Racing Drivers are NOT Road Safety Experts

Editorial opinion, by Eddie Wren, exec. director of Drive and Stay Alive, and policy director for Advanced Drivers of America

July 12, 2005

Without the necessary additional training, would you want a fighter pilot to fly the Boeing 747 that is taking you and your family on vacation?  Of course fighter pilots are brilliant, but only at what they have been properly trained to do!

Surely, flying fighters and wide-bodied passenger jets are not only different skills but they are also carried out in entirely different air space environments, too.

And so it is with racing on private circuits when compared to driving in two-way traffic or, for example, through busy intersections on public roads.

So why is it, then, that a large number of former racing drivers feel free to dole out advice for safe road driving?  Is their undeniable expertise in speed, cornering techniques and ‘winning,’ in any way relevant to sensible and safe driving among day-to-day traffic?

The sad fact is that not only do they get some important things badly wrong about safety but they also, on occasion, promote techniques that may be invaluable on a race track yet are positively deadly if used on a public highway.

But then what is so difficult about driving a car on a public road?  After all, most people who have never done any training other than the most basic drivers’ education course or a few lessons with a proper driving instructor think that because they have been driving for 5, 10, 15 or 20 years, they must by definition be ‘good’ drivers. And this suggests that getting some training from someone as glamorous as a racing driver will be both beneficial and fun.

But they are all missing a colossally important point:  good driving (on public roads) is not only very demanding but it is also a very complex skill in its own right.

The simple but sickening fact is that if — God forbid — a tragedy on the scale of the World Trade Center massacre were to take place in the USA every 23 days, it would still kill less people each year than do America’s roads. And if that doesn’t get your attention then nothing will.

Why are so many people killed on U.S. roads?

Accidents?

No. They are not accidents. That is a fallacy!

It is now accepted by experts all around the world that over 90 percent of all road crashes have human error as a causative factor.

Of course it’s not the only one. Bad engineering (either of a vehicle or of a road) is another, and component failure is another. But the latter example has to be qualified: For example, a new tire that bursts without warning (immensely rare) is a good example, but an old, worn tire that bursts is the driver’s fault — the tire should have been replaced before it got so bad.

The sad fact — in terms of current tragic results — is that truly good road driving is not primarily about car control, it is about knowledge, experience and attitude.

So here is the crux of the issue: Of course racing drivers can teach every aspect of car control and of course an ability to control a vehicle reasonably well is necessary to help avoid bad incidents, but a ‘reasonable degree of control’ probably only represents about 10 percent of the skills and abilities needed to be a truly good — as in proactively safe — road driver. And racing drivers generally have no more experience of these aspects than any other, ordinary driver.

The sad fact is that the vast majority of drivers drift along in the entirely baseless belief that “it will never happen to me!” Does anyone seriously believe that many (if any) of the 42,000 people that are killed each year on America’s roads actually didthink “I will be killed in a traffic crash one day!” ?

Crash causation is a very complex subject in its own right, but let’s get back to our racing driver situation:

The ‘racing line’ that is used on racetracks is the fastest route through a curve, using the full physical width of the road. Is this a good idea for getting around curves on public roads?  No, it is ludicrous, yet we have found it suggested online, by professional people who merely think they know about in-depth road safety.

Is teaching young drivers how to correct a skid — by means of skid pad training — a good idea, so that they can hopefully get out of a skid next time they get into one? It certainly seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?

But it is not.

Research from various countries has shown that skid pad training can actually make young drivers less safe because it primarily serves to inflate their natural senses of infallibility and immortality, to the point where kids who have done skid training have been shown not only to have more crashes afterwards than their peers who did not do the training, but also that those crashes were more severe because the over-confident, skid-trained youngsters were driving faster.1

The second point about skidding relates to the fact that in the real world it doesn’t happen on a big, safe skid pad, it happens where there is other traffic, or there are roadside trees or utility poles that could kill you, or there are pedestrians and cyclists whom you might kill.

So here is one vital point:  Skidding is like being the victim of a violent crime — it is much better to avoid it altogether than it is to try to deal with it when it happens. And on a busy road, or on a curve with walls or trees nearby, all a driver can do is try to get out of a skid in the very limited time and space available.

This begs the question: Why do people insist that teaching young drivers how to get out of a skid is a good thing? It isNOT!

Teaching young drivers proper advanced driving means that they are taught how to avoid the vast majority of dangers they will encounter on roads. By keeping them thinking and planning ahead, this also serves to keep them further out of the ‘firing range’ in respect of the many bad drivers we all encounter. Reading the road really well means, for example, that a driver will not only slow down to avoid a skid on a potentially icy road but will also be constantly appraising the possibility of “what if the guy coming the other way skids?”  That is the point at which one starts to get into proper advanced driving — knowing what another driver is likely to do, often before that other driver has even thought about it himself, and it goes a very long way beyond the skills that are generally taught as “defensive driving.”

This applies to avoiding skid situations but it also applies to never hitting a vehicle that is traveling ahead of yours, it applies to reducing the chances of being in a head-on collision or of being hit from the side, and it applies to reducing the chance of your car being hit by another vehicle that is following you. And last but not least it dramatically reduces the chances of you ever hitting a pedestrian or a cyclist — the most vulnerable people on the road.

And now a recent example:  Just four days ago (July 8, 2005) — in a press release titled “A Hurricane’s Forgotten Danger–Driving Conditions” — a former international racing driver who is now the chief instructor for the makers of a superb sports car (including his work as an instructor for a street driving school and teen safety programs), wrote three different things that do not correspond to best safety:

1.   “[The] rule-of-thumb is leaving one car length for every 10mph, a three-second interval between cars at highway speed.”

      To be fair, this is partially right, but only if a road is dry (see below).  The bit about car lengths, however, is (and always has been) completely unacceptable. Firstly, nobody ever says what size of car is being discussed, so let’s assume that it is 17 feet long and let’s also assume that the highway in question has a 70mph limit.  Going by the above formula, 70mph needs a following distance of 7 car lengths, so 7 x 17 feet is 119 feet.

      But at 70mph a vehicle is traveling at 103 feet-per-second [fps] so seven car lengths — 119 feet — would put you just 1.16 seconds behind the vehicle ahead.

      On a dry, clean road surface, the three seconds that is suggested above is excellent.  Indeed, for an alert driver just two seconds is acceptable (which would, of course, give a following distance of 206 feet — double the fps figure shown above).

      Judging car lengths accurately from one end of a line of imaginary of cars is, in any event, difficult. But gauging distance by counting full seconds is very easy, if taught properly. (“One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three…” etc.)

      But one last point remains: The subject of this former racing driver’s press release was hurricanes — a situation in which one can certainly expect substantial rain.  And on wet roads, the minimum safe following distance doubles, to at least four seconds, and many informed drivers prefer six seconds. (For guidance on safe following distances in any conditions, see reference 2, below.)

2.    “Mathematically, rear-enders don’t have to be driver error necessarily,” he says. “In a string of 11 cars and assuming perfect braking reaction time of .3 seconds (to the brake lights directly in front of you), the 11th car inevitably must strike the 10th. Usually, these crashes begin at car three or four and the pileup continues, a combination of reaction times and insufficient interval.”

      Irrespective of any mathematics, ALL rear end collisions are entirely due to driver error. There are no exceptions!

      Ice, for example, is certainly no excuse. If the weather is sufficiently cold for ice to be present on the road surface then a responsible driver will be aware of that fact and will allow a much longer following distance, five to ten times further than on a clean, dry road.

      The only permissible excuse for hitting the vehicle ahead is that you had stopped your car but were shunted forward when struck from behind by another vehicle. On any other occasion, if your vehicle strikes the one ahead, you were following too closely for the conditions — period!

      As for the “perfect braking reaction time” of 0.3 seconds, this is something that is effectively confined to a race track. For decades, when calculating stopping distances, it has been allowed that the average alert driver has a reaction time of two-thirds of a second, but research has shown that one full second is actually typical. (For stopping distances, see reference 3, below.)

      It is clearly misleading to associate the reactions of an experienced racing driver, running on full adrenaline, with those of a laid back driver who has never received any in-depth driver training and is merely guiding his vehicle from point A to point B, as he will tend to do every day of his life.

3.    “Adjusting rearview mirrors CORRECTLY for full 360-degree awareness eliminates that legendary ‘driver blind spot.’ We’re taught to adjust outside mirrors to see the edges of our car, but to eliminate blind spots and the need to check over our shoulder during a turn (more dangerous in severe weather), move the mirrors out and away just a bit. Sweep your vision left to right. You’ll be able to see a full 360 degrees without turning your head.”

      There are actually eight reasons why the exterior mirrors on a vehicle should NOT be set wide, as is being advocated above and there is not one single good reason why they should be set wide. (See reference 4, below.)

There is no denying that vehicles are getting safer nowadays, though it needs to be added that this is an outcome that has been pulled along primarily by Volvo and Mercedes, for many decades, and more recently by Renault and Honda. But crash testing by the IIHS and NHTSA have undoubtedly forced the pace here in America, too.

So why, then, is the annual death toll in the USA stubbornly refusing to fall?

Please don’t tell me it is because the number of vehicles is increasing. The number of vehicles has increased at similar rates in other ‘Heavily Motorized Countries’ [HMCs] too. Yet in all other developed countries in the world, progress has been made in reducing the number of road deaths each year that America simply cannot match. To put it into figures, the average reduction in the annual death toll in all of the other 21 relevant member-countries of the OECD, for the years 1992-2001 was 25 percent, whereas the USA saw a fall of just four percent, the lowest reduction of any.5

In many places, road engineering could be radically improved. For example, median guardrails could be introduced on all divided highways, and better road signs and markings would be wonderful, too.

Expensive?  You bet!

Worth it in the number of lives that could be saved?  You bet!

But where does that leave the ordinary American driver?  How can you best protect yourself and your family?

There IS a proper form of advanced driving that has now been around for 80 years — yes, eighty years.  It is based on something known as The System of Car Control, that has been continually developed throughout that period, and it is the sole method used to train traffic patrol police officers in Britain — drivers who are said by experts to be the best-trained and safest road drivers in the world.

That IS advanced driving.

Playing around with skid pad training and emergency evasion techniques, is NOT advanced driving.  If taught at all, these techniques should come at the end, after a person has been taught the best way to entirely avoid dangers — even those that would normally be hard to predict.  The safest driver is the person who has been trained in great detail to anticipate everything.

Anybody who professes to teach safe driving, unless they have been well trained specifically in safe road driving themselves, is quite possibly doing a lot more harm than good.

Is truly good driving easy?  No.  Anybody who tells you that safe driving is easy is ill-informed, to say the very least.

Is it worth it?……………….. That is best answered with a question:  How much is your life worth? 6

The writer’s own background for writing this article may be viewed here.  

Footnotes:

1.  (e.g.)  Evaluation of an insight driver-training program for young drivers,  T. M. Senserrick & G. C. Swinburne (Monash,

     Australia); 2001:  “Traditional driver-training programs that aim to improve vehicle-handling skills, including manoeuvring

     exercises and skid training, have tended to be relatively ineffective in reducing crashes. In fact, the introduction of skid

     training into driver-training programs has been found to increase certain crash types for young drivers. This has been

     attributed to associated increases in confidence that resulted in greater risk-taking….”

2.  www.driveandstayalive.com/info%20section/following-distances.htm

3.  www.driveandstayalive.com/info%20section/stopping-distances.htm

4.  www.driveandstayalive.com/articles%20and%20topics/driving-myths-and-mistakes/setting-the-mirrors.htm 

5.  www.driveandstayalive.com/info%20section/statistics/multi-country_death-rates_1988-2001.htm 

6.  Advanced Drivers of America, Inc.