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The wolf pack and an escape path

Intriguing title, eh? You’re thinking this is about running away from wolves. Well, in a way, but not the kind of wolves you think. This is about wolf packs – the kind that roam the highway – in cars.

One thing we all have is common is that we spend a lot of time on highways and freeways. The last time I talked with you about this, it was mainly about drowsy driving — how easy it is to fall asleep on the open road and steps you can take to keep that from happening.

Roadsign - drowsy drivingThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving results in 1,550 deaths, 40,000 injuries and more than 56,000 crashes each year in the United States. That’s heavy. So, let’s not do that!

But, this is about another highway phenom. This is a characteristic common to both multi-lane highways and freeways, but mostly freeways. It always amazes me to see how many otherwise savvy people let themselves get sucked into these death traps. They’re called “wolf packs.”

The next time you’re driving on a freeway take notice of how some drivers bunch up. There will be a pack of ‘em, all intimately interested in the backside of the car ahead, typically following too close and driving too fast. I like to call it the “herd instinct.”

Ever hear those horrible stories about herds of animals blindly following one another over the edges of cliffs?

Following that wolf pack will be a quarter mile or more of nothing but wide open spaces – this is where you’ll find me – and then, yup you guessed it. Along comes another wolf pack.

Wolf packs are a recipe for disaster. They’re the reason so many freeway crashes involve multiple vehicles. I’m certain there have been worse, but the one that comes to my mind happened on Interstate 5 in central California about 20 years ago.

As a young man, I traveled that route regularly from Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area. As I remember there were 120 vehicles of all descriptions involved – big rigs, cars, buses, motorhomes, trailers and you name it. There were 14 fatalities, half of them burned to death. What a tragedy!

The message here is to stay out of wolf packs. Keep as much space in all directions as you can get. Always leave yourself an out. Have an “escape path” – a place to go in case of possible conflict. It’s not always easy.

Here are some reminders and useful techniques for when you get that “boxed-in” feeling in traffic as well as on the open road:

  • The space ahead is easily controlled. Just decelerate slightly and let your following distance increase. The experts recommend a following distance of about five seconds at higher speeds. Even more space with our larger, heavier vehicle. If you don’t know how to use the “two-second rule,” stay tuned.
  • The space on either side of your vehicle is more difficult to control but with practice it can be done. Simply accelerate or decelerate to control the space on either side. Avoid lingering alongside another vehicle too long and stay out of their blind spots.
  • The space behind you is very difficult to control. If another driver is intent upon tailgating, then you and the other driver are both in serious peril. Brake early and brake gradually for stops and turns and signal early.
  • If a tailgater is not responding, pump your brake to flash your brake lights. I like to think that my “Hit me . . . I need the money!” bumper sticker helps. In today’s aggressive world of driving, tailgating is a common and very serious problem, especially for those of us who drive larger, heavier vehicles and towables.
  • As for the “two-second rule” for following, the experts have altered their thinking. Because of today’s more aggressive drivers, three to four seconds in traffic and five or more at higher speeds are now recommended. Simply pick any stationary object on or near the roadway ahead, be it a sign, a fire hydrant, even a shadow across the roadway. Watch the car ahead. As it passes that object you picked, start counting — one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three, etc. If you pass your stationary object before you complete your count, you’re following too close. Open up your following distance.

Well, there you go. Another lecture from me but, hey, we can never get enough of this stuff, right? This is not about how to drive — it’s about staying alive.

About Robert Sears

Robert Sears is a professional driving instructor who once owned a company that trained more than 70,000 people to drive. Today he is an author working on several non-fiction books and writing traffic safety articles for consumer and special interest publications. He is a 30-year motorhome owner who has logged several hundred thousand miles of RV driving experience.

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