Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Driving 101: The Calculus of Driving

Recently, on a long drive out to a remote part of Western Massachusetts, my wife and I got into a discussion about the philosophy behind each of our driving styles. My philosophy on driving is that a good driver is able to manage what I think of as the calculus of driving: a complex analysis of the huge variety of factors that are thrown at the driver anytime they are behind the wheel where every little detail matters and even the tiniest of elements should not go overlooked. The philosophy really applies no matter what I am in control of, but behind the wheel of a nearly two-ton hunk of metal, it becomes increasingly important that my "calculus" gets to be pretty good. The idea here is that driving is more than just operating the pedals and directing the vehicle, it is about making decisions and choices that help keep traffic flowing smoothly and avoids creating a hindrance for other drivers.

Let's take a look at what it means to perform the calculus of driving by examining some real world situations.

Scenario 1: The Freeway

Regardless of what you might call them, the multi-lane freeway is a driving situation that just about every driver has to face at some point. Some manage it better than others, but there is a lot going on and it is easy to get lulled into thinking that this is a simple and straight forward calculation. Start by looking at the shoulder on both edges of the road to see if they are narrow or wide, filled with debris or little more than dirt, or possibly even non-existent. Factor in the condition of the road surface, which may vary from smooth to grooved to cracked and broken. Of course, these are all factors that are relatively fixed. The variable factors start with looking out as far as you can see both in front and behind you, as there are certainly likely to be many cars and trucks to contend with. In California, add in the fact that motorcycles are allowed to lane split between cars and you can start to see how things get even more complicated. Lane selection is important as well since many large freeways designate the leftmost lane as being for high occupancy vehicles and the rightmost lanes are frequently used for entry and exit. A good driver is able to examine all of these conditions, factor in the capabilities of their car, and find a way to safely and efficiently get to their destination while having the least amount of impact upon their fellow drivers with whom they share the road.

Scenario 2: The Twisty Two-Lane Highway

A frequent haunt of driving enthusiasts, two-lane highways, with one travel lane in each direction, are extremely common once you get away from the big cities. They provide some of the most challenging conditions for a driver because in addition to the other cars on the road, there is the added possibility of contending with wildlife or other natural hazards beyond our control. Additionally, two-lane highways can frequently be twisty, have little to no shoulder, and provide few legal passing opportunities. Visibility also plays a crucial role here as twisty two-lane highways are notorious for having blind corners or crests and valleys that reduce the ability to safely see far enough down the road to make a pass. Throw in a dash of slow-moving rural traffic along with speed limits that may change with great frequency for good measure. All of these factors combine to create a more complicated calculation for every driving decision.

Scenario 3: The Urban Streets

Urban streets, despite their much slower speeds, tend to provide the greatest number of factors to consider. Not only are you now dealing with other drivers, but there are pedestrians and bicyclists who are sharing the roads. On top of that, traffic calming measures, more frequent intersections, parked cars, turning cars, poor urban road design, enforcement cameras, police speed traps, and many more factors come into play as well and create additional challenges for even the most experienced of drivers.

In each of these scenarios, a good driver is taking into account everything that they know about their own vehicle and the prevailing road conditions and factoring into it all of the variables that can possibly arise. The good driver also needs to be able to take into account traffic conditions, visibility, the attentiveness of drivers in the vicinity, lane selection, rates of closure, and a whole host of information, process it in an expedient manner, and make a decision about their next maneuver that should take into account the driver's ultimate own ultimate destination, but also help keep traffic flowing smoothly. When a driver fails to do this, or their inattentiveness causes them to miscalculate, the results can create the chaos that we see on our streets today.

And you thought driving a car well just meant you could operate the wheel and pedals smoothly.