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It's A Dangerous Road Out There

I am convinced there needs to be a course for all new drivers--and old drivers, for that matter--called Urban Vehicular Combat (UVC) Instruction.

Who is in the driver's seat?

I came to this realization as I’ve been preparing my 17-year-old son to take his driver’s test--yesterday, if you’re reading this on Friday, August 10th.

I have been a stickler about making him drive in a wide variety of conditions for way more than the required hours.

These many hours have included all the standard stuff, but more than a few hours of high-speed, rush-hour interstate highway time.

Once I’d recovered from one of these outings, after my heart was out of my throat and my white knuckles had some color in them again, I realized how terrifying learning to drive can be--for the teacher.

My parents had it easy, or maybe people just didn’t worry as much about things then.

By the time I was about 10, I was maneuvering our old Ford tractor around the circular driveway in our yard. It was a small tractor, and had the kind of clutch and brake that you could stand up on, so it was just right for me.

I’d tool around the driveway, mostly avoiding obstacles like cars and telephone poles. Every once in a while, I’d do a turn-around behind the barn.

By the next year, I was all over the farm on that little baby, and my dad started putting me to work hauling hay, straw, and stones. It wasn’t so much fun after that.

So I moved on to the family pickup truck. I couldn’t reach the clutch and brake very well and still be able to see over the oversized steering wheel on that old Chevy, so I’d have to stomp on the clutch and throw it in gear, then pull myself up and start steering. Stopping was optional.

I guess nobody really worried, because there wasn’t all that much to hit. The stone foundation of the barn could withstand a small nuclear attack, fenceposts could be replaced, cows knew to clear out when they heard the truck coming.

Top speed, downhill, I probably didn’t exceed 30 mph, and there were no other vehicles to compete with; so I suppose my dad just figured it was all in a day’s experience.

When I was about 14 or so, he started to teach me fundamentals of road smarts. My dad was about the safest driver on the road, anywhere, in the world.

He emphasized defensive driving before it was even a glimmer of an idea in AAA’s lexicon. He taught me about the dangers of tailgating and speeding and getting caught up in knots of fast-moving (55 mph then, 80+ mph now) traffic.

All in all, he did a darned fine job. Over the years, I’ve attended defensive driving classes taught by well-paid consultants talking about “thinking ahead, knowing what’s happening 11 seconds in front of you, always having an escape route,” etc.

I’ve often thought, “My dad could teach this class; these are his ideas.”

So I’ve passed these ideas on to my son, who has learned them well and is shaping up to be an excellent defensive driver.

Which brings me back to the UVC course.

I’ve come to realize there is not an easy way to teach a budding driver how to negotiate six lanes of high-speed, interstate highway traffic.

You can tell him about it, try to explain what to do, actually drive him out there and show him how it’s done.

But when you are sitting in the passenger seat and he maneuvers onto the entry ramp and begins increasing speed, as he propels that 2,500-pound vehicle into the right lane of traffic, that’s when it hits you.

There is a moment when your life flashes before your eyes, and you realize you have absolutely no control anymore. You don’t want give too much guidance or you’ll rattle him; you can’t grab the wheel or hit the brakes.

You realize your life is in the hands of an inexperienced driver about to get onto a black ribbon of death with hundreds of “experienced” maniacs who are half asleep, upset, distracted, putting on makeup, texting...all at 80 mph.

Thus, the UVC course.

Why Urban Vehicular Combat? Because the scenario reminds me of the military preparing young warriors for combat. You can put them through the training and exercises, but nobody knows how they’ll react in combat until they’re in it.

When I was a young Marine, I once asked a sergeant major how long it took to be considered a combat veteran. He said, “Son, when that first bullet goes over your head close enough to make you hit the dirt, you’re a veteran.”

That’s sort of how I’ve felt each time I’ve gotten out of the vehicle after one of our high-speed driver’s education adventures; like I’ve dodged the bullet one more time.

But then, I pretty much felt that way every time I got home when I commuted daily, and I was the one driving!

I think there needs to be UVC re-certification going on constantly, too. I’ve seen “experienced” drivers out there doing some mighty juvenile and downright dangerous stuff.

Do people really think they will be able to react at 70 mph when the car 10 feet in front of them has to slam on the brakes for whatever justified or unjustified reason?

Do big-rig drivers really think those air brakes are going to stop them on a dime before they smush the little VW bug whose rear bumper they are riding?

Does the mom with three kids in car seats really think she’s concentrating on the road in 75 mph bumper-to-bumper traffic while she’s having an animated conversation on her cell phone?

Does the 20-year-old driver of the Honda CRX filled with four or five or however many other friends with the audio system from hell causing seismic disruptions really think he and his friends will survive a high-speed collision with the log truck in front of them?

These aren’t made-up examples. I’ve seen these things on the road…and more. It scares the bejeebers out of me, and I’ve been driving since the Kennedy administration. Imagine how it must look to a young, inexperienced driver just getting behind the wheel.

So, maybe there needs to be a driving simulator, like the flight simulators pilots use; maybe it exists and I just haven’t heard about it. They can simulate all the bumps, all the jolts, even the gut-wrenching sound of a car crash; with no real injuries.

What is the purpose of the UVC course, you ask?

A UVC course would remind people that speed does kill; that a vehicle is a weapon and, like any weapon, can be safe, or unsafe, depending on how it is handled.

It would remind people that we can control accidents by controlling our own speed and actions while behind the wheel. It would remind them that their speeding probably doesn’t get them where they’re going all that much faster anyway.

Maybe it would just remind people that there is no place so important to get to that it’s worth a human life to get there.

It’s a dangerous road out there, folks. So on this Friday, August 10, 2012 (or whenever you may read this), I hope everyone drives like brand new graduates of the first-ever UVC Course USA!

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, who also served until recently in municipal parks and recreation, lives in Peachtree City, Ga., and can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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