Keeping your head
Most South African drivers don’t understand the difference between being a good driver and merely “using tools”. I’ve driven with tens of thousands of trainees on defensive driving courses over the years, and almost everyone who has had no training after obtaining their driver’s licence drives in a similar way.
They all make pretty much the same mistakes and have the same lack of awareness. There are only two things that separate them: their level of bravado and their natural ability. Some people are just naturally more observant than others, so they see situations happening sooner. That means that, although they make the same mistakes as their untrained cousins, they make them less often.
In addition, some people have a lower threshold of fear than others. Young drivers are particularly fearless, hence their high accident rate, but the types of collisions they have are really no different from those of older drivers. They just have them more often and at higher speeds.
Curiously, when you ask someone about another person’s driving ability, it is often connected to bravado, almost never to awareness. Nobody will admire someone because “…he saw that unroadworthy vehicle in advance…”, but if a guy can get around a cloverleaf onramp in a sideways powerslide at 140km/h, then he’s a “good driver”. In fact, almost all driving assessments made by one untrained driver of another relate to physical skills. If someone is “hot stuff” on a skidpan, he’s a “good driver”. And if he uses the controls of a vehicle well, likewise. Which is about the same as saying that being able to use a computer mouse makes you a good manager. Vehicle controls, like mouses, are just tools, and no matter how well you can turn the steering wheel, if you turn it the wrong way at the wrong time, the results will be unsatisfactory.
When you next drive with someone, look at the results of their control inputs: do they speed through blind intersections, constantly slow down or stop for vehicles they didn’t notice, and commit regular driving errors through lack of observation? Is their vehicle in a poor state or with under-inflated tyres, oil leaks and hazed-up windows? These things tell you that you are dealing with a tool user rather than a good driver. For a good driver, use of the controls is a means of executing thoughtful, planned decisions, rather than merely just staying on the road.
Motorsport is a good comparison. It’s debatable whether any one of the top drivers in the World Rally Championship has significantly different physical driving abilities to any other. What separates the champions from the rest is the decisions they make prior to their control inputs. Just to re-enforce the point, double world champion, Marcus Gronholm, achieved many wins despite an old motocross knee injury which plagued him over the years. He once won a stage while the car was jammed in third gear. Control use didn’t help him there, just good observation and mental skills. Good racing drivers drive with their heads, not their hands, as do good road drivers. Keep that in mind the next time you drive.
Rob Handfield-Jones has spent 20 years indulging his three passions: vehicles, road safety and writing. He heads up driving.co.za, a company which offers training in economical and safe driving.