Not long ago, I listed 10 things that alert me to trouble on the road (deep-tint windows, giant chrome wheels, homemade spoilers, etc.).
This sparked an interesting discussion about driver behaviour, risk-assessment and vehicular symbolism – and, as a bonus, the ever-astute readers of the Globe and Mail alerted me to some cues I hadn't thought of (like rental moving trucks). Yes, the people have spoken. And I thought of a few risk alerts that I'd forgotten myself. So let's look at 10 more signs of trouble:
The Fast and Furious Replica Car
If you've seen any of the Fast and Furious movies, you will understand that adherents of the film franchise (which is based on heists, illegal street racing and over-styled car stunts) may have a limited understanding of physics and driving etiquette. Years of watching Vin Diesel's digitally enhanced exploits can lead you to believe that you can slide a car sideways through oncoming traffic and, at 200 km/h, spin it through the air – but your chances of real-world success are severely limited. So if you spot a car that looks like it was inspired by any of the movies (the 2001 original was followed by five sequels), it's best to steer clear. Telltale signs include (but are not limited to) carbon fibre body panels, Japanese performance decals, add-on wings and roll bars.
The Deep Recliner
Proper seat positioning is a fundamental aspect of car control. But the Deep Recliner drivers aren't focused on trivial matters like reaching the steering wheel and seeing over the dash. Instead, they follow their own style, angling the seat so that they're nearly horizontal, in a position that conjures up a customer being serviced at a Thai massage parlour. If you can't see an entire head and neck above the windowsills, keep your distance.
The Vehicular Vatican
I'm not against prayer beads, statues of the Virgin Mary or stained glass depictions of Jesus's miraculous resurrection. But my alarms go off when I see a car turned into a moving place of worship, indicating that the driver may be more focused on the next life than this one (where we happen to be sharing the road). The most egregious example I have ever witnessed was a taxi in Kandahar, Afghanistan, that had been converted into a mobile mosque: the interior was filled with prayer rugs and candle holders, and the side windows were draped with heavy tapestries. The windshield had been covered with a poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud (an Afghan hero who was assassinated in 2001), forcing the driver to lean out the side window to see oncoming traffic. A couple of religious items are not a cause for concern, but if there are enough to obscure outward vision or access to essential controls, beware.
The Rental Truck
Practice makes perfect, as they say – especially when it comes to operating a super-sized vehicle with a high centre of gravity, dodgy steering, and a load that may include anything from garden furniture to propane tanks. And when you see a rental moving truck on the road, there is a better-than-even chance that you are dealing with a first-time operator. Like the owner of a 14-foot aluminum fishing boat who has suddenly been placed at the helm of a Carnival cruise ship, there will be a transition period, and it's best not to be within striking distance during this time.
The Bazooka Exhaust Pipe
Although aftermarket modifications are always cause for concern, the giant tailpipe is a special case. The risk level rises in direction proportion to the exhaust pipe's diameter – anything beyond the diameter of a beer can raises the risk level to Defcon Three or so. One of my most experienced driving colleagues believes there is actually an inverse relationship between exhaust pipe size and IQ. Although his theory remains scientifically unproven, the oversize tailpipe makes a number of statements, none of them good.
If you grew up reading National Geographic, you'll know that nature does not reward individuals for standing out from the main group (erratic fish get eaten by sharks, etc.). Which brings us to the Deker – the driver who flits from lane to lane like a mentally defective greyhound. The Deker stands out, and not in a good way – after all, smoothness is the hallmark of the skilled and aware driver. My theory: nature has the Deker in its sights, and Darwin-style elimination is only a matter of time. So keep your distance – today might just be the day.
It's illegal to use a hand-held phone while driving, and there are substantial fines for doing it. Yet there is a diehard contingent that still travels the roads with one hand on the wheel while the other clamps their cellphone to the side of their skull. There are two reasons for concern. Most obviously, the Talker's attention is divided between an electronic device and the road (which you also happen to occupy). Second, they don't care much about the law, or about a changing world – like the militant smoker who still insists on lighting up in the cancer ward or on an airplane, Talkers are throwbacks who puts their vices ahead of your health and safety. Steer clear.
Speed kills, as they say. But excessive slowness is also cause for alarm. A driver whose pace is sharply below that of prevailing traffic may as well be a steel post erected in the middle of the highway – sooner or later, a faster driver will probably run into them, so it's best to stay far away so you don't get caught up in the mayhem.
See previous item ("The Tortoise") and reverse everything (except the alarm). When a driver operates far above the speed of traffic, crashing is a matter of "when," not "if." Behoove yourself accordingly.
The Left Lane Resident
As a serious student of the driving arts, you are conversant with lane theory, which dictates staying to the right on a multi-lane highway except when you are overtaking other cars. For this reason, the left lane is known as either "the fast lane" or "the passing lane," and its proper use promotes efficient traffic flow and increases safety. This is both common knowledge and common sense – so when you see a car that remains stuck out in the left lane, you will know that you are in the presence of a driver who possesses neither. The behaviour of Left Lane Residents can be the product of substandard spatial awareness, inability to use the rear-view mirrors, or simple stubbornness. All are cause for alarm.
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