August 3, 2010

Driving lessons

I took Roxanne for a long test drive on Sunday. It was my first driving lesson in 16 years and though my instructor would prefer to remain unnamed, I will say that we drove about 45 minutes outside of Athens, had some real Southern barbecue at a roadside stand and came back home, no incidents of which to report. Rennie came with us and hung out in the camper behind the cab, hovering just behind our shoulders nearly the whole time, while he watched the road disappear under the hood, and it was a lovely afternoon.

Even Roxanne behaved well— true to the good reports I had been receiving and unlike her performance here. Apparently I also did well, which was a relief, since some of us were not too sure about my skills when I first got behind the wheel again in May. Even I was skeptical. I mean, it’s no small feat to drive again after four years of not really doing it. But several weeks of practice and a little brushing up on the basics was all I needed to feel confident behind the wheel again— which is a good thing, since this project is kind of central to my driving.

Many of you probably can’t relate, though. I know. I used to not go a day without driving, either. So, I thought I’d put us all on the same page then by taking a look at what the foundations in driving can teach us about life, because I think that even the most experienced drivers can use a reminder of the rudiments sometimes.

On adverse conditions

You may never have to drive through snow and ice but no matter where you live, there will be days when the sun stops shining; clouds move in and rain pours down, creating lots of room for accidents. Know what you might be up against on any given day and how to handle those special situations, because there will be times that you can’t just stay home and avoid them.

Among all weather conditions, fog is the most dangerous. Follow these tips: Use your wipers and defroster as necessary for the best view. Turn on your low-beam headlights. Do not use high-beams—it can actually decrease your visibility. High-beams will reflect back and cause a glare. —

Some of our worst behavior comes at the result of not being able to see what’s coming. We’re stressed. We’re confused. We can’t see clearly, so we don’t think clearly and then we do things we regret. If you find yourself in a low-visibility situation, recognize it; adjust your speed accordingly and realize that while you can’t control the heavy mist that is surrounding you, you CAN work with the tools you’re given to navigate through that obstacle, provided you’re using those tools the right way.

If you do begin to loose traction or hydroplane, do not slam on the brakes. Instead, remove your foot from the accelerator and allow your car to coast until you have regained control. —

If you suddenly find yourself skidding through a situation, don’t make it worse by quitting it cold turkey. Then you could really spin out of control. Sometimes that moment of uncertainty is just a way of getting you to slow down, reassert yourself and keep going with a little more caution.

If conditions are extremely bad (such as a whiteout) you may have to pull over. Pull off the road as far as possible and turn on your emergency flashers. —

I think sometimes we’re afraid to stop moving. For whatever reason, we are conditioned to push on, get through it, just get there. But what if that comes at the expense of never getting there? If you find yourself in this situation, don’t hesitate to regroup, if only for 10 minutes. Most people should understand that that’s what you’re doing, provided you let them know what you’re doing (Don’t create six-car pile-ups by just checking out in the middle of the interstate); and then who knows? They might even offer to help, if they see you struggling out there on the shoulder.

On following the signs

Sometimes, we are so stuck in our own heads, we forget to scan around us for the most basic markers and visual cues that are meant to guide the way.

Watch the Traffic Around You. If you notice that everyone in front of you is making an unexpected detour, they may be swerving to avoid a pothole in the road. —

Basically, pay attention. Watch what’s going on around you. Don’t assume that it can’t happen to you. And it might not be as obvious as a line of cars making an overt maneuver to miss something in the road, so listen to that internal warning system that was installed inside of you at birth, too. Everyone has one. You just have to remember it’s there.

On stick shifts

Once you learn how to drive a manual transmission, you can drive anything— well, as far as cars and trucks go, that is. I learned to drive a stick when I was 14 years-old. My dad would pick me up from school, drive us to about a mile from home, and in the safety of our subdivision, we would switch drivers and he would coach me on letting the clutch out just right, not revving the engine too much and staying calm when I stalled the truck, which I frequently mastered in majestic, bucking motions.

One of the main issues with new manual drivers is they don’t know how to work the gear shifter. Get a feel for which position equates to which gear. —

Know yourself. Know what you can and cannot do under any given circumstance. Don’t feel like you have to say Yes to everyone, just because you want to make them happy, because if, in the end, you cannot do what you promised, you will make them even unhappier than if you had been honest about your limits from the start. Be realistic about the gear you are in. If you are coming up on an uncertainty in life, so that you don’t know what lies around the bend, tap the brakes and downshift. On the other hand, if you can see that all’s clear and you’re safe to give it your all, put it in high gear and go.

The key to learning how to start on a hill is the parking brake. It will allow you to remain in place and not roll backwards while you practice reaching the friction point quickly. … The idea is to give the car just enough power to overcome the brake and gravity, which will allow you start smoothly without rolling back. As you get better, you will be able to reduce the amount and time that the parking brake is set, until you won’t need it at all. —

Life provides lots of moments when it feels like you’re starting something right in the middle of a steep hill. You could be getting back into a career you have been out of for awhile (ahem, no experience there), starting a new exercise program, or just coming out of a general funk and/or rut. At any rate, you might feel like you’re rolling backwards an awful lot, before you’re even in first gear, in which case it’s really okay to use a parking brake (or several) to get you going— a mentor, a friend, a favorite album, an inspiring book. Whatever it is, make sure you always have it within arm’s reach and that you’re not afraid to use it.

It is sometimes good to put a stick shift in neutral while stopped, to ease the strain on your leg and foot, and also to lessen wear and tear on your clutch. —How to Drive a Stick Shift DMV Guide

It’s like the art of conversation. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten home from somewhere and been like, “Did ANYone else say anything? Because all I remember is my own, droning voice.” Likewise, maybe you notice you are walking around all tense and reactive sometimes. Perhaps then it’s time to get off the soap box and relax. That is: stop being all issue-y; you don’t have to have an opinion about everything. Put yourself in neutral gear and just enjoy taking in the traffic around you, while you wait for the light to change. Don’t totally zone out, though. Then you’ll have to scramble to get moving again when everyone behind you starts honking, and you might stall in your panic to move forward.

Even the most experienced stick shift drivers stall sometimes, so don’t feel as though you cannot drive a manual transmission because of it. —How to Drive a Stick Shift DMV Guide

You will make mistakes, so don’t beat yourself up when you do. Just learn from it; apologize where necessary; perhaps slow down next time you’re in that situation, so as not to repeat the mistake, and move on. You’ll get another chance at the next stop.

Read more from Life, Preparations, Roxanne

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