Tuesday, April 2, 2019

I'm Only Driving...

I love to drive.

I love to drive for mundane errands, to craft stores with The Artist, to see the In-Laws, to the grocery store, to the DMV (honest!!) or sometimes for no reason whatsoever.

I was hooked on wanting to drive waaaaay before I was old enough to get my license at 16 years old. 

The walls of my boyhood SoCal bedroom were plastered with centerfolds from HOT ROD, CAR CRAFT and POPULAR HOT RODDING magazines... nothing but full-color car porn for this kid growing up at Irwindale Raceway and Riverside Raceway and Ontario International Raceway and the 605 Speedway.

Before I got my license, I took every chance to grab a steering wheel.

At first, I'd sneak out and jump into my Uncle's White '62 Impala whenever he came over, start and rev it so the glass packs rapped, then move it back and forth on the driveway until he pulled me out of it.

Next came the furtive slow drives up and down our street in Mom's cool Dark Green '67 Firebird (manual 3-on-the-floor!) when she'd come over on Sunday mornings to take my younger brother and me out on her visitation days. She didn't seem to mind or be alarmed, prolly because she was already half-gassed heh heh heh.

For several of my teenage Summers, our entire extended family would camp out at the Salton Sea for days on end. While the adults got drunk and played poker, my Uncle Mike would toss me the keys to his most-excellent Silver '67 Buick Skylark GS so I could drive it to the campground General Store and get more ice. I'd pile in as many kids as possible and we'd slowly cruise the 1-mile round trip, windows down and radio blasting. It was AWSUM.

When Dad got his Baby Blue '62 Chevy Carry-All for our Boy Scouting adventures, I'd regularly drive that beast (3-on-the-tree!) around the 'hood, pretending to power-shift for all I was worth. Sometimes the column shifter would get stuck in 2nd gear and there I'd be, stopped by the curb, hood up, frantically trying to untangle the shift rods mounted to the firewall. 

Good times.

I simply COULD NOT WAIT to get my driver's license and my first car and jump into Teenage Nirvana, as related in my essay titled 'Four On The Floor'. For me, driving became an escape, a trip into burgeoning adulthood and all the fantasies and expectations that came with the freedom to disappear into the dust, on the prowl and on my own.

So it was for us yoot in the days before spacephones and Fecesbook and Twatter and the intratubes. You know, The Good Old Days. 

I was lucky and didn't suffer any major crashes or injurious catastrophes caused by youthful indiscretion and/or high-speed antics. That's not to say that I didn't indulge in youthful indiscretion and/or high-speed antics, but I was unusually cautious and didn't want to rack up myself or my bitchin' '57 Chevy... knowwhatImean?

I mostly drove the speed limit and ALWAYS checked my mirrors, used turn signals without fail, looked three-ways (left/right/left) at Stop signs and traffic lights before proceeding, constantly moving my eyes in every direction while in motion so as not to miss a thing, all of it. Passing a high-school based Driver Training class was mandatory to get a license back then and it was drilled into my frontal lobes that paying attention while driving paid dividends.

Would you believe that I still drive that way as a totally crusty curmudgeon?

Don't get me wrong... I'm not one of those Gray Panthers driving 15mph under the limit and holding up entire lanes of traffic. I just use extreme defensive driving to make sure I don't wind up in a needless accident like so many others that I see on the side of the road next to their wadded-up cars, trading info and waiting for John Law to arrive.

In fact, just over a year ago I had an accident in my dirty hippie van that could have been MUCH WORSE if I hadn't been paying attention and reacted almost instantly to an idiot changing lanes without checking to see that traffic was stopping in front of me. He slammed on his brakes right after cutting me off, forcing me to veer onto the center median to avoid smashing into him and causing a 50-mph multi-car banger. I was toast but the line of cars I narrowly missed just disappeared into the night, unscathed and unknowing.

When the local PD arrived and assessed the sitch, they agreed that I was indeed lucky to avoid a nasty incident and had done the right thing.

Thanks, guys.

My quick reaction allowed me to miss the line of cars and skid to a stop without hitting anyone else, resulting in a flattened tire, a damaged alloy wheel and some relatively minor undercarriage damage. Not a bad result, and I actually felt extremely fortunate. I know... I'm weird.

I mention all of this only because paying attention while driving seems to have become a lost art for a variety of reasons:

1. A Driver Training class is no longer required before taking the tests to get a license. The ignorance of basic driving 'rules of the road' now on daily display is a direct result of non-mandatory high school driver training. I've always been grateful that way back in 1972, I spent the better part of Summer vacation in Driver Training studying the driving manual, thrashing the goofy simulators and tossing around the gigantic Buick LeSabre 4-doors that were in the school fleet for our on-the-road class sessions.

A quick story about high-school Driver's Ed: one of our favorite things to do when driving a car packed with students was to feign ignorance and 'accidentally' speed over the local railroad track crossings at Valley Blvd, which were raised on a hump in the road. The Teach was always caught off-guard, and the sight in the rear-view mirror of the back seat occupants suspended in mid-air as the car lurched over the railroad track hump was simply hilarious.

2.  The aforementioned spacephones and dashboard monitors in most new cars are pulling people's eyes off the road and onto the screens, creating distractions that often results in smashed bumpers and wrinkled sheet metal and the occasional curbside polka. In fact, it was less than twenty years ago that you bought a nasty ticket if the PD stopped you and found any kind of screen or monitor within eyesight of the driver. 

3.  Most new cars have several so-called 'driver-assist' electronic systems that IMHO do not provide assistance but promote even more attention-deficit to the roadways we all share by allowing drivers to assume they don't need to pay attention to the task of driving.

The invasion of driver-assist electronics into modern cars was the reason I decided to write this essay.

Now don't get me wrong... I understand and appreciate how and why the current wave of electronic assistants can make driving a less-intense, more relaxed experience for an ADD-addled driving populace. I just believe that driving is an extremely important task, and anything that so purposefully takes the driver's attention away from this task is a BAD THING.

The list is long and getting longer... lane-assist, brake-assist, back-up-assist, range-assist, steering-assist... it's like the OEMs are already trying to take  responsibility from the driver in preparation for the imminent shift to autonomous vehicles. Also included in this Rogue's Gallery of electronica is anything that makes a car 'connected' to the internet.


Did I mention my firm belief that mobile phones used in cars should only be able to make or receive emergency calls? I didn't? Like I said before... I'm weird.

All of these electronic driver-assist features test really well in OEM focus groups, and dealers love to show them off to prospective buyers as value-added accessories. However, they also multiply a driver's attention deficit which allows them to forget about the seriousness of taking the wheel of a 3000-pound projectile and speeding down the highway alongside other 3000-pound speeding projectiles.

During my twelve years working closely with a certain car maker, I watched year after year as their cars became infested with multiple driver-assist features, each with a unique bell or tone or beep or chime to announce its unique warning. Whenever I'd be moving cars around, my first act would be to turn off every assist so the car would stop the incessant ringing or beeping or chiming as I rolled around so I could, you know... drive.

Here's an example of a conversation I'd have with an employee of this car company:

Me: "Jeez... I'm not crazy about the new (steering/braking/lane/distance) assist feature in the new (redacted)."

Them: "Well, owners really like the idea of not having to concentrate so much on (steering/braking/lane/distance) while they're driving."

Me: "OK, but isn't concentrating while driving extremely important? These aren't autonomous cars, so shouldn't the drivers be paying more attention to steering and braking and lane centering rather than less attention?"

Them: "That's true, but these features are extremely popular and we need to offer them in order to sell more cars. Our competitors do, and it's what the customer wants."

Me: "They may want these features, but it makes me nervous to know that more people are paying less attention to driving than they should while relying on their cars to do it for them. I mean, we share the road with them...doesn't that make you nervous?"

Them: "... er... umm... actually, I never thought about it that way."


As an Official Old, I know there will soon be a time when autonomous cars are gonna be everywhere, and when I lose the physical capabilities to drive I will likely avail myself of that technology. Hopefully, by that time the software and remote digital signals that now connect and control cars will be better than the easily-hacked and error-prone systems now being used.

For the same reason that I refuse to own a smart phone, I'll avoid ownership of any vehicle loaded with ADD-assist features that allows the car to think and act for itself.

I don't and won't think any less of those who choose cars that have these electronic minders because... well, FREEDOM!!!!

I'm an outlier in this regard and I know it, but I have no shame in admitting my disdain for electronic driver-assist features in new cars. As long as I'm able to drive, I'll stay vigilant behind the wheel... moving my eyes from the road ahead to the inside rear-view mirror to the road to the speedo to the road to the outside rear-view mirror and back to the road again, never holding my sight in one place for more than 5 seconds, just like they taught us in high-school Driver Training.

The closest I get to those halcyon teenage driving days is when we're streaking along in our tC at 85mph on Interstate-5, heading North through the San Joaquin Valley, The Artist beautifully reclined in the passenger seat and the tunes wafting through the car's interior.

At times like that, I can touch the heady freedom of driving, yet still keep all my senses 100% engaged and focused to make sure we don't go flipping off into the weeds because I wasn't paying attention.

Our 2011 Scion tC is totally devoid of driver-assist electronics, and it's a bitchin' little sled.

Driving is serious business.

That's why I love to drive.

"Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel!" 
                                          -- Jim Morrison, 'Roadhouse Blues'

Car images, Gracias de Google Images except '57 Chevy image, Gracias de mi Padre; Pearl Harbor & The Explosions 'Drivin' video, Muchismas Gracias de Youtube.

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