Thursday, 25 August 2011

Maintaining a safe braking distance.

Driving is something I quite like doing.  I don't do it very often as I only drive when it's necessary out of concern for the environment.  (I've got great access to public transport mostly and it's cheaper and less stressful to use.  To give you an idea, my car was new in 1994 and today it has just over 81,000km on the clock.)  Another consideration is the difficulty of reading a novel when driving.  Although when I see the variety of things that other people do in their cars while driving, I really need to lift my game.

Today, an emergency trip to the hairdresser* necessitated me driving so I would get there in time.  I believe that I am calm and even-tempered when driving.  I don't get impatient when in a traffic jam (what's the point?) but I am concerned at other people's traffic habits.

So my hairdresser is in Toorak and for those of you unfamiliar with Melbourne, Toorak is a wealthy established suburb.  In other words, there are lots of women (and they are women) driving big expensive cars.  Very slowly.  As I tried to exit the car park, I was detained by a woman gripping the steering wheel trying to park a very large Audi sedan.  You know how it goes.  Edge it forward. Slam on the brakes.  Put the car into reverse.  Turn the steering wheel a smidgen.  Edge backward.  Slam on the brakes.  Put the car into drive.  Edge forward. Slam on the brakes. Rinse and repeat as many times as it takes to get the car parked, or for 45 minutes, which ever is longer.

I think her driver must have been on his day off and she had to buy food herself.

After extricating myself from the car park, I hit the open road.  By open road, I mean the streets around a suburban shopping village with lots of big expensive cars and bigger 4 wheel drives being driven by people who drive at an average speed of 5 km/hour.

It was one of those days on the road.  Cars were either going so slowly they may as well have been going nowhere at all or they were weaving in and out of traffic, changing lanes suddenly and nudging in front of me where it made it impossible for me to obey the signs instructing me to  maintain a safe braking distance.

I will admit that city driving is a different kind of driving from country driving where I had my first driving experiences.  Growing up on a farm meant that we could drive and hotwire a car before we'd learned running writing.  We were always driving up to collect the mail from the letterbox out on the highway. Or feeding sheep from the back of the Toyota during a drought.  My brother and I were doing this one day - he usually drove even though he was younger.  He told me that he would get out of the cabin and onto the back of the vehicle so he could throw the feed to the livestock.  My task was to use the hand throttle and point the vehicle  in a particular direction so it would move very slowly without needing one of us to drive.  I would then get out and help with the feeding.  While his instruction was meticulous he neglected to mention the hand throttle was very sensitive.  I just pulled it out and he nearly flew from the back of the truck.  There was a lot of yelling.  Doing a test and actually having a driving licence did seem like a bizarre ritual in this context.

In western Queensland there aren't many hills and I was concerned about how I was going to be able to practise doing a hill start.  My (younger) brother showed me how on the banks of the dam.  Looking back, the consequences of failing were dire.  I've never had problems with hill starts - perhaps the fear of ending up in the dam with the vehicle and the inevitable conversation that would take place with my father helped.

The test itself was booked in with the local policeman in town and took about 5 minutes.  We drove around town a couple of times so I was able to demonstrate my ability to obey the one stop sign and the one give way sign.  He asked me if I knew how to do a hill start (I explained the teaching methodology) and then asked me to do a parallel park outside the police station.  Because it was over so quickly, I was certain I had failed.  I was wrong and I've been driving ever since I got my provisional licence that day at the age of 17.

In my overseas travels, I've noticed the different personalities that the traffic has in different countries.  In Spain it's loud and pushy.  Horns are honked incessantly.  Drivers get out of their cars and yell at other drivers.  The traffic goes nowhere at all.  The taxi drivers smoke right next to the "non fumar" sign on the dashboard and get their revenge when you complain by taking you the long way round to the airport.  Or if you're in the mediaeval city of Toledo, they navigate the narrow streets with great pragmatism, pulling the car up next to a side street to allow a door to be opened on one side of the car and then pulling up to the next one  so a door can be opened on the other side of the car.  A traffic jam occurred in these streets one day and brought the whole place to a standstill.  Tourists in one of those gigantic campervan Maui things had decided to cruise the streets of Toledo and had become wedged at the back of the cathedral.  I don't know how they got it out, but I doubt they were getting their deposit back from the rental place.

In Portugal, I thought I would die in the beige Mercedes Benz taxi as I left the train station in Lisbon to find my accommodation for the week.  The driver went at 90km  per hour through narrow winding city streets and then slammed the brakes on and reversed up a hill when he realised he'd gone past my destination.  I'm still recovering.

And then there's traffic in India.  Arriving at about 10 o'clock at night into Chennai airport was an extraordinarily sensual experience - every sense was challenged, stimulated and in overdrive.  The number of people outside the terminal was incredible and I was very pleased to locate the driver from my hotel.  Miraculous! Navigating the volume of vehicles was one thing, but then there was also the variety - cars, trucks, buses, cows, bicycles, motorcycles with five family members piled on them, tuk tuks  and pedestrians and dogs and more cows. At first glance it seemed chaotic - lines marked on the road seemed to be there only as decoration, travel did not move in lanes.  Horns were used, but they sounded friendlier than the Spanish - more a happy sounding "I'm here" than a grumpy "get out of my way".  There was an overall feeling of cooperation and I never saw an accident.

One day I had to get some cash out of the automatic teller.  The nearest one was located just across the road from the hotel.  The words "across the road" filled me with dread and fear as the concierge uttered them.  How would I cross the road?  There was no crossing and the traffic never stopped.  I walked a little way and spotted some locals who were going to cross the road.  I'll follow them, I thought.  Their strategy was to walk out into the traffic.  I watched them reach the other side untouched as the traffic flowed around them.  The law of the land seemed to be a combination of "have faith" and "hesitate and die".  Another pair of locals looked like they would cross, so I went in their wake.  It was terrifying, but I made it across and back!

To get to a special conference dinner one evening, we would travel in buses.  We reached a huge roundabout.  Entered and then stopped.  And then the bus reversed.  We needed to do a u-turn and instead of going all the way around the roundabout the bus driver did a 47 point turn at the entry to what seemed to be the busiest roundabout in Chennai.  We made it out alive.

I thought of this experience of Indian traffic when I saw something on a main road near my home.  A bus pulled in to a stop in front of me.  As I drove past, I noticed an Indian man a block and a half a way start running for the bus.  He was short of stature and wide of girth and carrying a load of heavy plastic shopping bags.  "He's never going to make it," I thought to myself, but secretly I wanted him to win!  Then he showed his strategy - he left the footpath and started running on the road, against the traffic, towards the bus.  Ingenious!  the bus couldn't go anywhere without running him down.  As I drove further from the bus stop, he looked more and more like a bug that had been squashed on the grille of the bus.

Have faith or hesitate and die, indeed.

* I should mention Jared does the best blow wave ever.  You can see him at Tremayne in Toorak.  Emily and Damien do the colour and Desley cuts the tresses.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I have a team.

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