When I was learning to drive, my dad took it upon himself as with most things, to do it once and do it well in teaching me all there was to know about driving defensively. Being the oldest of three kids, I was always the guinea pig, and totally noticed that both my parents relaxed significantly after I got my license. You’re welcome, siblings. But actually, I wouldn’t have changed it for anything, because I’ve gotten into some sticky situations and felt totally capable and empowered to handle them on my own.
The first time I ever drove outside of my driveway and our little loop, was to a freshly snow-covered parking lot out at the Home Depot late at night. When I say freshly covered, I mean it had just snowed for hours and hours and there were a couple of feet of untouched snow before we arrived. Keep in mind, when learning to drive, it’s super important to not just learn on one car. I was tested on my mom’s turbo powered VW bug, my dad’s ultra-sporty Subaru, and most often in my Jeep liberty, since she would be where I’d be sitting behind the wheel most often. But you never know when you’ll be put into one of these positions, so being able to adapt from vehicle to vehicle will help you in the long run – I promise.
We arrived at the parking lot and sat just at the entrance of it – my dad turned to me and said, “Now. You need to learn to drive defensively. I don’t mean aggressively, so don’t mix those two up. I mean you need to be on the defense of your own car and the weather and know what you’re doing, and make decisions powerfully and confidently or else you and everyone else around you are in trouble. Now I want you to accelerate quickly and then turn your wheel sharp to the left, and as you’re doing that slam your brakes. Your car is going to swerve. You need to get out of it.”
So, I know what you’re thinking – what the hell, he must be mad. And I normally would agree, and I normally would have been freaking out – of course I was nervous, but seeing how confident he was in knowing what he was doing and in trusting me to make the right call, I eased up on the stress. I did exactly what he said, and the car started drifting to the side, so I calmly released the brake slightly as I adjusted my steering, realigned my focus to where I wanted to aim the car, and I got out of it – safely. It was clumsy, and not perfect, but we survived. And I was able to feel how my car reacted, I learned the ABS and felt how the stability control worked, and it was situations like these that made me a better driver because I knew exactly how my car would respond to certain conditions.
Another day, we were driving down the canyon between the mountains and it was raining – hard. As we were approaching the mouth of the canyon, my dad told me all about hydroplaning and what it meant. Hydroplaning is when a surface is coated in enough water where your car ends up decreasing its ability to brake or steer effectively. Essentially, you’re coasting on top of water and your car goes into paralysis mode.
He told me that there’s a spot where two of the freeways merge that always gets enormous spots of water where people always hydroplane, and that was exactly where we were going. He told me to center my focus, lower my stress and adrenaline, and to not brake, not accelerate, and absolutely no steering movements. I basically had to ride the wave until I was off of it and then I could go back to driving normally.
As he was explaining this to me, we saw a 4-runner up ahead clearly panic when they hit the water and swerve, and they ended up nearly flipping their car and wound up 3 lanes over accidentally – miraculously without hurting anyone or crashing their car. Up went my stress levels. This is why it’s so important to also find that zen space in your head to feel confident and comfortable and trust yourself and trust your car. If you panic or you second guess anything, you’re going to leave a whole lot of room for mistakes. So as I approached the small lake of water, I tightened my grip on my steering wheel and kept my foot steady on my accelerator as we went through it – and again, I felt the car tighten up as it floated, the ABS trying to work, and the resistance from my car as the tires went into the puddle. But again, we got through it, and I learned again how it responded.
One more example. In driving in certain states, countries, deserts, or what-have-you, you’re going to be faced with certain nature imposed situations that are really important for you to look out for. Yep, I’m talking about wildlife. Again, being from a mountain town, we had our fair share of deer (and the occasional tumbleweeds if you’re in the middle of nowhere).
Deer, as you may know, have a sudden imulse to fly out in front of you, usually in the least ideal situation or setting such as a freeway or highway, and somehow always at night when your have less visibility. They must have a built in magnet that attracts them to the cars. Of course there are fences to keep them out, but when a deer is determined, it is determined.
Dad and I were driving up the canyon this time, headed home, and thank god he was in the car, and ironically talking to me about being aware of anything popping up in front of you on the road – pieces of scrap metal or blown tires, dead animals, or worse – live animals, who leap in front of you and usually stop right in front of your car as it’s hurling toward them.
Back to the deer – as we were reaching the mountain crest before descending down the highway again, we saw a deer leap out in front of an Excursion ahead of us. “Look look look!” my dad pointed, “Okay do not swerve. Slow down a little bit but don’t slam your brakes. Do not swerve, continue forward. It’s always better to hit it than to swer—- HOLY SHIT!” We watched as the woman in front of us, you guessed it, swerved, and swerved hard, right at the crest of the mountain where there are no concrete barriers, and she took off over the cliff, and just like a coke can falling down a set of stairs, her car barrel-rolled down the hillside, somersaulting over itself five or six times before it stopped on its roof.
The deer, by the way, went along its merry way. We drove to the next exit and double-backed over the frontage road to where the car had vanished. We called the police, and, luckily, my dad being your average superman with several years of being an EMT under his belt, immediately got out of the car and started to help the woman as we waited for the police to arrive. She survived – thank god, and she also got a huge lecture from dad on how not to swerve.
These are the things that as drivers, you’re expected to know, but how can you be expected to handle if you’ve never tried to imagine the situation happening, or better yet put yourself into a similar position to learn to trust yourself and your car? It’s completely naive and negligent to assume something will never happen to you.
Even if you live in a hot climate and don’t expect any thunderstorms, what if you’re caught in one on vacation? Or what if that person ahead of you does something stupid on the highway and you need to drive for them, to ensure your safety and the people around you without reacting impulsively?
We suggest you go complete a Defensive Driving Course, or find one where you can go learn to drive in extreme conditions. There are some great ones in Nevada for those of you Los Angelites, and again — it is completely worth the small investment if it can save your life.