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A Valuable Driving Lesson

Author:Shaney Crawford, Issue: May 2003, Topic: Cars

A Day at the Japan Automobile Research Institute

I woke up at 6:30am on June 1, 2002 and I really didn't want to go to a driving class. I was invited by my homestay mother, though, so I couldn't get out of it. As it turns out, I am very glad that my sense of honor won out over my sense of go-away-and-leave-me-alone-it's-6-in-the-morning this time.

Until today, I only knew two kinds of driving classes. There is the one kind where you sit in a classroom and listen to someone tell you to wear your seatbelt and not talk on cell phones while driving. Then there is the other kind where you sit in a car and get criticized for your failure to parallel park perfectly. While both types provide valuable lessons, I didn't really want to wake up early on a Saturday to go to this kind of a class.

Today's class was completely different. First of all, there were no lectures. The instructors taught us by showing us. We got to actually sit in cars and do cool experiments. We pushed the limits of the cars' powers and then learned how to control the car even under such extreme circumstances. This kind of learning experience is so valuable because you remember it with your whole body, not just your brain. I think what I learned today will stick with me for a long time because of that.

The first lesson we learned was about visibility from the driver's seat. We sat in two different kinds of cars and they moved pylons around to show us exactly what we *couldn't* see. I thought that the visibility behind the car would be worse than the front, but actually there are huge areas in the front of cars that you can't see. The pillars that attach the roof to the rest of the frame cause a huge area of invisibility. The mirrors also block out a huge area. They parked a car in the middle of a parking lot and taped the areas of invisibility. It was really surprising how many blind spots there are in a car.

Next we went to see a drive simulator. They built this simple simulator to prove a point. They did some research into car accidents that took place at deserted intersections. Imagine an intersection that you might find in the middle of farmland. As you approach the intersection, you can see for miles in any direction. If a car is approaching from the left or right, you will be able to see the car coming from a long way off. They found that quite a large number of accidents happen at this kind of intersection. In fact, 200 people died in car accidents that happened in intersections like this last year alone (in Japan). When they asked survivors of such accidents about the details of the crash, they almost invariably said, "I didn't see the car at all. It came out of nowhere." That seemed to be a ridiculous answer because visibility in this kind of situation is almost perfect. But they heard the same answer so many times, they decided to research this situation.

What they found is quite amazing. You are more likely to notice cars that you are not likely to hit. And the inverse: you are less likely to notice cars that you are more likely to hit. It's really hard to explain here, but I'll give it a shot. The basic premise is that the periphery of your vision is able to pick up movement, but not details. For example, if there is a spider hanging just off your shoulder, you won't notice it unless it moves. Cars that are heading for the intersection on a trajectory to meet the intersection at the exact same time as you will appear *not* to be moving in your peripheral vision. And it doesn't really have to do with speed. Two cars can be travelling at different speeds, but if they are going to reach an intersection at the same time, they will be very difficult to spot in peripheral vision. Of course, if you move your head and look in the direction of the car, you will see it clearly. So the lesson from this experience is that you really have to move your head and actively look in all directions before you enter an intersection.

(My explanations from today's class are nothing compared to the actual experience that I had. I'll try my best to explain, but I really can't do it justice.)

After the simulator, we got to the really fun part. We got to hop into the cars and do stuff with them. I don't have a car yet, so my homestay mother lent me hers for the day.

Experiment #1: Stopping the car as quickly as possible
We drove the car at 50 km per hour, then when the guy dropped the flag, we slammed on the brakes and tried to stop as quickly as possible. I had to do this three times before I got it right. They wanted us to understand how strongly we have to slam on the brakes to get the car to stop in a short space. It was really good practice -- and a really good demonstration of the difference between cars with ABS and without. My car didn't have ABS, so every time I came to a screeching halt, rubber fumes went sailing around the car. Cars with ABS just came to a proper stop without ruining the tires. (I apologized to my homestay mother for doing bad things to her car, but she said that it was important for this experience and not to worry. She works at the institute, so she knew that this was going to happen.) The second part of this experiment was the same, but we traveled at 80km per hour before slamming on the brakes.

Experiment #2: Steering with speed, not the steering wheel
This experiment took place on a huge circular track with various white rings painted in concentric circles. The track was covered in water to make it a little bit slippery. We had to drive at 20km/hour around the smallest circle. Then, once we got the handle into a position that would let the car go around the circle without adjusting the steering wheel, we locked the steering wheel into position and then increased the speed of the car. As the speed increased, the car went further and further away from the smallest circle. The faster we went, the further we went away from the smallest circle. As the speed approached 50km/hour, we were at least 30 meters off course from our original path even though the handle had never moved. Then, as we started to slow down, the car went back to its original path ? still without steering at all. (Again, this is really hard to explain, but I'm doing my best with a very weak background in both cars and physics!) This experiment showed us how steering has a lot more to do with speed than we think it does. The steering wheel never moved during this experiment -- everything was controlled by speed. So, if you are in a turn and feel the car going out of control, the best thing you can do is slow down.

Experiment #3: Steering with speed and the steering wheel
We repeated the last experiment, but this time we tried to stay in the inner circle by cranking the steering wheel. It worked to a point, but then we went outside the circle once a certain speed was reached. Then, at the end, we were told to slam on the brakes and come to a halt as quickly as possible. Cars with ABS came to a halt and remained on course. Cars without ABS left the circle. Without ABS, the brakes make a huge, scary sound when they finally do come to a halt. The whole car shudders like it is going to fall apart. Apparently a lot of people hear that sound in an emergency situation and take their feet off the brakes. Today's lessons were to teach us how to ignore that sound and just keep our feet on the brakes.

After Experiment #3, we went for lunch. After lunch we saw demonstrations about child seats and tires. Both of them were very interesting. I especially enjoyed the one about tires because it gave me a good idea of what to look for when buying a used car.

Experiment #4: Hydroplaning
We went back to the straight track, but this time we used a special section of the track that was covered in a polymer to make it slippery. The track was covered with water. A course was set out with pylons. We had to drive at 50km per hour toward the wet road, then slam on the brakes when the guy with the flag indicated. There were pylons set up in the middle of the course, so you had to go around them after you slammed on the brakes. The first time, I was told just to slam the brakes and see what happened. Of course, with no ABS, I just plowed right into the pylons. The brakes locked and the steering wheel became useless. Then, the second time, they told me to slam the brakes, then take my foot off the brakes completely and steer around the pylons. I was able to avoid the pylons with no problem using this technique. The cars with ABS, though had no problem maneuvering around the pylons the first time.

Experiment #5: Stopping when your wheels are not all on the same material
For the last experiment, we just drove straight on to the wet road at 60km/h, but this time we were driving with one wheel on the slippery part and another wheel on a not-so-slippery part. Once we passed a set of pylons, we were to slam on the brakes. Cars with no ABS spun out of control and cars with ABS came to a proper stop within a short distance. Each of us got to try this experiment with both ABS and non-ABS cars. The difference was remarkable.

After today's class, I have learned the difference between cars with ABS and without. There really is a huge difference in performance for not such a big difference in price. (That said, as a poor student, I ended up buying a car without ABS. It is still a bit hard to find used cars with ABS for a decent price.)

I was very pleasantly surprised by one very big part of this lesson: the instructors. My experience of driving instructors is that some of them can be a little bit impatient (and who wouldn't be after teaching so many teenagers to drive) and sometimes condescending. Before I went to the class, I was worried that the instructors would be like that. I couldn't have been more wrong. All of the instructors were extremely kind and helpful. During the main part of the day, when we were completing various driving experiments, the instructors got into the cars with us and explained what we had to do. Their explanations were extremely easy to understand, even for me as a foreigner, without ever being condescending. When I asked them questions, they always gave me very clear and detailed answers. I was amazed at how patient they were -- not to mention brave! No matter how many times they had to get into speeding cars with the students, they never seemed uncomfortable.

I had a great time at this class and it really was worth getting up early for it. In fact, I told my homestay mother that I would like to do it again next year. It really was an amazing experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for something fun to do on a Saturday in May.

Please note: This year, the class will be held on May 24, 2003. Contact Shaney for information.

For more information about the Japan Automobile Research Institute, please see their website: http://www.jari.or.jp.

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