As Charles Darwin discovered, nature has a brutal logic known as natural selection. A species is gradually improved by the elimination of its weakest members – the slowest gazelles fall to the lions, leaving the faster ones to improve the herd.
I thought of this as I watched a young woman in a Mercedes drive through two stop signs in my Toronto neighbourhood while keying her Blackberry. Then came Bathurst Street, where the light happened to be red – the Mercedes went straight through it without slowing down. Brakes screeched, and a northbound dump truck missed the Mercedes by a few millimetres or so.
Natural selection had been averted, but barely.
The day before, my wife and I were passed on the eastbound Highway 401 by a Hyundai SUV that looked all wrong as it approached in my mirrors. The Hyundai's tail was almost dragging on the ground, like the hindquarters of a sick hyena. Then we noticed the overloaded rear bumper rack, stacked with suitcases and beer coolers, its steel support arm bending under the strain.
Hyundai's engineers had designed a pretty decent suspension system that should keep a driver and the vehicles around him safe. Now all their hard work was out the window thanks to someone who didn't understand the concept of weight distribution. This was what my father used to call an accident going somewhere to happen.
And I wondered – how long would it take before the tail-heavy Hyundai and the red-light-running Mercedes became part of Darwin's harvest? And who might they take with them?
In some cases, the forces of natural selection assert themselves swiftly. You may have heard about the Sept. 2 crash that killed five young men in California, for example. It happened 21 minutes after one of them sent a Tweet from a speeding Nissan that read: "Drunk (expletive) going 120 drifting corners….YOLO." (YOLO is an acronym for "You Only Live Once.")
Darwin, Five; Drunk Tweeters, Zero.
As a young man, I felt invincible behind the wheel. Not any more. And I've been thinking lately about the calculus of risk, and what it takes not to die in a vehicle. As an actuary can tell you, the majority of car crashes involve well-known factors – such as speed, impairment or distraction. If you ignore stop signs and speed limits long enough, or get behind the wheel enough times after serious drinking, there's an excellent chance that you will be learn Darwin's theory the hard way.
The trick is to learn from the close calls. Like the time back in the 1970s that I accidentally spun my modified VW Beetle while practising high-performance cornering technique on the road to Whistler, B.C. I knew it was a bad idea, but that didn't stop me. In Darwinian terms, I was like the wildebeest who parades past the lion's den.
As my car went sideways, I realized that I should have listened to my dad when he told me to take it easier through curves. After a tire-screeching, 360-degree spin and a close encounter with a large tree, I drove home well below the speed limit. I had been spared and chastened.
Then there was the day in 1987 when I learned that the abandoned railroad track outside Trenton, Ga., that no one slowed down for wasn't actually abandoned after all. I learned this when a loaded freight train roared through moments after I crossed. If I'd arrived five seconds later, I would have been eliminated from the gene pool, along with my wife and daughter.
I've seen a lot of crashes since I started driving back in the 1960s. Each one has added a note to my mental list of things not to do. When I was in Grade 9, an older student at my school was killed when he rolled his Fiat convertible on a back road after drinking a case of beer with friends. Not long after that, three other students died when they went off a bridge after smoking a brick of hashish at a field party.
Then came university. In first year, four of my friends failed to arrive for a party at my parent's house in Brussels, Belgium. The next morning, we learned why – their car had sideswiped a concrete overpass on the Autoroute at more than 140 km/h. Two of my friends were dead, and another was left in a coma that would prove permanent. The only real survivor was the driver, a guy I remembered mostly for his drug intake, which was stunning, even by the standards of university in the mid-1970s.
So drugs and driving were out for me. But there were plenty of other risks. A friend of my father's was killed when a distracted truck driver ran into him while he was changing a tire on the shoulder of the Trans-Canada highway. My brother-in-law went off the road when one of his tie-rods snapped. (He was okay.) Others fared less well – like the motorcycle buddy who decided to turn his Honda's headlight off on a British Columbia back road to ride by moonlight. Next thing he knew, he was waking up beneath a black velvet sky with a warm, massive weight on his chest. He had ridden into a moose. My buddy lived, but never walked again.
As I head toward my fifth decade of driving, I realize that I've been lucky. But as I got older, I also developed a list of rules that (I hoped) would improve my odds and keep my genes in the pool. Here are a few of them. Feel free to add your own.
- Don’t buy a high-performance car until you’re 50 years old
- Imagine that someone is running the red light at every intersection
- Keep your headlights on all the time
- Stop at every railroad crossing
- Stay a long way behind the cars in front of you
- Never pass unless you can see at least 10 seconds worth of road ahead
- Never ride with a driver who has a Dale Earnhardt Number Three sticker on the door or a Confederate flag painted on the roof
- No dope. No drinking
- Look where you want to go, not at what you’re trying to miss
- Don’t use all-season tires
- Imagine that other drivers are trying to kill you. Some of them are.
For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)
Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/