when those first responders were racing to save lives and property. And I remember the time when our best friends’ son stepped in front of a speeding car on a highway frontage road. The only thing that saved him was the fact that an ambulance happened to be stationed on call just a quarter mile away. So when I hear sirens, I give them and myself lots of room. Because I’ll have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. And somewhere a little boy might be dying.