4 things you didn't learn in driver's ed
Editor's note, December 2012: This article first appeared on Yahoo! Autos in July, and was one of the most popular stories this year. Readers chimed in with their own tips, the most popular being that drivers should pay attention to the road instead of their cell phones. That's life-saving advice for distracted teens who favor the "text and 2" steering wheel position over the 9 and 3.
Humans don't "rise to the occasion."
Instead, we fall to our level of training and experience. Archilochus, a Greek soldier–poet, wasn't thinking about driving when he said this 2800 years ago. But my experience as a race driver, driving instructor, and parent of teen drivers says he could have been.
I teach at B.R.A.K.E.S., a nonprofit advanced teen driving school founded by drag-racing champion Doug Herbert after both of his boys died in an avoidable accident. Here are a few of the school's advanced driving techniques that you can teach yourself... on a little-used dead-end road or other safe location at low speed.
Use Those Brakes for Goodness' Sake
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So they learn to tap the full power of ABS, I teach my students "stomp, stay, steer." First, stomp—hard—on the brake pedal. Pretend there's a photo on the pedal of your ex who fooled around with your best friend. Second, stay—again, hard—on the pedal. Ignore nasty sounds and the pulsations from pedal. You are not hurting the car. (When teaching ABS to the mothers of the B.R.A.K.E.S. students, yelling "Push, push, push!" works well.)
Finally, steer around the obstacle. The wonder of ABS is that it allows turning while braking, a skill that takes race drivers (who aren't driving with ABS) years to develop. Just remember that a little steering goes a long way: One big problem with ABS is that drivers turn the wheel too much and then release the pedal before centering the steering. Do this while the vehicle is still moving and it will dart into either oncoming traffic or a roadside ditch.
Speaking of overcorrecting: A common cause of highway fatalities is a driver jerking the car back toward his or her lane after running partially off the right side of the road. It's especially common on rural two-laners. The sad thing is that these accidents and deaths are unnecessary—you don't need to pull hard to get the car back in your lane. The vehicle's left-side tires offer more than adequate traction except in the rarest of situations.
So if your mind wanders for a second (or you looked down at the incoming text on your phone) and your passenger's side wheels drop off the road, remain calm. Ease off the accelerator, allow the car to slow down on its own, look ahead for a safe place to return to the pavement, and gently move the steering wheel to the left to ease back into traffic. Avoid the brakes unless there's a damn good reason to get off the shoulder, such as an upcoming bridge or parked car, and then use only light braking. Practice this at about 20 mph if you want to get the hang of it.