Today is clear and unseasonably warm again, but yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, was a day of cold driving rain that lasted from before we woke until after we went to sleep. This made our driving up to and around Connecticut for the holiday much more difficult this year. What would normally be four and a half hours of relatively easy driving became more than six hours of white knuckle driving. And though I drive less than once a month, I feel compelled to comment on the apparent incompetence of so many other drivers, particularly their reliance on their brakes. It seems that many drivers, when not quite sure what to do in a situation, step on their brakes. Over and over again, the car ahead of me would would hit its brakes and slow significantly for no more reason than that the rain had gotten harder. To take it slower is fine, but slow down smoothly, easily, and predictably. At least as often as not, stomping on the brakes is not the right reaction, and given my personal impatience, it only spurs me to drive more aggressively to get around the timid, inept driver ahead of me. It’s unpleasant for all concerned.
In the late afternoon, driving on I-84 through Hartford from my mother’s house to my aunt’s, there was less traffic than there had been coming up from New York in the morning, and I was, fortunately, driving less aggressively. In the walled section of highway that goes through downtown Hartford, we were in the left lane with another car one lane to the right and about a car length ahead of us. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a third car speeding by a couple of lanes to the right. As it got past us and the car to our immediate right, this third card lost control and began sliding across the highway to its left, in front of us.
My mind became very clear and fast. I saw that the car was going hit the wall to our left ahead of us, so I got ready and waited for what would happen after the car hit the wall. I couldn’t react until I knew how it would come off of the wall. While considering the various possibilities, I actually thought to myself, “This is taking forever. Come on, hit the wall already.” As it happened, the car didn’t hit the wall as hard as I expected (it didn’t seem to be very badly damaged), and it only bounced out enough to obstruct my lane, but without enough space to pass between it and the wall. At the same time, the car to our right was slowing down, so I couldn’t move to the right. I slammed on the brakes to try to get behind that car anyway, turned the wheel and started to skid to the right. I had slowed enough that I didn’t hit the still slowing car that had been to our right. I was halfway into the center lane, pointing more right than forward, and skidding sideways. I released the brakes, shot behind the car and around it to its right, and righted our car. We had gotten over two lanes, and were settled in the right lane, driving smoothly, safely past the wrecked car and the still slowing car in the middle lane.
The whole thing took two or three seconds. My wife wasn’t quite sure what had happened (she only became shaken a couple of minutes later), and Olive was still sleeping peacefully in the back seat. I only felt an adrenaline rush a few minutes later myself. I wasn’t quite sure how things had worked out, but they had. And they could have gone so much worse. The residual anger I felt (because for me, there’s always anger) was not at the car that had been driving far too fast, lost control, and almost killed us all, but at the car in the center lane that couldn’t come up with anything better to do than slow down. It didn’t shift lanes to the right to get away from the car hitting the wall and to give me space to maneuver. Instead, it just automatically slowed and down and guided me toward the unfolding accident. Had the car that hit the wall bounced out into the center lane, I’m sure the car in the middle lane would have just jammed on its brakes and skidded into it, never considering the possibility of shifting lanes to the right.
When you’re driving, remember that your brakes don’t automatically make things safe. Using them can cause you to skid and lose control of your car, and sometimes slowing down is exactly the wrong thing to do. There seems to be an ingrained wish when things go wrong to just stop the situation, but brakes don’t do that–they don’t allow you to disengage from the emergency. To properly respond to an emergency, you have to engage in it and consider all options, rather than wishing it away. You must accept the reality of your situation and respond appropriately.