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The Driving Doctor: Thinking 'Backwards'

by Phil Berardelli
Washington (UPI) June 29, 2005
Here is a scene that occurs every day on heavily traveled stretches of U.S. highways:

An electronic traffic sign warns of congestion ahead, but the vehicles rolling underneath do not slow down. They do not change their speed at all. Some even continue passing and accelerating - until they reach the inevitable clog that brings them to a stop.

Here is another one:

Traffic is proceeding along an avenue punctuated by a sequence of stoplights. Whenever a light turns green, drivers waiting at the intersection hit their accelerators hard, careening ahead and making smog and lots of noise - until the next light turns red, making them brake to a stop.

Then that light turns green and the process starts anew.

There are dozens more examples of a behavior that seems to permeate the driving environment. It could be called the Lemming Effect.

It is a kind of mass hypnosis that compels groups of drivers to keep pushing ahead, no matter what the circumstances. Congestion ahead, construction zone, reduced speed limit, red light, stop sign, off the cliff, whatever, the urge to push ahead of the crowd is paramount.

The phenomenon can be seen even when traffic is stopped. If a vehicle nudges forward a few feet, the driver behind follows suit, as do many others in line.

This is an insipid and dangerous mindset. It is one of the reasons why working on a highway construction crew is one of the most hazardous jobs in the United States. It also is why the fatality and injury rate at intersections has been growing in recent years at an alarming rate, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

For anyone who wishes to become a safer driver, to protect himself or herself from the hazards of being caught within an aggressive pack on the road, disengaging from the Lemming Effect is basic. The question is how.

The answer might seem strange, nonsensical even: Begin driving "backwards."

No, not literally. It is an approach that employs principles that were first suggested 100 years ago by Albert Einstein.

Much of Einstein's genius stemmed from his ability to derive brilliant insights about reality from simple thought experiments. One of them, which he eventually developed to demonstrate how the speed of light always remains constant - part of his Theory of Relativity - dealt with the question of point of view.

He proposed that a person standing at a station where a train was passing by, and a person traveling on a train passing by the station, would perceive the event in opposite ways. The person at the station would see the train as moving, while the person on the train would see the landscape, including the station, as moving.

In other words, time and space are relative, depending on a person's point of view.

You can use Einstein's idea to create a safe-driving strategy.

Moving along in a pack, your vehicle and the vehicles around it seem to be locked in a constant struggle to get ahead. As the landscape flies by, the local vehicle group remains more-or-less steady, though everyone is trying to move ahead of everyone else.

The problem is the competitive instincts are mutually reinforcing. They encourage drivers to keep trying to edge ahead, faster and faster, to the point where the group reaches an unsafe speed. It is a recipe for a collision and disaster, which is what happens all too frequently.

Instead of giving in to the urge to "keep up with traffic," as it is commonly known, try a new approach: Begin driving slightly more slowly - just a few miles an hour - than your neighbors.

The visual effect is you will seem to be backing away constantly from the crowd - driving backwards.

The practical effect is you will begin to give yourself more room - and more time - to make decisions and avoid getting into dangerous situations. As long as you maintain a speed that is not too slow relative to traffic, keep to the right and avoid making any sudden moves, the other drivers will leave you alone. They will continue to pursue that elusive goal of leaving everyone else behind.

You, on the other hand, will be able to watch the road ahead from a surprisingly safer vantage point - relatively speaking.

Next: Bad drivers better ahead than behind

Phil Berardelli is also the author of "The Driving Challenge: Dare to Be Safer and Happier on the Road." Reader comments and questions are welcome. E-mail: [email protected]

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