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[Note: The phrase "Drive Safely" is a trademark of Volvo Cars of North America Inc. *AUTO OFFICE, DIRECTIONS, & ENTERTAINMENT* is my own generic descriptive phrase and is not a manufacturer's product name.]

I've just read that a number of auto manufacturers, including Volvo, have committed to installing the latest (still in development) voice-based interactive electronic screen system with phone, music, navigation, messaging, etc. capabilities. I was, shall we say, disappointed to see Volvo's name on the list. I would have thought that Volvo, at least, would have had more think-it-through than to jump on the Distraction Escalation bandwagon. "Drive Safely," Volvo tells us. Maybe Volvo can also tell us how, with all that flash in the dash, we can in reality drive safely.

Regarding the matter of being suckered by distractions, there are two contrasting philosophies at work today in the automotive design field.

The first philosophy, Be A Techno-Geek And Run With The Sheep, apparently believes that driving an automobile is such a b-o-r-i-n-g occupation and waste of valuable time that drivers need busymaking electronic gadgetry -- the more functions the better -- to enjoy driving and to stay alert. Piloting a 3,000 lb. road machine and potential lethal weapon down the highway is not a responsibility, this philosophy seemingly believes, it's a total drag. So, the thinking goes, let's put in *AUTO OFFICE, DIRECTIONS, & ENTERTAlNMENT*. (And, included with it, electromagnetic-field radiation. And -- although science hasn't wised up to this one, yet -- long-range health problems caused by microwave penetration of human brains and bodies. And distractions. And, as a result of all that, danger.)

The second philosophy -- which is vanishing fast from the auto industry as the sheep-like manufacturers focus on building ugly, look-alike cars with *AUTO OFFICE, DIRECTIONS, & ENTERTAINMENT* -- is the Love To Drive school of thought. It's now practiced mostly by car modifiers -- or, to use my favorite term for them/us, redesigners. Years ago, it was practiced by mainstream auto makers who, for example, put real gauges in their cars instead of "idiot lights," so that drivers could among other possibilities take notice of falling oil pressure before it was too late to save the engine and possibly prevent an accident. The Love To Drive philosophy has hung on in the area of exotics (Ferrari, Maserati, and others), in which for too much money one can have gauges and a car that's fun to drive (though impractical). The *AUTO OFFICE, DIRECTIONS, & ENTERTAINMENT* mentality is to an extent invading the exotics' field -- after all, if one pays $350,000 for an automobile, one wants to have something impressive in the dashboard besides gauges -- but, considering that in America at least the typical exotic car is driven maybe 2,000 miles per year, and sometimes a good deal less than that, these cars don't have much presence on the highways.

The Love To Drive approach to automotive design has been adapted by the redesigners from the field of auto racing, in which a car's instrumentation exists to inform the driver what the engine, cooling system, and so on are actually doing, rather than to report what musical selection is being played, or who's phoning from San Diego.

As I was taught to drive by a former race driver, I thought I would herein pass along some practices and attitudes that he passed on to me, in the hope that doing so might help some other drivers to love to drive -- and to stay alive.

Great drivers (race drivers, for example) may, as it's been said, be born -- with fast reflexes, wide peripheral vision, the ability to focus attention ahead while maintaining a 360° awareness, and so on -- but good drivers can be made, by education. And by education I don't mean what too often passes for driver instruction in America today. If American driver instruction is adequate, why are there so many auto accidents? The proof, as the old folk saying puts it, is in the pudding. Or in the injuries and deaths.

Before I get into what I learned from my driving instructor, I'll detour a bit into something relevant that I learned from one of my martial arts teachers.

One day, my teacher told me to stand facing him with my left forearm raised parallel to the floor and my palm out while he slowly threw a punch to the center of my chest. He said that as soon as I saw his fist start to move, I was to move my hand over to block it. He held his fist about three feet from my chest, waited, then -- very slowly for a martial arts master -- punched. I blocked his fist. He moved closer, waited, then repeated his action. I blocked the fist -- just barely. He moved closer still, waited, then punched. I couldn't move fast enough, and his slow punch stung me in the chest -- just hard enough that l'd remember it. I, who had inherited extremely fast reflexes, felt powerless.

In his broken English, my teacher told me that no one could block a sudden punch from a few inches away -- no one. So, he said, stay out of hitting range except when you attack, and after you strike, move back -- don't just stand there and get hit, the way people do in fistfights in the movies.

He pointed out that in a real life situation, if I had been staring at his fist as I had been, he could have attacked with his foot, knee, other hand, forearm, or elbow -- and someone else could have attacked me from behind or from either side.

How does that martial arts lesson apply to driving? Well...

On the freeway, notice the drivers who bunch up in flocks, each one intent only on watching the car too close ahead, as I was intent on watching my teacher's fist. Imagine what would happen if one of those drivers had to brake suddenly, or his car lost a wheel (I've seen that happen, twice -- once to a pickup, once to an RV). Or if a car suddenly moved over into another lane because the driver was yapping on a cell phone (I've seen that happen too many times).

It's better to drive away from the flock, out of "hitting range." After all, if there's no car close ahead, no car close behind, no car to your right, and no car to your left, your chances of having an accident on the freeway are extremely slim -- unless you're fussing with the *AUTO OFFICE, DIRECTIONS, & ENTERTAINMENT* or yapping on a cell phone.

My driving instructor told me that in a freeway situation, if the car on my right were to suddenly move into my lane and I knew that there was no car in the lane to my left, I could move there. The trick, he said, is to make sure where other cars are by continuously checking left, right, ahead, and behind. Scan the road far ahead, to see what's developing -- you'll be up there in a little while. Check the rearview mirror frequently.

Today my car has a wide-angle rearview mirror, a wide-angle blind spot mirror and the usual two outside mirrors. I have wide peripheral vision, yet turn my head quite a bit. But nothing's foolproof. Some drivers can do the strangest things. l'll give an example of that later.

On one of my first driving lessons, the instructor drove me to an empty parking lot, stopped the driver-instruction car, and took from the trunk a set of four tall poles on narrow, weighted stands. He told me to place two of the poles just far enough apart that I could drive the car between them without knocking them over -- and to start by placing them a distance away from the car, rather than by just placing one pole near one side of the car and the other near the other side. I studied the width of the car, placed the poles, got back into the car, drove to the poles, and knocked them over. I set the poles farther apart and tried again. Still too close. I reset the poles and tried again. When I'd managed to set each pole two or three inches out from the side mirror, the instructor told me to memorize the distance between them, from inside the car and out. He then had me drive between them at various speeds, starting from various directions, until I could do so without knocking a pole over.

He then had me estimate the length of the car, walk over to the poles, and set them at that length. After I'd done so, he drove the car to line up the edge of the front bumper with the front pole. The rear pole was too far forward, he pointed out, so I moved it back. When I'd gotten the distance right, he told me to memorize it, from inside the car and out.

Finally for the day, the instructor set up the four poles as a typical-length parking space as would be found in a city street, and had me back into it. "You see? You turned too soon -- you would've hit the curb. Take 'er out and try again. Wait a bit longer this time, then turn when I say now, and then turn the other way when I tell you."

The next lesson day, the instructor again set up the four poles and had me practice backing into the space until I could do it easily. Then he moved the poles closer. And closer.

As a result of that pole practice, I later aced the parking part of my driver's-license test. I could tell before I began to back up that the examiner was a bit nervous about my casual attitude. By then, parking a car seemed simple enough: back up, turn, turn, pull forward and straighten the wheels. No difficulty there. "I-am-impressed," declared the examiner when I'd finished, as he marked pass on the exam form. Unfortunately, I blew the driving test by running a yellow light. The next time I took the parking/driving test, I passed with a perfect score. Thanks to you-know-who.

The point of the pole practice and of much of the rest was: Know your car, and know what you can do with it. Learn how quickly it can stop, how quickly it can accelerate, how much power it has to pass in this-or-that situation, how tightly it can turn, and so on.

The lessons went on to the practice of observing other cars and drivers: How fast is that approaching car going? ls it far enough away that you can safely pull in front of it and bring this car up to speed? What's that driver up ahead likely to do there? Watch how he's driving -- what do you feel he's going to do?

That last question may seem a bit strange, but over the years many incidents have proven to me its practical value. For example: As I approached a stop sign a while ago, I watched the pickup ahead of me pull up to the sign and stop. I knew the driver was going to back up. There was no earthly reason why he would; I just knew he would. So I left a half car length between us. He backed up, faster than I thought he might. I couldn't get out of the way fast enough, so something sticking out of the back of the truck crunched my car's grille. After we'd exchanged driver's license numbers, etc., I asked the driver why he'd backed up. He said he didn't know. He seemed very confused. "Thanks for the new grille!" I called to him as he drove away.

No electronic warning system can inform a driver that another driver's going to do something weird and unexpected. But the mind can. Unless it's being distracted by *AUTO OFFICE, DIRECTIONS, & ENTERTAINMENT* or a phone conversation. Which brings me back to the subject of automotive design philosophy.

A prime example of just how slow many drivers are to learn to safely and responsibly use a new automotive technology can be seen as you drive, by looking in the rearview mirror at the visible part of the steering wheel of the car behind you. Are the driver's hands at or near the top of the wheel? I'll bet they are.

For many years now, new cars have contained airbags. A car's owner's manual, or common sense, will tell drivers to keep their hands away from the top of the steering wheel and place them at approximately 4:00/8:00, depending on the design of the wheel. Imagine what the airbag cover might do to your hands if they're placed high on the wheel when the airbag is deployed and the force of the instantly inflating bag throws the cover toward the windshield, as it's supposed to do. It's bad enough to be in a collision without having your wrists slashed or broken by an upward-flying hard plastic airbag cover.

Years ago, my then-wife was hit by a red-light runner. When the car's airbags deployed, the airbag covers flew off and shattered the windshield -- a good indication of the power of airbag inflation. My ex's hands were not at or near the top of the wheel. Other drivers have not been as fortunate -- or as attentive to the cautions given in the owner's manual.

If a large number of drivers apparently cannot adapt to decades-old airbag presence, or drive safely while operating a cell phone -- see insurance-company statistics on cell-phone-caused auto accidents -- how likely are they to drive responsibly despite increasing electronic distractions? The obvious answer to that question is the reason why, as far as I'm concerned, Volvo and other auto builders are blowing the safety issue bigtime with their endorsement of *AUTO OFFICE, DIRECTIONS, & ENTERTAINMENT*.

If you the potential car buyer believe that a rolling busywork-and-entertainment package is as safe to drive as a car designed to help the driver focus on and enjoy the serious business of driving an automobile, I've got a special offer for you: the Brooklyn Bridge, for $500. Just give me the money, I'll sign over the deed, and the bridge will be yours. Just be sure that you're not being distracted when you drive over it -- you wouldn't want to damage your bridge.

Benjamin Hoff
October 9, 2013

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