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road sage

The sky was dark and bruised when I left at five in the afternoon. Twenty minutes later, after a hard rain, the sun burst out. I was driving west. The solar glare reflected off the wet pavement was blinding. Realizing my sunglasses were still at home, I took the next right and pulled over.

Autumn had surprised me.

Canadians are always surprised by autumn, despite the fact that it happens every year. We get lulled into a false sense of summer. Perhaps it’s the optimist in us and we let ourselves believe the season of sunshine and short-sleeves will go on forever. Regardless, autumn arrives like a cold slap. We are left wondering, “This? Again?”

Drivers neglect to remind themselves that fall is also one of the most dangerous times of year on the road. Blame the sun. In autumn, the sun is lower in the sky and this causes a more direct angle to its glare. The result? A blinding gleam on the windshield that obstructs the view of traffic lights, pedestrians and other vehicles.

Aside from the potential for blinding sunsets, fall brings other challenges. There is frost and moisture obscuring windscreens and side mirrors in the mornings, wet leaves covering the roads, an increased chance of fog, and, if you live in a rural region, an increased risk of hitting wildlife (particularly deer).

Preparation is the key to navigating autumn. Always bring your sunglasses. Give your headlights a clean. Know the risks. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the first few minutes after a light downpour are the most risky. That’s because the rain combines with oil from other cars and from new asphalt and makes the roads slippery. A hard rain, in contrast, will wash away the oil.

A driver can also use a little common sense. If you are driving and you can’t see clearly, find a way to fix the problem or pull over. You wouldn’t run around at high speed if you suddenly lost your sense of sight. Why would you drive?

When it comes to driving awareness, our law enforcement occasionally seems to have its priorities mixed. Last week, for instance, Toronto police spent time using radar guns to warn cyclists in Etobicoke of the dangers of exceeding the 20 km/h speed limit. Look, I despise the yahoos who play Tour de France on suburban bike paths as much as the next guy – they are annoying and have the potential to be dangerous – but they aren’t responsible for killing pedestrians and cyclists every week. Drivers are. Instead of shaking down suburban cyclists how about educating drivers on autumn’s pitfalls?

It would have helped the cyclist I saw the day I was blinded by the light.

After a few minutes waiting on the side of the road, I started my engine and drove east. The glare, however, was still bright. It made my mirrors almost useless. I had a busy bike lane beside me and so, rather than make the right turn I had planned, I kept driving until I was sure the bike lane was clear. I made my stop and found myself ten minutes later driving on the same patch of road.

There, where I had elected not to turn, was a stunned cyclist who had been dinged by a pick-up truck. Mercifully, she was all right. She was standing and there was no blood. She had that look on her face: a combination of relief that she had come out relatively unscathed and terror that she had come so close. The driver, for his part, was clearly mortified, yet grateful too, that this driving lesson had not come at any higher a price.

So please fellow motorists, summer has flown away. Thanksgiving has passed. Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. Let’s keep it that way.

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