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Bob Bondurant's Safe Driving on the Street

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author photo by Janet Braunstein October 2007

It may not be a high-speed oval like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or California Speedway in Fontana, but a crowded commuter highway can be just as dangerous. While some drivers drift inattentively in their lanes, cell phones plastered to their heads, others dart around them, gesturing their frustration as they go by. Few, if any, have the car control of a racer like Indy-car driver Michael Andretti or stock-car driver Dale Earnhardt, so it's up to each street driver to watch out for everyone else on the road.

Former sports car and Formula One racer Bob Bondurant has run one of the best-known racing and street-driving schools since the late 1960s. The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix offers courses including advanced street-driving, grand prix racing, and executive anti-terrorist maneuvers. Here are some of his common-sense survival tips:

1) Always wear seat belts. `Seat belts save lives,' Bondurant says. This should be clear to anyone who's watched a driver undo his belts and climb from his smashed race car after slamming it into a wall at speed or rolling it end over end. 'Seat belts also help to hold you in place when you're going around a corner a little too fast. They give your body a little stability in the seat so you don't have to brace yourself going through the corner.'

Bondurant advises drivers to hook their lap and shoulder belts after they've properly adjusted their seats. This allows drivers to reach the pedals with knees bent and position their hands at 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock on the steering wheel with elbows bent. The arms are stronger when the elbows are bent. Also, the driver should sit up straight to reduce fatigue and maintain alertness. 'If you're sitting with the seat-back tilted back and your back in a slightly bent position, you won't be as sharp and you won't be able to think or react as quickly,' he says. Don't turn on the engine until the seat is correctly positioned and the belts are hooked.

2) The driver should keep her attention on the road, knowing what other drivers are doing ahead, behind and around her at all times, looking as far ahead as she can see, then checking her rear-view mirror and side mirrors. Drivers should note openings in traffic and try to keep one next to them so they can change lanes in an emergency. Look through the rear windshield of the car ahead and note what that driver is doing.

'Are they on the phone, or looking over and talking to their friend? Back off a little bit; if that doesn't do it, change lanes and go by them so you don't get collected — because if something happens in front of them, they're just going to slam on their brakes.'

3) Don't talk on a cell phone while driving. Even conversation over a hands-free phone steals attention from the road. Keep calls short or pull off the road to talk. The same driver who is cutting smartly through traffic one moment will start weaving in his lane the next when he gets more involved in his phone call than in his driving.

4) Avoid situations that can lead to road rage. 'If someone is riding your tail, you can get mad at them if you want, but the best way is just to move into the next lane over and let them go by. Don't give them the finger and yell at them. It's kind of a crazy world we live in today. People are short-tempered; they blow up.' Instead, the driver should use the same consideration and good manners practiced in his own neighborhood.

5) If someone stops suddenly in front of the driver, she should do this to avoid hitting them: 'Lift off the gas; the weight transfers forward, compresses the shocks and springs, and increases the tire patch to give you more grip on the turning wheels. Make not more than a half-turn of the steering wheel. Accidents happen when you yank the steering wheel. A half-turn is enough to move the car into the next lane. Midway through the lane change, get back on the gas. That puts weight back on the rear tires, giving you traction so you don't spin out or get sideways. And that's a lot quicker and safer than just jumping on the brakes.'(The tire patch is the small area at the bottom of the tire that is actually in contact with the road surface.)

If the car has anti-lock brakes, go ahead and jump on the brakes. In fact, push them all the way down and turn the steering wheel to avoid the impact. 'If you're in a slide, stand on the brakes, look where you want to go, and steer that way. With ABS, you will come out of the slide.' Bondurant says few people are taught how to use anti-lock brakes, which pulse the brakes thousands of times a second when a sensor detects impending wheel lockup. Some systems give the driver feedback through the brake pedal, which vibrates or moves up and down.

Unfortunately, drivers who don't understand how ABS works tend to take their feet off the brakes or pump the brakes when they feel that vibration. 'This pumping of the brakes will eliminate all the benefits associated with ABS, and you will not be able to stop as quickly.' The same with taking the foot off the brake. The ability to steer under panic braking is the most important advantage of ABS. Without it, the front wheels can lock up and the driver can lose control of the vehicle.

6) Just because a vehicle can go in nasty weather when others cannot doesn't mean it can stop. Four-wheel-drive vehicles have little or no advantage over two-wheel-drive cars on ice. Slow down and stay farther behind the car ahead in snow, sleet and heavy rain. Roads are especially slippery early in a rainstorm because oil and fuel ground into the road floats up to the surface.

7) Modern sport-utility vehicles, which are increasingly popular, can be as maneuverable as cars, but their higher center of gravity can make them more inclined to roll over in some situations. Don't drive them too fast around sharp turns.

8) 'The all-important thing is concentrate on your driving and enjoy it. A lot of people don't enjoy driving. They just plunk their fannies in the car and drive down the road thinking about what happened during the day, about everything but what they're doing right now. That's why a lot of people crash. So enjoy your driving.'

9) This final piece of advice comes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and most automakers. Never put a baby in a rear-facing infant seat in the front seat of any vehicle with a front passenger airbag unless that vehicle has an airbag disable switch. The initial force of a deploying airbag pushing its way through the instrument panel and into the back of the infant seat can kill a baby. All children younger than 12 should ride in the back seat. If a child must be in front, push the seat as far back as it will go and fasten the child's seat belts securely to keep him safely away from the airbag in a crash.


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Bob Bondurant's Safe Driving on the Street - Autotrader