Saturday, 30 November 2013

Can cycling make you a better driver?

I have witnessed some monstrously stupid driving in the last few weeks. I don't know if it is the approach of the silly season, or the fact that lots of high school kids have finished exams and run out to pass their driving tests. Some of it has been caused by driver arrogance and impatience, but most of it has been really piss poor driving skills. In cooking terms, you wouldn't let these people into a kitchen to boil an egg. One of the major driving skills is being able to use the steering wheel to point the car where you want it to go - I've shaken my head at quite a few drivers this month who haven't even acquired more than the most basic handling skills. We're talking simple things, like being able to keep your car in your lane and out of the lanes beside you.

To digress for a moment. I spent a few years driving trucks in the Reserves (after back problems essentially invalided me out of my favourite infantry role). The Army spent a week teaching me how to drive on an enclosed circuit, and then another week of hands on training on the road. And by training, I mean 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. We did a lot more than just drive around - we covered basic maintenance, tyre changing (always a challenge on a truck), load management, convoy skills, paperwork, refueling and so on. This was followed up with more courses and practical work to teach off road driving - how to debog a truck buried up to the door handles etc in mud, sand or whatever horrible stuff our instructors could find; how to carry ammo and explosives, how to react to an ambush, how to carry fuel, how to use cranes to load and unload blah blah blah. It was terrifically good training, although I still can't tie a truckies hitch.

The vantage point of a high up driver's seat in a truck allowed me to see heaps of terrible driving by other road users. There were plenty of trips where I climbed down from the cab totally soaked in sweat from the stress of driving a truck full of troops through a maze of idiots in cars. The thing I hated the most was approaching a red light in the rain and having a car driver duck in front of the truck and then slam on the brakes. I worried a lot about simply running over, squashing and killing morons like that because I wouldn't be able to pull up in time. I learned a lot about bad driver behaviour during that time, and it made me a much better driver. I didn't want to be like them. When you're driving a truck with a crash gearbox, poor brakes, offroad tyres, no power steering and an underpowered petrol engine, you learn to think a long way ahead about what you are doing. If you don't keep your eyes open, anticipate what's going to happen and think about how to avoid problems that might arise, you will quickly end up in a world of shit. And that might involve a couple of dead people. That made me calm and methodical and it forced me to think about my driving and how it affects other drivers around me.

Given what I picked up as a truckie, it's plain as day to me when a driver is not paying attention, isn't thinking and hasn't grasped the intricacies of coordinating eyes, hands, brain and feet. Which is why I started thinking this week that maybe a big part of the problem with bad car-cyclist interactions (ie, close calls) could be attributed to totally shit driving skills. After all, I had plenty of close calls in trucks as a result of drivers not thinking about what they were doing - and I've had even more when driving a car. The main differences when commuting though are:

1. Truck hits car driven by idiot. Idiot in car comes off second best.
2. Car hits car driven by idiot. Might end up with some bent metal, broken glass and a tow truck, but no injuries
3. Bike gets hit by car driven by idiot. Idiot suffers no damage, bike rider ends up with injuries that range from a few bruises right up to death.

Which is why cyclists tend to get very touchy about bad driving. If you smash into my 4WD (as an idiot did last year after doing a U-turn burnout over a double white line after leaving a pub), you're coming off second best. (I drove away, he got towed. He had to put up with no car for a few weeks whilst the panels got beaten into shape, and he had to pay my excess). If you smash into my bike after doing the same stupid manouvere, I'm the one that suffers all the pain.

So how can cycling help with this?

When you're on a bike, you need to have your wits about you. You can't switch off for a second. A pot hole that would be a minor jolt in a car could throw you off the bike and land you in Emergency with a broken collar bone. Glass that a car will drive over without damage could cause you to puncture and crash. Drivers who aren't looking or paying attention will put you down. The doors of parked cars could be flung open in your face at any moment. The brain has to be engaged at all times and the eyes and ears constantly scanning for threats. In a way, it's a bit like an infantry patrol, but done at much higher speed (and without any threat of mines or booby traps - but everyone out there is trying to kill you). The hands have to be ready to pull on the brake levers at the sign of any problem, and you need to be looking for escape routes in case the worst happens. Plus you really have to ride to the conditions - you really don't want to slam into the back of that taxi in front of you because you were going too fast and not leaving enough of a gap. You can't afford distractions. You have to be able to recognise risks and know what to do about them. Of course there are cyclists that don't do any of this - essentially they are riding around with their head wedged firmly up their arse - perfect candidates for a Darwin Award.

All of that good stuff is second nature to me now, and I drive like I ride. The roads would be a lot safer for everyone if all drivers did that all the time.


Bruce said...

As an extension to starting on bicycles, how about a specified time on a small motorbike to really get the idea before hitting the road on four wheels?

In addition to the "moving' hazards, roads contaminated by oil or similar will put anything on two wheels down rather suddenly at times. Even the nice white paint used on Zebra crossings can induce "high-pucker" moments. Lycra and "style" don't help much when unseated.

How does one deal with morons who creep up behind your two-wheeled conveyance at the traffic lights and start to nudge your back wheel?

The "situational awareness" developed during early time on two wheels helped a lot when transitioning to four and six or more.

As they say in the classics, "Stay Upright!"

Boy on a bike said...

I forgot to mention that I did a 2 day "stay upright" course when applying for my motorbike license. That was excellent - the theoretical stuff was spot on and the practical training was very good. That course was a big help to me when I took up cycling. Powered and unpowered cyclists share a common enemy - car drivers who are out to kill them all. I came out of that course believing everyone should do it before they can get a car license - and I still do.

English Pensioner said...

Regrettably as a motorist, I've reached the conclusion that for every good, sensible cyclist, there are at least two stupid ones. Some seem bent on suicide, riding along lanes by night without any lights and wearing what appears to be camouflage clothing! Only this morning, whilst out walking, I saw a cyclist squeeze alongside a huge supermarket artic at some traffic light. The driver was clearly signalling that he was turning left. When the traffic lights changed, he did so, and the cyclist was lucky that all he got was a bent wheel on his bike and a few grazes.
Hopefully cyclists in your part of the world are more sensible than around here!

JC said...

"Always ride as if you had on a blazing glowing vest and a $500 bonus on your body" (I think that's Neal Stephenson). It's not paranioa, it's simple self-preservation.
Don't get me started on the stories...