Toodling and tailgating

i brake

If working in the news business has taught me anything, it’s just how wrong the righteous can be.

It’s also taught me to be a painfully law-abiding driver. Yeah, I’m that guy toodling along at precisely the speed limit, raising the blood pressure of all those already pressured drivers behind me. If you’ve been lucky enough to get stuck back there, you may have noticed a thin little bumper sticker on my aging heap that reads: I BRAKE FOR TAILGATERS.

I don’t, actually. The Washington State Patrol strongly advises against it. But I like to raise the possibility, just to get the tailgater behind me thinking. If that’s at all possible.

This is mostly because of my daily awareness of the number of human lives that end as accident statistics. I can’t imagine a dumber, more meaningless death than the death that results from racing the clock or the next car over. Or from the certainty that the road is your personal playpen, and all these other travelers are nothing but speed bumps.

Discussing traffic dynamics with roadway engineers and police has impressed this upon me: The major mistake that drivers make, quite routinely, is following too closely. Years ago I reported on new state-designated Traffic Safety Corridors in Vancouver — busy and confusing stretches of Mill Plain and Fourth Plain where too many accidents happen. By far the leading type of accident was the rear-ender, and the leading cause was following too closely.

Trooper Will Finn of the Washington State Patrol wrote in an email that the average person takes 1.5 seconds to react to a “perceived hazard.” According to the state Driver Guide, coming to a full stop from a speed of 30 mph can take you a half a city block, or 200 feet. If you’re traveling 50 mph it can take you a whole city block, 400 feet.

‘Four, one thousand’
I remember learning to leave a car length of room between you and the car in front of you for every 10 mph you’re traveling. Finn still likes that rule of thumb, he said. But the Driver Guide recommends counting seconds. If you’re driving up to 30 mph or so, two to three seconds “may be enough” time for you to stop abruptly, it says; if you’re traveling faster than that, the guide recommends the four-second rule.

If you can’t count “four, one thousand” before you catch up to whatever’s in front of you, you’re too close. Allow even more time than that if it’s slippery or dark or you’re behind a motorcycle or hauling a heavy load. The more you weigh, the longer it’ll take to slow down.

Who really leaves four whole seconds — four whole seconds — of space between them and the car in front of them? Too many drivers seem to believe there’s a roadway scarcity problem out there — that you must pull right up to the vehicle in front of you, otherwise you’re risking some sort of wasted-space penalty.

Still I resist jabbing the brakes, even when the dude behind me deserves it. The WSP considers that descending to the level of the road-rager. Instead, be patient — take the proverbial high road — and look for a way to let the jerk pass. Don’t make eye contact and definitely don’t make what Monty Python used to call “a splendid gesture.”

“Never underestimate the other driver’s capacity for mayhem,” the WSP website advises. “Forget about winning. No one wins in a highway crash.”

Righteous confession
So there I am, daily toodling up and down a particular Vancouver street where there’s a permanent speed radar. That radar constantly gives me strange and seemingly contradictory information — but OK, I figure, it’s at the bottom of somebody’s maintenance list. I know how fast I’m going. I know how to drive sanely and safely. O wonderful me!

Until I got friendly with another speed radar in a different location. This one gave me very consistent feedback: my speedometer was wrong. A repair shop confirmed this.

Turns out, I’ve been toodling righteously along at 5 mph under the speed limit. And grumbling about cars on my tail. And rolling my eyes at the comment of my most frequent passenger — my wife — who wondered if maybe I wasn’t being a little too cautious?

So here’s my heartfelt apology for any road rage I may have inspired or patience I may have tested. I’ve adjusted my habits, recalibrated my internal speedometer and fixed my eyes so they no longer roll. And I’m keeping ever more in mind just how wrong the righteous can be.

The bumper sticker stays, though. One, one thousand, two, one thousand …

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