Monday, February 18, 2008

Look Ahead, Think Ahead

Whether you’re just on your way to the grocery store, or coming through that fast right-hander at the race track, it is critical to think far ahead of where you are and where you want to go. You always want to be continuously aware of everything around you. Here’s our first lesson in how to drive fast and safely. The moral of this message not only will help you stay safe on the highway, but it will also help you become a faster driver when you do get out on the track.
Get into the habit of continuously scanning your environment, never letting your eyes pause for more than an instant on any one point before you move on to the next point. Look far down the road, then bring your vision closer. Check your left sideview mirror, then your rearview mirror, then your right sideview mirror. Sweep your eyes across your gauges to check not only that your speed and rpm are where you expect, but also your safety gauges—the gas, temperature, and oil pressure, and “idiot” lights—aren’t signaling any impending problems. Then do it all again, maintaining a complete picture of everything around you that might in any way affect you.
The problem with most drivers is that when they’re in traffic they fixate on the rear bumper of the car ahead of them. If something happens a little further up the road, they don’t notice it until after the car ahead does. Then it’s too late and they don’t have enough time or space to do anything except become part of the accident report.
When you’re scanning all the things in your world—what’s happening far down the road, what the car ahead of you is doing, what’s on either side of you, how wide the shoulders are on the road, what’s behind you and how fast are they overtaking you—you should also be playing a continuous game of forecasting the future.
For example, is that car that just came onto the freeway from the exit ramp ahead going to try to spurt all the way across the road ahead of you and try to cut into your lane? If a car several hundred feet ahead has just put on their brakes, or changed lanes abruptly, could they be reacting to something in the lane that you can’t see yet? Is there a driver tailgating you who might not be able to stop when you do if there is an obstacle in your lane?
The trick is to look ahead, think ahead, and decide ahead of time what you will do if one of the things that could go wrong does go wrong.
A story is told about Juan Manuel Fangio, the famous Argentinian driver of the late forties and fifties—well before our time, of course—in a race in Italy. The photographer on one of the corners said that every time the great driver passed him, Fangio’s front wheel would touch the corner within inches of where it had touched the time before and the time before that, exactly on the fastest line around the corner. Then, on one lap, passing that corner Fangio abruptly swerved wide several car widths to the middle of the track.
An instant later, a crash and smoke from around the corner telegraphed the news of a serious accident. But Fangio’s car came around again on the next lap without problems. He had managed to swerve offline to miss a swerving car that he couldn’t even have seen.
When he talked to Fangio afterward, the photographer asked about the accident. Fangio told him, “Every time I came up to that corner, I could see the crowd looking my way. Then on that one lap, they were all looking the other direction, down the track. So I knew something was wrong and moved off the line so I would have room to handle a problem if there was one there. Sure enough, they had seen the driver ahead lose control of his car and swerve sideways, but I was able to get around him.”
Fangio was not only watching where his car was going, as well as a thousand other details like the condition of the pavement, the feel of his tires, and the gauges on his dash board, he was even aware of what direction the crowd was looking. And noticing a small change in one detail of his surroundings saved his life and allowed him to win the race.
While you may not be able to process information as fast as a famous racing driver from history, you can do the same thing he did. You can be aware of changes in your surroundings, and decide what they might mean to you, so you’ll be prepared to avoid an accident instead of winding up in the middle of it.
Practice this every time you drive so you can react not just to things after they happen, but be ready for anything that could happen. Soon it will seem like you not only have 360 degree vision, but also have the ability to predict the future.

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