Addressing driving safety and confidence.
How can you be a safe driver? Let me share my experience. Before I began track days with my car, and subsequently racing with the SCCA, and other organizations, I believed I was a good driver.
I look back in horror at my pre-racer driving life. There was so much that I did not know; yet, I thought I knew. Most importantly, since I never pushed myself to the limit of my ability in a controlled environment, I had an unrealistically high opinion of my skills, and I did not understand how to be a safe driver.
After spending over 1000 hours racing and tracking multiple types of cars, two race schools, rally school, and some growing up, here are four things I have learned about how to be safe on public roads and everyday driving. My sole goal is to address driving safety and confidence.
Look As Far Ahead As Possible To Be A Safe Driver
You have likely heard this, and it is wholly true. In racing, we are not looking next to us or “down our hoods.” We look at where we will be while also being aware of what is close to us, like other race cars AND steering.
The car will go where you look, and the further you look, the faster you can go. We can only do this by looking as far ahead as possible, and it absolutely applies to public roads.
The further you can get your eyes down the road, the more time you react or even plan if something happens. This is the single greatest boost to your driving safety, for, without awareness, you can only react.
Tip: You can practice “Looking Ahead” in steps! Start by looking as far down the road as possible in increments. For example, practice for the next two songs or ten mile markers. Increase the duration as you become more comfortable. Once you are in the habit of looking ahead, you will feel more in control and more relaxed while driving.
To Be A Safe Driver, Don’t Lift!
Many folks are familiar with this saying. I want to explain it in detail and explain why this is generally true. “Don’t lift” indicates that when you feel you are losing control of the car, fight your instinct to lift off the gas.
Instincts are difficult things to fight. It took me some time to stop my desire to lift on a race track. However, fighting this instinct is critical to racing, and if it hits the fan on the road, it’s equally important.
Why is lifting bad? You abruptly upset the weight balance of the car – more on this later, whereas staying on the gas will generally pull or push you through the situation and balance the weight out.
Driving a car is an exercise in balancing its weight on four tires, suggesting the steering wheel. Thus, you are not a driver, so much as a Weight Manager.
You can feel the weight moving all around the car. You may not be conscious of it, but you will feel how much is going on if you concentrate. Interestingly, knowing how to utilize that weight transfer energy is a large part of racing.
Safe drivers “Don’t lift” is a generalization; however, it is usually true if you drive a front-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, car. Staying on the gas pulls the car through whatever is upsetting it. While lifting off the throttle can cause the car to snap around or spin erratically.
In a rear-wheel-drive car, you are pushing the weight rather than pulling it, which is slightly different; however, not lifting is usually better than lifting without knowing what to do next. If you feel your car is “getting away” from you, don’t lift!
Being Smooth Is To Be A Safe Driver
Think about being the Weight Manager of your car, as described above. You can only control how your weight is distributed. The more smoothly you use your inputs, steering, braking, clutch (for us manual lovers), the finer control you will have.
Furthermore, abrupt changes can greatly affect a car’s dynamics and can be dangerous.
If you guessed that racers must be very smooth with their inputs, you are right! In fact, you can never be too smooth in racing. As far as everyday driving, be conscious of your inputs. Focusing on your smoothness will keep you more alert and engaged while driving. While the smoother your inputs, the more control you will have.
Safe Drivers Brake in a Straight Line
In racing, we purposely “trail” the brake into many turns to help the car “rotate” faster. Notice that I used the verb “rotate.” You are unlikely to try to rotate your car on purpose while driving.
Most race schools and Drivers Education programs will drill you to brake in a straight line. Why is this so important to be a safe driver?
While your car is under braking, a lot of weight is on the nose, and you are using most of your traction in front to stop. It becomes much easier to upset the weight balance of the car. This includes all steering inputs. It would be best if you did not have to “steer” while you’re braking.
Braking in a straight line is vital in limited traction, like rain, wet, ice, and snow. And if your street car “pulls” while braking, please get it fixed ASAP.
Tip: There are two primary things to remember about braking: do it in a straight line, and do not add “input” with steering. Try doing this, and you will feel more confident as a driver, particularly in bad driving conditions.
These Four Techniques Work To Be A Safe Driver!
The techniques above have worked for many racers, truck drivers, military, and “normal” drivers since we drove horse-drawn carriages to work. They will also make you more confident to be a safe driver.
Lastly, I highly recommend trying a motorsport activity.
The best way to learn is in a controlled environment. It doesn’t have to be expensive! Autocrossing and karting are two fantastic and fun ways to start. If you have the opportunity to drive on a race track, do it. If you enjoy driving at all, you will be in love.