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6.09.2007

Teflon's Rules of the Road

Having just completed a grueling 32-hour driving marathon with the able assistance of co-driver WordGirl, I thought the MoltenThinkers might appreciate a few tips to surviving long road trips.

1. Stop as rarely as possible. This is a core principle. Some folks like to maintain that it's the journey, not the destination. They are idiots. American highways offer very little in the way of entertainment. American drivers are incompetent enough that constant vigilance is demanded. Therefore, the primary objective needs to be traveling from point A to point B as speedily as possible so as to limit the pain. If you stop frequently, it will take even longer to get where you're going.

2. Make every stop worthwhile. I prefer to let my gas tank dictate when I stop, within the limits of bladder capacity. Whenever I stop, I get gas, food, drink, use the restroom, and stretch my muscles. Every time.

3. Only stop where there are services. I only pull off at areas featuring multiple services---more than one gas station, restaurant, lodging, etc. The reason for this is simple: if you're pulling off somewhere with one gas pump, you're likely in a remote area and will waste time driving to and from the gas station (which can be several miles away). I prefer service areas on the highway/turnpike; when these are unavailable I prefer built up areas of civilization. This makes navigation easier, and maximizes choice.

4. Know where you're heading. This should be obvious, but isn't. Reliance on AAA or MapQuest driving directions puts you at their mercy. What if there are detours? What if the directions are wrong? What if you need to avoid rush hour traffic? Understanding some basics such as generally heading north and east helps; knowing alternative routes to the interstate such as Hwy 301 (great if you want to avoid key metropolitan tieups on I-95 throughout much of the East Coast) or the Pacific Coast Hwy in California (if you don't like I-5 gridlock and want some great scenery to boot) are key.

5. Avoid traffic. Traffic jams violate the First Rule. Use alternate routes to circumvent whenever possible, and time your stops so as to avoid morning and evening rush hours. I am willing to go some ways out of my way to do this; I routinely prefer to take the Tappan Zee Bridge rather than the George Washington Bridge when navigating around New York City and its tieups. There is no really good alternative to bumper-to-bumper traffic in Connecticut, at least none I've found.

6. Focus on the road. The worst danger is becoming bored, distracted, or sleepy while driving. Pay close attention, keep your hands at 10 and 2, and treat every other vehicle in traffic as a potential madman about to careen into you at high speed. Keep your eyes moving, and think.

7. Speed. Yes, speed. 5 mph over the limit whenever traffic permits. This will help keep you focused, and help ensure that you keep the initiative. Most accidents are caused when somebody drives too slowly for conditions and other cars swerve around them.

8. Pass on the left, cruise on the right. Do not squat in the lefthand lane. If you're not passing folks in the right lanes, you don't belong in the left lane. Move over and let faster cars and trucks proceed on their way.

9. Drive like a trucker. Truckers are the most experienced road warriors out there. Watch them. If they're driving the speed limit, it's likely because there's a highway patrol car around. When trucks get passed by another vehicle, they flip their lights on for a second when the other vehicle is clear to signal that the passing vehicle may cross in front of them. Truckers get irate when you sit in their blind spot, with good reason---it's the most dangerous place to be. If you can't see the trucker in his mirror, he can't see you. Pull ahead or fall behind but don't sit there and wait to get run off the road.

10. Drink like a camel. Drinking too much will make your bladder swell up like a balloon and risk violation of the First Rule. Cut your beverage consumption down, but make sure you get the caffeine you need to stay alert. Energy drinks or No-Doz helps.

11. Listen to talk radio or audiobooks. Music is okay, but won't keep your mind as active as it needs to be. If your marriage is strong, you can try conversation too.

12. Check your tires. Every time I get out of the car, I inspect my tires. It is very easy to pick up road debris, and finding problems before you're racing along at 70 mph boxed in by big rigs is a good idea.

13. Be prepared. Before a roadtrip, I make sure we've got a roadside emergency kit, a survival kit, jumper cables, and a few cans of Fix-A-Flat in the trunk. You may never need it, but when you do, you'd better have it.

14. Keep your cell phone charged. Another key safety device.

15. Don't talk to strangers. There are scumbags who prey on weary travelers. We had one guy who just finished telling some other human detritus he wasn't a drug addict anymore knock on our window asking for money as we backed out of a rest area. WordGirl did the right thing---she refused to roll down the window.

16. Be wary. Safety requires heightened vigilance in unfamiliar surroundings. Don't go where you don't have to, and never let your vehicle get out of sight. Pay at the pump whenever possible. If you need to separate, pick a rally point. It's a jungle out there.

17. It is better to be in front of than behind bad drivers. This happens more frequently these days. If you see a driver swerving, tailgating, or engaging in other poor driving behaviors, it is generally better to speed up and leave them behind. Two reasons: 1. Drunk drivers tend to try to drive more slowly and carefully in hopes of avoiding a DUI and 2. If you keep the driver in front of you you're keeping the eventual accident in front of you. Speed if you must, but get out of that situation if you can.

18. Keep change handy. There are more and more toll roads out there, and fewer and fewer tollbooth operators. If you don't have an automatic pass, at least make it easier by keeping change ready.

19. Have some cash. Sure, credit's readily taken for most things, but you'd be surprised at how many holdouts there are who won't take your card. Keep a reasonable amount of cash (say, $100) on hand for these contingencies.

20. Eat lightly. No, I don't mean eating vegan on the road. Having too much on your stomach will make you sleepy and may give you indigestion. Eat a bit less than you ordinarily do, and don't shy away from sugar. A sugar high's a good thing when you need to be alert.

I'm sure WordGirl will elaborate on this list now that she's a confirmed road warrior, if only to add a 21st item - "Don't go through Connecticut. Ever."

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