Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Giving Space

Cyclists Over the Striped Bridge
After a 7 year absence from the driver's seat, I found myself in one again as I practiced my rusty motoring skills on the narrow winding roads of Northern Ireland. I still have no plans to buy a car here. But I want to be able to operate one when called upon. Skills, after all, are useful things, and I never intended to let my ability to drive atrophy. But alas, time passed and atrophy it did - so that this time around it felt as if I were learning to drive from scratch.

Some of the novelty had to do with the left-handed traffic flow here. I did not expect for this to be problematic, as I have no trouble at all switching into left-hand mode when riding my bicycle. What I didn't anticipate was the difference in the visuo-spatial experience of operating a right-hand drive car. It seems that over the years I drove in the past, my brain must have grown accustomed to relying on certain markers on the road in relation to the contours of the car's front end in determining my road position.

Of course these markers had been viewed from the vantage point of the American driver's seat, located on the left side of the car. In cars in Ireland and the UK, the driver's seat is located on the right, which results in a very different vantage point. So now that I drove from the opposite side of the car, my brain's reliance on those old cues was dangerously inaccurate - making me feel as if I were too far out to the right and about to smash into oncoming traffic, whereas in reality I'd be too far to the left, about to drive into a ditch or smash into a stone wall. It took me weeks of regular, supervised driving - during which I  kept my road position as instructed, ignoring every fibre of my being screaming "you're too close to the right! swerve left or else you'll hit that truck coming toward you!!" - before my brain re-callibrated to the correct vantage point. But gradually I stopped flinching when passing cars on the opposite side of the road, and the proper road position began to feel more and more natural until at last, I was pronounced safe to drive on my own. "Here," said my beloved/ instructor, handing me his car keys with alarming nonchalance, "I won't need it today, so why don't you take it and practice."

A car to myself!... oh what exciting places would I drive to? I decided to visit the supermarket and stock up on all the bulkiest items that were a pain to transport by bike. The route into town, while only 8 miles in distance, had it all: twisty narrow roads, a dangerous bridge, hairpin bends, blind crests, a crazily-cambered roundabout, and exquisitely subtle "Yield" markings painted in unexpected places. It was also, on that particular Saturday morning, positively teeming with cyclists - this despite the vigorous rain that grew gleefully torrential as I pulled out of my lane and onto the main road.

As I drove, surprisingly calm, passing one cyclist after another while watching for oncoming traffic through the flow of water and the manic sweep of the windshield wipers, I thought about the notion of giving space. Linguistically, this phrase fosters a sense that we have this space, our space (in this case the entire travel lane?), and then we give it. If we're feeling good, we give it generously, magnanimously. If we're out of sorts or in a hurry, we give it irritably, begrudgingly. Either way, it portrays the driver in the role of some grand benefactor. Only the thing is, I thought, navigating the bendy, slippery road that demanded my full attention, we do not "give" it at all. It's more accurate to think of ourselves as taking space - whilst continuously adjusting our position, speed and trajectory based on road conditions and other road users. When I pass a cyclist, I am not giving them space. I am partaking of a common space in a way that must not interfere with their ability to do the same.

It's not that this realisation was profound. If anything it had an ordinary, organic feel to it. But it made me feel comfortable in my role as vehicle operator, while also renewing my appreciation for the skill of driving. To manipulate ourselves through space in a vehicle, we must have excellent control of that vehicle. And I'm not sure at all that most drivers do - myself in my younger years included. And this feeling of the lane we happen to be in being "our" lane, like a dedicated track on which we can switch into mental auto-pilot mode, is one symptom of that. There is no space on the road that is ours, ever. We must at all times carve it out, at once confidently and cautiously, and, most importantly, while being fully switched on.

It's been a couple of months now since I've been able to drive solo again. And I believe that, this time around, I am actually a competent driver - a realisation that makes me prouder than I'd anticipated. But moreover, driving feels different to me now than it did 7 years ago. In large part it's because my past hatred of driving has been replaced with curiosity and enthusiasm - ironically, as a result of cycling. I find myself fascinated by the car's handling, by why it does what it does under different circumstances, speeds and road conditions. And all this makes me a lot more involved in the process of driving, a more deliberate, aware and engaged vehicle operator. I don't give space. But I feel like I understand how to take it, safely - whether on a bike or inside a car.

28 comments:

  1. If everyone was as thoughtful a participant in traffic as you are, the world would be safer and more friendly.

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    1. To be fair, where I live right now the landscape fosters good driving. To survive the roads here, you better be paying attention and know how to handle your car!

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    2. Is it low trail? Long tail?

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    3. Hmm...I don't have memories of good driving in Northern Ireland. Because most of the country is rural, there is a high degree of car dependency and all too often there seemed to be tragedies involving kids driving along country lanes far too fast. It is just a perception and I don't have the stats to back this up!

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  2. yes! awareness & control, not so prevalent here.
    many working on their "texting while driving" skills tho.

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  3. Next project: Lovely Automobile.



    Wolf.

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  4. What a lovely way to think of "sharing the road"! Seems to me the bike experience has flowed into the driving experience; when I'm on the bike I'm very aware that I don't own the road that I'm cycling on!

    I too thought that it shouldn't be too difficult to adjust from driving on the other side of the road; just a matter of not turning into the wrong lane! But then I read this, and now I'm getting nervous. I'm going to learn to drive in Boston, but in a few years will move back to a country with left-hand drive cars... and drivers who are worse than Boston drivers. Fingers crossed for when that day comes!

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  5. My partner and I were discussing this issue just this morning on our commute to work. It was evident that most of the motorists had no real idea of what three feet of distance to the right of their SUVs meant (here in Nebraska, America Herself, that's not a law, but a "suggestion"). I attribute that to the fact that most male drivers have spent their entire lives convinced that two-and-a-half inches is a foot, while the women try to put at least one waist size between their vehicles and oncoming traffic...

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  6. Great article on how we conceive 'space'.
    This should lead us to reflect on the idea of 'space' in general. Who owns space? How is it maintained and by whom? Who controls our spaces? Why should space be democratic and public, rather than autocratic and private?

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  7. Well said. I do think cycling, especially cycling as transportation, brings a whole new appreciation for driving. I know that has been my experience. When I do drive these days, I very much consider it as a luxury to be appreciated and savored and that translates to relaxed and courteous motoring.

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  8. Driving urban vs. rural, two different things, one more pleasant than the other. Giving space? indeed!….! Wars begin with the lack thereof…Let's look out for each other.

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  9. No, you are not a good driver. You are a novice, competent. There is always, always room for improvement.

    I was recently told I was the best driver my passenger had seen due to the way I shifted. That's a small part of driving that I might be good at, but there are constant new challenges each day.

    What you can do is drive down a road without killing anyone. I don't know about this common space/give space bunk. That's wordplay that unfocuses the visualization most drivers need - a buffer space that is the cyclist's.

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    1. You are right; competent is what I meant.

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  10. Where I live motorists do assume ownership of roads, they relinquish space for other motorists, albeit begrudgingly, but never for cyclists. There are designated sections of roads here for cyclists, but that is the last place I would ride my bike as motorists can also use these lanes and as a cyclist you are just an easy target. In the country it may well be different, but in urban areas motorists never look happy, they are stressed and they throw that stress out onto every one else using 'their' roads. I ride my bike defensively, I take the space I need and on the rare occasion that a motorist actually shows consideration I am appreciative.

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    1. In the US, I had grown so used to not being given my right of way when on a bike that it took months to believe drivers in Ireland really did perceive me as a vehicle. Blew my mind.

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    2. I imagine bicycles are still commonly used in Ireland - when I was growing up bicycles were everywhere, used for transport, shopping etc. As car ownership increased, the perception of bicycles changed and now there is scant regard for cyclists. There is no way I would ride with the traffic on main roads here - and I have been riding bikes for many, many years.

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  11. I think the best things that ever happened to my driving were riding a bicycle in the city and riding a motorcycle. Being prey makes one much more sensitive about being a predator.

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  12. My trips to Ireland showed that the Irish prefer simpler vehicles than what a typical US driver expects. I think in 2006 something like 85% of vehicles had manual transmissions there.

    A simple small vehicle with properly developed handling is much easier to control than a wallowing 5000lb SUV no matter how many "driving aids" are installed.

    I prefer the small vehicle so much, I go against convention. I drive a hardtop roadster....year round....in Ohio.

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    1. The carscape here has undergone several changes since 2006, as a consequence of the economic bubble and resulting burst. I am told the SUV craze hit around 2006-2007, to the point that soon "nearly everyone" had one. But by 2010, the owners were getting rid of them en masse, no longer able to afford the running costs (poor gas milage, plus most of these vehicles ran on petrol rather than diesel). Some converted their cars to auto-gas at this stage. But most sold them, so that soon the secondhand market was flooded with fancy SUVs that were practically being given away, but no one could afford anyway. You can still see remnants of this in local ads - luxury petrol SUVs for £1,000 and the like. However, at some point most were exported in bulk to NZ and various far Eastern and African countries. Today the trend seems to be for smallish, turbo-diesel cars with good milage. Most are manual transmission, though this is perceived as done not for the sake of simplicity, but because it's considered a superior system :)

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  13. Like 10:22am Anonymous said, knowing both sides makes it easier all around. NYC midtown driving + motorcycle + bicycle wil hopefully lead to longevity knowing each's weaknesses and leanings.
    You get very intuitive about the space of the door (having received the door prize once already) and the lack of people checking their right (now your left) mirror.
    I always use a geeky Third Eye rear view mirror. I won't ride without one. Give great situational awareness ... and wheelsuckers can't hide!

    Vacations - girlfriend loves to suggest some island where the traffic is left side. I get to be chauffer driving some little box on a different side of the road both right hand or left habd drive from time to time. The traffic circles / roundabouts are fun ... usually littered with license plates, headlights, and car body parts!

    vsk

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    1. I've grown to enjoy roundabouts ...though I did recently come across a burnt-out car smack in the middle of one. The ashy sedan skeleton was just standing there, in the middle of the lane, as if the car had burst into flames no sooner than the driver jumped out. By that same afternoon it was removed and I never did find out what happened there.

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  14. I've always perceived American drivers as entitled to the road as opposed to giving/sharing space. As Americans, we have freedoms (again seen as entitlements). As you know now, a cyclist makes a safer driver. If young people are taught to ride a bike for transportation first, then be allowed to get a driver's license and purchase their own vehicle, the roads would be a safer place. Affordability may play a big part in today's college graduates transportation options - namely, paying education loans will take precedence. Perhaps using a bicycle and/or public transportation will become common place (it's certainly beginning here) and we'll all appreciate each other's road space and learn to share nicely.

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  15. In some European countries you have to work your way up from scooter to motorbike to car, right? Seems totally logical. In the US a kid who has maybe never walked in an urban setting and never ridden a bike on the road gets handed the keys to a Hummer when they are 16 -- our dumbest and most reckless age.
    -------

    Hey, does this post foreshadow you writing about Formula One driving race cars in 3 years? I don't see you as the NASCAR type. ;)

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  16. My driving skills are "rusty driving skills" too. The result of 36 years of rusty driving.

    I hope to someday perfect my "Shiny, unwrinkled Driving Skills" but there's still a while till the "Shiny, Unwrinkled and Recently Paid For" is no longer spoken for by the "Young And Promising But Not Yet Out Of The House" or the "Must Arrive In The Manner Of A Professional And Not A Stevedore"...

    Spindizzy

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  17. Hey, get on the stick. There's a million people without lives checking this site every 30 minutes for something new...

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  18. Bikes should behave like cars as much as possible, and I mean in terms of using the road, not in terms of ignoring everyone whos not a car.
    its just about being more predictable I guess.
    As a cyclist motorbiker and driver (on occasion) its just about how easily the other guy can read you...

    here are a my rules of thumb that you can apply to riding in general, but are extra crucial during night riding:

    Make sure you are seen

    Be predictable, keep a straight line at a constant distance from the curb and shoulders

    Signal and look back before making any lane changes or turns

    If you’re riding around cars, keep the same rules as cars do. It’s not about being nice; it’s about making sure cars understand you and respect your presence on the road

    Avoid overtaking busses and trucks whenever possible

    more on this in my blog post, I know its more about night riding but...
    http://tinyurl.com/night-riding-blog

    Ride Safe

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  19. Here is something to keep in mind for all drivers, whether experienced or novice: learn to drive stick. I had good advice while working in New Jersey 15 years ago when my kids were teens and I was about to get rid of the stick Escort: keep it and make the kids not only learn to drive stick but make them take their driving test in the car. Why? Who cares? Well, if your teen kids are at a party and the driver of the car gets drunk, who is going to drive if nobody knows how to drive stick? How about them apples, Colonel?

    So, my kids learned to drive on that Escort and took their driving test on it too. My thought on this idea has evolved: now I think that as part of the driving test ALL drivers should demonstrate proficiency on a manual transmission. This is for everybody's safety and security. PJT

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