Sunday, June 26, 2011

Cruise Control - Use It!

Most modern cars have cruise control.  Learn how to use yours and use it often!

Most people are horrible drivers. Most people think they are great drivers.  But I see everyday, evidence to the contrary.  There are a number of really bad driving habits out there, and I have written about them before:

1. Running or rolling stop signs

2.  Speeding

3.  Tailgating

4.  Flooring it all the way to a red light or stop sign, then slamming on the brakes at the last minute, and then stopping in (or rolling through) the crosswalk.

5.  Not looking where you are going when merging (looking behind you instead of ahead). 

6.  Expecting people to "get over" when you merge, when you should Yield.

7.  Riding the brakes or slamming on the brakes on the Interstate for no apparent reason.

8.  Changing lanes or riding the left lane for no apparent reason.

9.  Poor speed control - varying highway speed by 5-10 mph or more and annoying everyone by passing them and then slowing down again.

10.  Distracted driving - cell phone, texting, eating, playing with the radio, talking, etc.

All of these are annoying driving habits - and dangerous ones as well.  And the rest of us have to compensate by constantly watching out for bad habits like this and taking action to avoid drivers like this.  And this gets old, real fast.

On the highway, the speed issue is particularly problematic.  People cannot seem to control the speed of their cars very well.  So if you drive along at a constant speed, (using your cruise control) you tend to run into one or more of the following drivers:

1.  "The Pusher"  - this fellow rides in the right lane, which is good.  But when he sees you approaching in his rear-view mirror, he speeds up, so you can't pass.  But then he slows down again, once he gets a few car lengths ahead of you.  As you loom in his rear view mirror again, he speeds up.  Repeat ad infininitim.   Hence the name "Pusher" as you feel you are pushing this fellow down the road, when all you are trying to do is maintain constant speed.  You can't pass him, as he speeds up every time you try to.   The problem with the "Pusher" is that you can't pass him, and because of his driving habits, he is always just a little too close to your front bumper for comfort.  You can try to slow down a bit by resetting your cruise control lower.  Guess what?  He slows down, too.

The only way I have found to avoid the "Pusher" is to blow by him at a speed at least 10 mph more than his speed, and then not pull in to the right lane until you are at least 10 car lengths ahead (any closer and he suddenly "wakes up" and thinks "There's a car ahead of me, I should pass it" and the process begins again).  Of course, this risks you getting a speeding ticket.  But the alternative - to slow down - never works, as the "Pusher" will slow down, again and again, until you both are traveling at a crawl.

2.  The Pass-Phobic:  You see these guys behind an 18 wheeler for miles and miles, usually tailgating, but never passing - and wondering why the front of their car is all chipped up.  You set out to pass them both, and they see you in the rear view mirror and decide that now is the time to pass that 18-wheeler that they have been following for two States.  Problem is, they are Pass-Phobic.  They actually slow down to pass and even slam on their brakes!  You see, they think passing is "dangerous" (which it can be) so they'd better take it extra slow, just to be sure.

The problem is, while there is inherent danger in passing, the danger is increased when you take forever to pass.  Riding in a truck's blind spot for miles and miles is not safe - the trucker may not realize you are there.  And it limits the trucker's maneuvering options if you box him in like that for 10 miles.  Not to mention the possibility of a tire throwing its cap through your windshield, a blowout, or a multi-piece rim exploding.  Riding next to a truck is dangerous, period.

Add in the fact that by the time you pass this truck, there is a Conga-Line of 20 cars now behind you, all impatient, tailgating, and cutting each other off.  You've now created a traffic bottleneck and the potential for a multi-car pileup.

But the pass-phobic is oblivious.  He keeps slowing down while passing, and then realizes he is no longer passing.  He speeds up - just enough to enter the truck's blind spot - and then slows down again.  He is an idiot.

3.  The Weaver:  The Weaver is going to "make good time" and he speeds, usually 10-20 mph above the speed limit and at least 10 mph higher than traffic flow.  The problem is, because of Pushers and Pass-Phobics, he has to constantly slam on his brakes at 70-80 mph and then try to weave around traffic.

Such maneuvers, at speed, are risky, as the chance of spinning out are higher as well as the odds of sideswiping another car.  And as soon as the Weaver has a "clear road ahead" you can be sure that a Pass-Phobic will finally finish reading all the graffiti on the truck ahead of him and decide to pass.

Weavers also slam on their brakes constantly when their radar detectors go off - which they do often, every time you pass a grocery store.  Their brake lights, in turn, scare most of the nervous drivers, who also slam on their brakes, convinced there is an accident ahead or something.

Weavers also will tailgate other drivers - very closely - like half a car length, flashing their lights in anger.  "Pull over!" they say, "important driver coming through!"  And while often the weaver is "right" in that the person ahead of them is a brain dead pass-phobic, their actions are very dangerous and could trigger a chain-reaction collision.

4. The Follower:  The follower gets on the Interstate, accelerates to speed, and keeps going until there is a car ahead of them.  At that point, they shut off their brain and follow the car ahead - just a little too close - until they reach their destination.  If the car ahead goes 70, they go 70.  If the car ahead goes 50, they go 50.  They just latch onto the bumper of another car and follow it - too closely.

The problem with the follower is that they are tailgating - not aggressively, but passively.  If you get a follower behind you, it is annoying, as now there is no safety distance between you and him, and if you have to stop suddenly, it is inevitable he will collide with you. 

And if you try to slow down, the follower slows down as well.  They just won't pass.  I've been on deserted 4-lane highways in Montana with a follower behind me - and they just won't pass.  I've slowed down to 45 mph (with no traffic around) and they won't pass!  They are hypnotized and just latch onto your car.  Exiting the highway is often the only way to get them off your tail.  But don't be surprised if they follow you right off the off-ramp  - and then back on the highway again!

5.  The Conga-Line:  These are usually a collection of Pushers and Followers and Pass-Phobics who have formed a "clot 'o cars" than may be as many as 10-20 cars in total.  On a deserted highway, you see this group of cars traveling together, often at half the safe following distance.  In many cases, they take turns passing each other, over and over again.  And if you ask them about their trip, they will complain about the "heavy traffic" - oblivious to the fact that the "traffic" was the same 10 cars (they can't tell cars apart very well, if you ask them) and oblivious to the fact that a quarter-mile ahead or behind them, there is no "traffic" whatsoever.

Getting around a Conga-Line is hard, as the moment you try to pass them, the Pass-Phobic will see you approach and think, "I'd better pass NOW so I don't get stuck in line".

Avoiding Conga-Lines is important, however, as they are a sure recipe for a chain-reaction collision.  When you read about these chain-reaction collisions (in fog banks, for example) it usually is the brain-dead Conga-Line people involved in them.

6.  The "Let No Man Pass" - This fellow takes being passed as a personal insult, not just a differential in vehicle speeds.  So, like the Pusher, as soon as you try to pass, he speeds up.  So you speed up.  And he speeds up.  Pretty soon, both of you are doing 20 over the limit, when just a moment ago, when you started to pass him, you were doing the speed limit and he was 5 mph under. 

So you slow down and pull in behind him. Guess what?  He slows down to under the limit again.

Most of these folks don't even realize they are doing it - it is a subconscious thing between the brain and the gas pedal.  You go to pass them and they speed up.  But from their perspective, they think you slowed down - perhaps thinking you are a Pass-Phobic.

But there is another variation of this sort that is truly evil - the speed controller.  These folks, who are prevalent in the DC area, think it is their job to decide what is an appropriate speed to travel, and they will prevent you from passing, either by cutting in front of you, or by speeding up to prevent you from passing.  And that is just sick.

And there are combinations of the "Let No Man Pass" and the "Pass Phobic" - the fellow who goes agonizingly slowly when passing an 18-wheeler, for example, barely doing 1 mph faster than the truck.   But as soon as he is clear of the truck, he speeds up - to 20 mph over the limit - so you can't pass him.  He then zooms up to the next truck or car, and then does another "Slo-Mo Pass" while a Conga Line accumulates behind him.

* * * 

So how do you avoid all these annoying driving habits - and save gas and your brakes as well?  Use your Cruise Control.  Many folks are "afraid" to use their cruise control, or are convinced that it can't be used anywhere other than deserted highways in Montana.  But such is not the case.  Yes, other people's driving habits are annoying - particularly when you are on cruise control and they are on Crack (apparently).  But it is far easier to maintain a constant speed, just at or slightly over the speed limit (going with the flow of traffic) than to be speeding up and slowing down all the time.

If your reaction to this posting is, "I can't use my cruise control because...." you are probably a very bad driver and fit one or more of the six categories above.  And I am serious about this.  It is not that you intentionally drive badly, but that you don't realize how bad your speed control is.

And manually trying to control speed of a car is hard to do.  People react to various indicia and slow down without realizing it.  If you use your cruise control, you will notice this, on the highway.  "Pedal People" - trying to control their speed with the pedal - will slow down when:

1.  They see a turn of any sort, even one designed to be taken at 80 mph or more.

2.  They crest a hill and see a long stretch of highway and a long stretch of taillights.   The compression effect of viewing makes this appear as "traffic" and they panic and slow down.

3.  Any interesting billboard, scenery, view, or other distraction.

4.  A hill - they slow down going up it, speed down the other side - the classic "deadfoot driver".   Even a small hill, like an Interstate Highway bridge, will slow them down 5 mph or more.

5.  A car ahead of them:  Someone passes them, and they slow down because "there is a car ahead of me" - never mind the fact it is going 10 mph faster and rapidly pulling away.

6.  Narrowing - if they are in an area of wide grassy pull-offs on either side, and then this narrows to a shoulder only, they will instinctively slow down.

Now granted, there are some instances when you should slow down.  But most of these situations are due to psychological concerns, not real road hazards.  And the net effect of this speed-up/slow-down habit is that in heavier traffic, it produces an accordion effect, such that when traffic reaches a critical mass, such speed changes precipitate a traffic jam, just as sugar falls out of a super-saturated solution.

And to some extent, there is really no way around this - people will be bad drivers, no matter what.  And the Highway Administration is spending Billions to develop automated highways and automated cars, to take bad drivers out of the equation.  And I know this because I've written a number of the Patents.

And already, some of this technology is showing up in cars.  Radar cruise control (adaptive cruise control) will set your car's speed, but also allow it to vary so that you are not constantly having to re-set it for traffic.  But this, in effect, turns your car in to an automated "Pusher" - and your speed is set on the basis of the cars around you (the bad drivers).

I use my cruise control all the time - even here on the island where the speed limit is 25 mph in many places.  Why?  Because the speed limit is 25 mph in many places and we have our own State Police substation that issues hundreds of tickets and warnings every month (on an island of 600 homes!).  One way to make sure you are not speeding is to set the cruise control at our around the speed limit (and I use my GPS to check this).  It is very easy to end up doing 10 mph over the limit without realizing it, when speed limits are very low.

On the highway, I use the cruise control as well, and try to seek out those lovely, three-mile long "blank spaces" between Conga-Lines.  This is the safest place to travel, as you have plenty of stopping distance and no one behind you.  When I come to a Conga-Line (or they come to me) I try to pass them expeditiously and safely, or let them pass me - again, seeking out that "blank space" in the road where no one else is riding.

If more people used their cruise control, a lot of the annoyances on the highway would be eliminated.  But alas, few do. Most people barely can drive their cars, and the cruise control "scares them".  Really, such people should not be allowed to drive at all.  But in our country, the standards for issuing driver's licenses are very, very low.

Use Cruise - Don't Lose!