Our city streets, highways and expressways (not to mention supermarket parking lots) are awash with unskillful drivers, who either have never known or have chosen to ignore the basic skills of operating a motor vehicle.

This unskillfulness — or, if you prefer, idiocy — stretches across all ages and ethnicities. Young people are fond of excoriating the driving of seniors, and vice versa, and both love to knock the skills of our growing immigrant population. The population at large tends to criticize the youngsters, seniors, immigrants and anyone else not represented in the complainant’s vehicle, while here in Florida the tourists are a favorite target. However, to the pros who understand what driving is really all about, the soccer mom is just as likely to do something stupid on the road as are the folks enjoying the first few weeks in their first automobile.

Fact is, the majority of drivers are pretty good. If they weren’t, we’d have carnage on the roads that would make our current levels seem practically nonexistent by comparison. There are two basic rules of thumb regarding drivers, that were passed on to me from the lips of Stirling Moss, one of the greatest road racers of all time, when I was 14: The Best Drivers Are The Ones Nobody Notices, and The Best Drivers Use Their Brakes The Least. I never forgot what he said, but it took me a number of years to understand what he meant.

It makes sense, when you think about it. If other drivers notice you, it’s either because you’re obstructing traffic, weaving in and out, speeding, or doing something else stupid — you’re not fitting in with the flow, not communicating with other drivers, surprising them. Using your brakes a lot indicates a lack of attention to details: following too closely, not concentrating and planning ahead, and so forth. Emergencies happen, but they happen much less often to people who are paying attention to the progress of their lives.

My first (illegal) experience driving on the highway was fifty years ago this year. I nearly killed myself and two adults, who should never have let me behind the wheel on a two-lane Florida road in a rainstorm. I had to experience hydroplaning again, a few years later, before I began to realize there were a lot of things about motoring skills I’d neither been taught nor taught myself. I began to really learn about that time.

Since then, I’ve been a pilot, flight instructor, cop, traffic accident investigator, taught tactical driving in a police academy, and worked as an executive chauffeur, driving people I won’t even mention for fear of being thought a liar (though if the term “Iron Lady” rings a bell, you can draw your own conclusions). Thus, I flatter myself that my opinions about driving and the people who do it are at least as qualified as those of the next old fart. This will attempt to encompass the most important stuff I’ve picked up along the way.

Important Point Number 1: Driving is a social occasion.

Survival on the highway is based on certain assumptions, which are, in turn, based on specific social agreements — no less real for being tacit. These include (a.) that everyone will behave in a generally predictable manner (obey traffic laws); (b.) will let others know if they intend to do otherwise (by signaling, making eye contact when needed, and so forth); and (c.) accomplish those things with reasonable skill. People who are not willing to adhere to this social contract have no right to be on the road.

Important Point Number 2: Driving is 95% mental, and only about 5% physical.

There are three aspects to the operation of a motor vehicle: concentration, communication and skill. Note the order. Concentration is by far the most important. If you are paying strict attention to what you are doing, watching other drivers and discerning their intent through their actions and attempts at communication, while at the same time communicating with them as needed, you’re taking care of the first 95%. The physical part should have been developed before you got on the highway, in deserted parking lots, lightly-traveled streets and so forth. Most people are sufficiently skilled to be good drivers, if they concentrate and communicate.

Important Point Number 3: Depending on another driver to do the right thing is putting your life into the hands of a total stranger.

Why not just make up a habit of picking up hitchhikers? It’s safer. When you follow too closely, you depend on the guy ahead not to slam on his brakes. When was the last time you slammed on yours? I’ll bet it was within the past month (especially if you make a habit of following too closely). Stuff happens. You either allow for surprises, or you don’t. When you decide to blow a yellow light, you’re depending on other drivers not to jump the red, not to make perfectly legal right turns on red, and not to run the light. (And don’t tell me you’re checking out all those things, you liar; you’re looking at the light!) Changing lanes without turning your head to check for traffic is assuming that the guy next to you won’t try some unskillful lane-changing at the same time. That causes a lot of accidents. Driving along next to a semi, instead of remaining to the rear, then passing quickly when you have room, puts all the weight on a driver who may be tired, distracted, impaired in some way, or just a good driver who makes one mistake, but the details won’t matter to you if your trust is misplaced.

Important Point Number 4: Never depend on another driver to be (even) as good as you are.

Assume that they are all moronic homicidal maniacs, with no consideration for your safety at all. Most of the time, you’ll be wrong. The rare times when you aren’t may save your life. Remember that two wrongs never make a right, and nowhere is that more the case than in traffic. Road rage is not a myth.

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