Driving habits of a 71-year-old


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.

racingAmbulanceThere’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.

18 thoughts on “Driving habits of a 71-year-old

  1. Believe it; I drive almost exactly the way you do. It is reassuring to know another driver harbors the same fears about what might happen in threatening situations. Very interesting post. I’ve not seen any other blogger address this topic.

    1. Oh good, maybe I’m not so weird after all.. I thought perhaps I’d developed some irrational or overly cautious habits. But maybe it’s just natural to internalize some kind of lesson whenever you’ve had a close call, and perhaps we’ve had similar experiences.

  2. Hi PT,
    I think you should send it to Ronni’s Elder site. Good insight and info for all drivers, though. What struck me first is how well your examples mesh with an online Defensive Driving course from the GSA (General Services Administration) most govt workers take before we can drive a government vehicle on duty. I am a cautious driver by nature; also a few yrs in law enforcement to reinforce the habits as well as a couple of near misses. Thanks for an excellent post!

    1. I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t drive defensively. First, at best, it’s no fun to be in an accident, even if no one is hurt. And second, I’ve always been very defensive about my cars. I don’t want them scratched, much less involved in a collision. Repairs are a crap shoot, paint jobs are always iffy about matching, the value of the car takes a big hit, it may never handle the same again (depending on the damage), your insurance rates are likely to go up, etc.

      Ronni likes to write her own stuff, I think. However, if she wants to address the topic, assuming she hasn’t already, and refer to this post, I’d be delighted.

  3. Sounded to me as if the American motorist is as bad as the Australian; then it dawned on me, the average Yankee driver is a bit more considerate than his/her Australian counterpart, I found driving in the US quite pleasant and good actually, mind I only drove from San Francisco to Las Vegas via Yoshemite National Park (Heaven on Earth) and back which was not nearly as nerve racking as driving say from Sydney to Melbourne and back.

    All you say about bad drivers in the US you can multiply tenfold in Australia and you drive on the wrong side of the road too, so double it 🙂

    I’ve been driving since 1953 and from 1973 to 2001 I drove for a living and covered over 2 million kilometres without any major problems I did get a ticket once for going in excess of the speed limit, thing is that at the time the camera clocked me I was actually at a toll booth further up the highway and had a receipt dated and timed exactly the same as the date/time on the speeding ticket. True story 🙂

    1. I’ll wager your heavy urban traffic doesn’t approach ours, and that’s where the driving can get really tough. Thousands of people trying to get places in a hurry for appointments or whatever, and innumerable types of delays that seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Tempers get short, drivers push the envelope on safety and politeness. Open highways are a cinch by comparison.

      1. You’d be surprisd PT the Sydney traffic is a bad as anything I’ve seen in Manhattan, in fact I think worse, it’s rather a large city of just on 5 million people and our road system is a complete and utter shambles, we have very few points to cross our beautiful harbour, at times it will take 20 minutes to half an hour to cross the Sydney Harbour Bridge, once you’ve made the access roads. In the morning peak periods there are around 14 lanes of traffic squeezing into 4 bridge lanes. 🙂 or 🙁

        Governments have been loathe to spend money on roads will not spend anything on public transit (except when tha absolutely have to) and each successive government blames the preceding government for their lack of iterest in the problem then promptly forget it themselves. Hypocrites all!

        It used to take me up to 90 minutes to drive from Manly on Sydneys Northern Beaches into the CBD of Sydney some 26 kilometres (16miles) wich probably is an average speed of around 16kmh. Ridiculous!

        1. Ugh! I’m so glad I don’t have to commute anymore, even though your drive was twice as bad as anything I ever endured. Add to that having to worry about doing it in bad winter weather and I had some serious stress going on before I even get to work.

          1. Fortunately we don’t have the worry about winter weather I think the coldest I’ve ever experienced since moving to Sydney is 7°C ( about 44°F), snow, frosts are unknown where I am; we do get the occassional fog which, compared to San Francisco (our sister city), is just a fairly heavy mist. Top coats and gloves are unheard of here, although down south in Melbourne it does get cold and you do need them sometimes.

  4. Generally a good post with good advice. However, I think your driving test instructor may have been wrong. Yes, a yellow light is a matter of judgement. However, I do know that if the light turns yellow when you are only a few yards from the intersection and the speed limit is, say, 35 or more, you are just asking for a rear-end collision by slamming on the brakes hard. (Nobody can react instantly, and especially the guy behind you who is busy texting his girl friend.)

    Like you, I’ve grown cautious over the years. I even took a grueling peripheral-vision computer training course my auto insurance company offered me earlier this year. It really increased my awareness and reinforced good habits like the ones you mentioned. It must work because they paid me $20 to see it through!

    As chance would have it, the wife and I just returned from a week’s vacation in Maine where we rented a car to drive from Portland to Boothbay Harbor and back. There I was, age 77, faced with an unfamiliar car and unfamiliar roads. I haven’t rented one for 10 years or more. Accordingly, I arranged for us to ride a van to a hotel in Portland the first night rather than drive an unfamiliar car at rush hour on arrival after an exhausting airline trip.

    The next morning I had plenty of time to get familiar with the downtown rental, which turned out to be very different from what I requested. (The SUV they had for us was so high the wife couldn’t step up into it.) Our ride turned out to be a long Chrysler Town and Country that reminded me of a hearse. The controls were considerably different from our 9-year-old car at home, with the cruise controls on the wheel rather on a stalk, for example. I spent about 20 minutes before driving to understand the radio, climate controls, lights, wipers, odometer, etc. And, I set the side mirrors in the mode I’m accustomed to, centered on the two blind spots rather than rearward. Result: safe trip.

    1. I suspect the driving test examiner may have been trying to make a point with an impressionable 16-year-old. And he certainly succeeded. I never did find out for sure if a person can be ticketed for going through a yellow light — and it may well vary from state to state. It’s a judgment call in any case and if it happens to be a traffic violation, you’d better just hope some cop behind you isn’t try to fill his or her monthly quota.

      My insurance company has referred me to an online test that would knock $100 off my annual premium. I keep meaning to do it …

      Ugh, I don’t envy your driving an unfamiliar car in unfamiliar territory. I’m kind of a tense driver anyway, even in my own car. (I’ve never understood how people can drive in a laid back position with one arm out the window and the other draped casually over the top of the wheel.) I hate driving someone else’s car; it’s almost as though I’m driving for the first time. Everything changes from one car to the next, one year to the next. I still haven’t completely memorized all the controls on the car I bought three years ago! I don’t drive in inclement weather enough, for example, to know for sure where all the different wiper, washer, and defroster controls are for windshield, rear window, side mirrors, etc. (I know where they are; I just have to do trial and error to get the one I want.) They’re all on the same stalk, which clicks up and down and has several bands that rotate around it and a button on the end. I’m pretty sure the button squirts washer fluid on either the windshield or the rear window, but wouldn’t swear to it. (That must sound pretty awful to people who drive day in, day out, to work and back, in every kind of weather. Amazing what you lose when you don’t have to drive every day.)

  5. Pat the Pure, my bride, who has entered her seventh decade of life and her 55th of driving without a single ticket or accident has two habits which infuriate and frighten me.
    On the occasions where she is in charge and I am in the passenger’s seat, I start counting, in a measured manner, the number of seconds which pass from the time I would begin braking and when she begins…the average is around 7 seconds. Count that…. 7…. seconds _ _ _ _ _ _ _ and imagine sailing along in traffic with a stopped vehicle or red light quickly being overtaken…during that 7 seconds I develop white knuckles and by the final brake application, if lightly clothed I would be chomping segments of upholstery “no-hands”

    btw: HER brakes and tires last about 25k to 35k…I triple that.

    Her other trick is swinging across both lanes making a traveling blind spot until she settles into her chosen lane,
    Picture: Traveling south, inside lane(WHY, you ask is she cruising in the inside lane..?
    She approaches a “T” intersection, 4 lane, gotta go left of right..think a car coming from the West…or alongside HER in outside lane..light turns green, she starts into a left turn and grandly sails over into the outside lane. When settled in, she checks the rear view to see if or why she “made it”

    If I were to suggest turning more sharply into the eastbound, inside lane…then, signaling And THEN edging out to outside she presses the dash button which activates an old raspy tape which says,”I HAVE NEVER GOTTEN A TICKET, NOR HAD AN ACCIDENT.”
    I grit teeth, and quietly anticipate her next delayed decelleration.

    And another thang…she has installed limosine dark tint to all her windows (Yes, including the top half of windshield) By the time the nightime light bounces off the tinted rear view mirror, then through the tinted driver’s window and passes through her tinted shades, the image of the forest green garbage containers , invisable, would be crushed had I not rolled them halfway down the yard.

    Damn!!! I feel BETTER!

    1. Had to chuckle over “Pat the Pure.” Always fun to hear how spouses refer to each other.

      I particularly sympathize with your deceleration dilemma. That’s the way my daughter-in-law drives and on the rare occasion when I’m riding with her, I have to focus on conversation to avoid putting my foot through the floor while at the same time thinking “brake … brake!BRAKE!!” But I tend to do that a lot when I’m not the one in control.

      I’m leary of left turns for reasons similar to what you describe, but only because I’m so fearful of swinging wide and into someone else (in the case of double turn lanes) or cutting it too close to the inside and clipping either a concrete curb or a car waiting in an oncoming turn lane.

      I think there are two kinds of drivers in the world — those who assume everyone else will get out of their way and those who assume everyone else is an idiot bent on destruction. Personally, I fall into the latter category. The reality is probably somewhere between the two extremes … but why take a chance?

    2. She’s worse than the War Office, who has a similar method of braking, it’s really nerve racking and I feel for you, I thought the WO was bad at around 3 – 4 seconds before slamming on the brakes but P the P takes the cake. Probably because she has 30 more years driving experience. The WO didn’t start driving until she was around 40, I just hope she doesn’t slow down to join Pat the Pure; my ticker wouldn’t take it!

        1. Precisely. I start to apply my brakes early when I drive I don’t stop, the vehicle comes to rest he says modestly 🙂 from 1976 to 2003 when I made my living as a driver covering in excess of 2 million kilometres in that time I think I knew every road, dangerous crossings, traffic hazards, traffic lights etc in the Sydney metro area and could read the road conditions in all weathers.

          But the War Office slams the brakes on late and jolts to a stop. Sometimes I think I’d go flying through the windscreenif I didn’t have my seatbelt on, I’m not allowed to say anything or comment as she was taught by a proper qualified driving instructor and as I’m not a qualified… well you get the story.

          1. I, too, was taught by a licensed private driving instructor. And the goal, except with an emergency stop, was to stop as quickly as necessary but gently enough that there was no jerk at the end.

            I think in your place I’d just do the driving myself. But something tells me the WO wouldn’t like that idea.

... and that's my two cents