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Derek NelsonDerek Nelson has been writing the Friday Funnies since 2002. He also creates the Photo of the Week feature for this website. A long-time Naval Safety Center employee, he is head of the Media Division in the Communications and Marketing Department. He is author of more than 200 freelance magazine articles and ten books about Americana and military history.

So, Who Taught You To Drive?

Posted April 4, 2012

Last time, I talked about limitations. I had a bunch of my very own to confront when my wife and I moved to the Navy’s capitol. I’d been used to driving around in a rural county where you could get away with a lot (such as treating lonely stoplights as yield signs). There weren’t that many cops patrolling the boondocks.

I’d gotten into some bad habits behind the wheel, but the root of the problem was that I’d learned to drive from my father. He was a smart, accomplished man, a good provider who lived an adventurous life. I owe him a lot. But behind the wheel, he could be crap, with the emotional resilience of a six-year-old. Like way too many people, he thought he drove fine when he’d had a few drinks, even when his passengers had white knuckles and were fervently praying.

He was my driving instructor. What did I know when I was 16? Other than the fact that I wanted to get my license, get permission to use the car, get a few bucks in my pocket, get my curfew relaxed and get my girlfriend in the passenger seat, all as fast as humanly possible?

I passed the driving test on the first try and figured I was good to go. One positive thing was that, thanks to minimal horsepower, the car my older brother and I shared didn’t exactly lend itself to lead-footing.

Fast forward nine years. No wrecks, no DUIs (not for lack of trying). I got a couple minor tickets when we first came to Norfolk, one for rolling through a red light and one for an illegal left turn (boy, was that cop in a bad mood). Then I wrecked our old car, thanks to not expecting a car to be passing a bus that had pulled over (I tried to cross in front of it).

The next major development in my continuing driver education was when my wife got her driver’s license. She signed up with a professional instructor, started taking lessons, and in short order, all my myriad bad habits behind the wheel began to appear in high relief. Being in a hurry. Following too close. Losing my temper. Waiting too long to get into a turn lane. Multi-tasking.

My wife and I had a few “discussions” (OK, arguments) about the rules of driving. It wasn’t fair, and I didn’t have a chance. Heck, she knew why some of those lines on the street were yellow and some were white, and why some were solid and some were broken. Apparently, I had a lot to learn, and I’d been driving more than a decade.

At least I wasn’t alone. You can’t drive for 15 minutes anywhere in America without seeing someone doing something risky (if not illegal). At the Naval Safety Center, that fact bottom-lines as traffic deaths. From FY02 through FY11, for the Navy, that added up to 535 Sailors who were, one day earlier, busily going about their lives, and then, as we tritely say, became statistics after wrecking their car, truck or motorcycle. There were 197 on-duty fatalities during that span, which is why we say that you’re safer at work.

One analysis of human factors involved in more than 300 traffic wrecks showed that 60% involved “skill-based errors.” In other words, six times out of ten, the driver wrecked because he or she lacked the driving skills to keep four wheels on the pavement and keep from smashing into other cars. It wasn’t “bad luck” or “the other guy’s fault.” No, it was usually some combination of distraction, fatigue, maybe a few beers or a couple of shots and speed (everybody speeds most of the time, anyway).

Some of it starts with thinking that knowing how to start a car, push on the brake and accelerator, and temporarily learning enough to pass the driver’s test is all there is to it.

A great starting point would be to stop being part of the problem. Check out some of the traffic-safety presentations on the Safety Center website. Download the manual from your state’s DMV website.

Consider the former truck driver who was a member of the trucking industry’s Three Million Mile Club, recognition of driving that far without an accident. It took him 40 years, during which time he logged the equivalent of 125 trips around the world, without an accident or a ticket.

His wife said that he referred to other drivers as “idiots.” I see proof every day. That’s where pessimism pays off.

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Last reviewed: 27 February 2014

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