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Globe and Mail columnist Peter Cheney's father, Major Ben Cheney, in the early 1980s.
Globe and Mail columnist Peter Cheney's father, Major Ben Cheney, in the early 1980s.

Road Rush

Life-saving lessons of my father Add to ...

My father died 14 years ago. But that didn’t stop him from saving my life last week.

My close call came on a deceptively perfect afternoon. The sun was shining, Neil Young was playing on the stereo, and I had a few hours off duty – I was cruising west on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, looking forward to a cross-country glider flight at my club.

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As usual, the Gardiner was busy, and my little red car was a single molecule in a fast-moving stream of metal. I passed the glinting office towers of downtown, then the Exhibition grounds. As the expressway curved, the cars ahead of me in the left lane suddenly began to slow, so I braked to match their speed. I could see that the lane was bunching up into what would be a full stop. I braked hard, so I could leave a few car lengths in front of me as a safety cushion, just in case – a trick my father taught me long ago.

As I did this, I rapidly scanned the rear-view mirrors, like an air force tail gunner watching for an approaching enemy formation. This scan was yet another routine my dad had hammered into me. I have looked a million times and seen nothing, but this time was different – a huge black SUV was bearing down on me at full speed, oblivious to the stopped traffic. A single thought flashed through my head: I was about to die, and my beautiful car was about to be converted into a ball of mangled aluminum.

I have never believed in the paranormal, but in the split-second that followed, I believe I actually heard my father’s voice. It was calm, yet instantaneous in its command: “Look,” his voice said. “And go.”

On my left was a concrete wall. On my right was a lane of fast-moving traffic. My eyes flashed to the right mirror. I released the clutch and accelerated into a tiny gap between two moving cars. The black SUV slewed past me on the left, tires screeching. It missed me by millimetres, sliding into the space where I had been a moment before. The SUV tagged the wall, but everyone lived – by leaving a gap, I had given the SUV an out. Or maybe my father had. Either way, it worked.

As I cruised away in the centre lane, Lake Ontario glinted off to the left like a vast sheet of polished blue metal, and the summer wind streamed over the shell of my moving car, redolent with the intermixed scents of grass, sun-warmed pavement and exhaust fumes. The world was beautiful, and thanks to my father, I was still here to be part of it.

After my brush with the SUV last week, I thought back to the 1960s, when my father began schooling me in the ways of driving. The lessons began on the west coast of Africa, and would continue in Canada and Europe – my father was a military officer, with a career that took us around the world. No matter where we lived, my father approached driving the same way that he approached a military mission, instructing me on fundamentals until they were engrained in me like a parade drill or rifle strip-down.

I didn’t always appreciate his methods. I got sick of him telling me to check the mirrors every few seconds, and it seemed stupid to leave so much space between my car and the one in front. When I asked him why I had to do this when no one else did, his answer was always the same: “The day will come.”

But the day never seemed to come. Instead, I lived a charmed driving life – no injuries, no bent metal. By the 1970s, we were in Brussels, Belgium, where my dad was part of the Canadian military attaché. I was in my teens, and like most teenagers, I knew far more than my father ever had. I could do four-wheel drifts, spin a car with the handbrake, and go around corners faster than my father. (I slid off the road a few times, but so did professional race drivers, right?)

More than a decade later, after I had married, launched my career and had children, my father underwent a miraculous IQ upgrade. Had he always been this smart? I realized that he was one of the finest drivers I had ever shared a car with. His technique was polished and understated – instead of driving to impress people, he focused on making each ride smooth and uneventful. He had the skills to drive fast, but the wisdom not to.

And like it or not, I did things the way he taught me. His maddening drills were now part of my DNA. I watched for ice in the shadows. I looked both ways as I went through green lights in case other drivers missed their red. I maintained a cushion of space around my car. And my eyes scanned the mirrors in an endless cycle. As a grown man, I knew what he meant when he said that the day would come.

By the time my father passed away in April 1999, he had taught me many things about cars, and other things as well. His final lesson was on the art of dying. When I asked him how he felt as the cancer consumed him, he looked at me the same way he had when I was a small boy. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s fine.”

I flew out to see my father on the west coast half a dozen times that year. My last conversation with him was on my cellphone, the day before an awards ceremony I had to attend as a nominee. I asked my dad to hang on, so I could come out see him one more time. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be here.”

Those would be the last words he spoke to me.

The next night, I won the award, and dedicated it to my father. When I got home, I learned that my dad had died about two hours later. Some might write that off as a coincidence, but I knew my dad better than that. He had made a promise.

In the years since, I have come to understand the true nature of that commitment. My father is still here when I need him, as I did last week on the expressway. The world of cars and driving is a deeply imperfect place, and children need the counsel of wise grownups to survive it.

I can see that the driverless car isn’t that far in the future. We already have systems that would have sounded like pipe dreams back in my father’s era – stability control systems, anti-lock brakes, digital fuel metering. The list goes on. Within my lifetime, we may see the end of the human driver and the rise of the robot car. Although I will miss driving, I can see the logic – robots don’t make the kind of errors that the driver of the black SUV did last week.

So when the robot car takes over, will my father’s lessons still be needed? The answer is yes. The wisdom of drivers like my dad will be written into computer language that controls the cars and keeps us safe – my father will live in lines of code, his teachings compressed into millions of ones and zeroes. He will be the ghost in the machine.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Please send your automotive maintenance and repair questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com

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