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Better Driver

Driving on the straight and narrow Add to ...

During the past week, five events in two countries caused me to think about lane position and discipline.

The incidents

1. East of Los Angeles on the twisty Azusa Canyon Road in the San Gabriel Mountains. I was following a really old Toyota Camry with four young people in it. The driver continually and deliberately cut corners by driving across the other lane.

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2. The next day on Route 95 outside of Missoula, Mont., a young lady at the wheel of a fairly new Dodge minivan kept dropping one wheel off the shoulder.

3. I obtained first-hand experience with the lane-monitoring system in the upcoming 2012 Mercedes ML350 SUV.

4. Two days later on the drive home from the airport, I was behind an older Honda Accord being driven by an adult male who repeatedly crowded the centre line, only to pull back sharply when an approaching vehicle got close.

5. The fifth was the report in the newspaper of a deadly crash in which one vehicle was witnessed “wandering” into the path of oncoming traffic.

The reasons

1. The first situation was a deliberate attempt to shorten the distance travelled, to straighten out a relentlessly twisty piece of road. There can be no argument that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Nor that the best line around a race tack involves an apex in the middle or a corner and using all of the road when entering the corner and accelerating out to the opposite edge when leaving the corner.

But this does not apply on public roads where lane markings are used for a number of purposes, chief among them separating vehicles travelling in opposite directions. The young driver in this case was caught out by an oncoming vehicle mid-corner. Each time this happened, he would jump on the brakes and steer sharply back into his lane.

2. This was clearly a case of inattention or distraction. As we pulled alongside while passing on a four-lane section, I could see the lady talking – whether to someone on the other end of a hands-free call or one of the two youngsters in car seats in the second row.

The driver was resting her left hand on the window sill with her right at the 3 o’clock position on the steering wheel. Each time her attention wandered from the task of driving safely, the unbalanced position of the right hand naturally pulled down, causing the vehicle to pull to the right and onto the shoulder. The resulting noise and vibration were a wake-up call.

3. The lane monitoring system has become rather common in luxury cars. These systems use cameras to watch the vehicle’s position within parallel lane markings and warn the driver when he has wandered outside the lane, unless he or she has signalled first, indicating an intention to move out of the lane.

The most recent version I have driven – in the 2012 Mercedes ML350 – is the best yet. The company calls its Active Lane Keeping Assist. If you should start to move out of that lane without signalling, the system will shake the steering wheel. The vibration is impossible to ignore. If the vehicle continues on its wayward course, the system can selectively apply the brakes on one inboard wheel to pull the car back into the lane.

4. That is exactly what I wanted to do to the driver of the Accord who kept wandering over the centre line and the back into the lane in front of me – pull him back. On two occasions, like the young Camry driver in California, he was surprised by oncoming traffic.

5. The crash might well have been caused by inattention, distraction or the driver falling asleep. The driver in the No. 4 situation could well have ended the same way. Both situation show the importance of staying within your lane.

The lesson

We learn about lanes in driving school, their purposes and the danger of forgetting that one of them is to create and maintain a safe distance between vehicles travelling in opposite directions.

In this day of multiple lanes, choosing the correct lane becomes a critical factor, not only with respect to safe driving, but also progress.

Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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