Road School 201: 100,000 Miles of Weird Experience

I’ve been on the road, all across the U.S. and Canada, for almost four months now. I’ve driven across it many times before that. For years. I’ve logged tens of thousands of miles of driving along our nation’s greatest and smallest highways. And I realized, if ever anyone were to accompany me and switch-drive on any tour like that in future, I’d need to get them up to speed on a bunch of stuff they won’t have anticipated, stuff they need to know about, especially when I’m asleep in the passenger seat and suddenly they are faced with something totally weird.

Many of you will already know these things. Because you’ve got tens of thousands of longmiles logged yourself. Trucking. Adventuring. Business. Whatever the reason. Though you might still gain knowing amusement from the following.

The rest of you, meanwhile, might really benefit from knowing some of this, before ever you try something crazy like driving across the whole of America and Canada. Or even just across several states. Especially those giant weird ones you can’t even remember where they are on a map. Or maybe you will also just find this amusing.

Anyway, here’s some Road School 201…

The Turkey Corpse Maneuver

Photo of a happy woman holding up a gigantic roasted turkey carcass for dinner.Turkeys can kill you.

But let me back up for a moment. I’ll get back to the turkey corpses in a moment.

The general rule all the following stories and advice relate to can be summed up like this:

You may think you’re an experienced driver. But trust me. There’s shit out there in the wildlands of the federal interstate highway system and rural state routes you have never encountered before. Or anything like it. And you won’t know what the fuck to do right away. And that’s dangerous. Better to be prepared.

You will find yourself having to make a fast decision, with little time to think or analyze. And the options will be unusual or unclear; both what they are, and what their outcomes will be. So you need to adjust to anything, plan for everything, and learn fast. And above all: be alert.

The basic rule is always:

As soon as something weird crops up, immediately maximize your attention and brain-ops. Sit up straight, start reading signs and signals and what’s going on, start thinking about what might happen, get ready to do anything, and know you have to figure something out, and that right soon.

The more experience you get at “weird,” the better you’ll be; at that, and even new weird. But doing the above, is how you get more experience, and learn the most from it. It’s also how you survive; and not kill anyone. Or how you avoid thousands of dollars of damage (to you or others).

Consider the turkey corpse maneuver.

I was barreling down an interstate at 75mph with everyone else when suddenly I realize there’s a gigantic turkey corpse dead center in my lane. I have at best five seconds to do something.

I evaluate.

There is no shoulder.

An annoying driver is matching my speed and position in the lane to my right, so I can’t just change lanes.

Who’s behind me? Oh, good, no one for a ways.

Who’s behind the car next to me? Hmm. Another car, but it’s about three or four car lengths behind the first car.

If I hit the turkey, my car may well be totaled, and more than my own life will be in danger. It’s not a cow carcass, but still. It’s pretty fucking fat and solid. Holy shit was it a big turkey. Bloody feathers everywhere, rib cage intact, but definitely dead.

In a few seconds I resolve the safest thing I can do is slide back into the pocket between the two cars in the lane to my right. It’s not the safest thing one would normally do, but just as when we have to vote for the least worst politician, I don’t have any safer options. So in seconds I hit the turn signal and decelerate at a measured pace and keep a hawk eye on the cars in the right lane and the looming turkey ahead, and I glide right into the pocket. The turkey corpse zooms past, well and safely missed. The car behind me eases back to open a new safe driving distance, and I follow suit with the car ahead. But soon I return to the fast lane, when I’ve calmed down from the adrenaline.

And then I have Siri call 911 on my dash phone, and report a dangerous road hazard. This is another new skill I’ve had to develop. It’s not easy figuring out where you are on a freeway so emergency crews can get there to clear a hazard when you are reporting them to Highway Patrol. But I’ve phoned in hazards like this several times now.

Sometimes the operator immediately sees your GPS location and asks if you are calling about said hazard…because several people already did. You just confirm and thank them and hang up so you take up the least of their valuable time. This time, no dice. They couldn’t read my location. So I had to give them the next mile marker I see (did you know about those?), and which freeway and direction I’m on (which I read from my nav, if I’ve forgotten), and let them know the hazard is several miles back. Or sometimes I give them a cross street…because when a street overpasses a freeway, often there is a sign on that bridge, freewayside, telling you what street that is that you’re about to drive under.

Anyway. This all had to happen in five seconds. And that’s not a lot. Time passes from shock (WTF is that??), from evaluating the problem (Wait…a turkey corpse? A big one…can’t drive over that…), from evaluating the options (Is there a shoulder with room and free of debris? Who’s to my right? Who’s behind them? Who’s behind me?), and from running those options through in the simulator of your brain (Do I have time to accelerate ahead of the guy to my right and pass into his lane safely? No. Do I have time to decelerate all the way behind the second car in the right lane and pass into that lane behind them? No. Can I stop in time, and safely, in my own lane, considering who’s coming up behind me? No. Can I make it into the pocket between the two cars in the right lane in time? Yes. If I move fucking fast. But I have to be extra careful, a smooth and precise rider, and signaling well enough in advance of passing into their lane, so I don’t crash into either of them, or the turkey, or freak out either driver, or create a hazard for them they can’t handle).

And then you need time left over to actually execute the maneuver. The one that simmed well in your head in the no time you had to run any sims.

I barely made it.

But the whole scenario reminded me of how much you have to do, and how much time it takes to complete every step, and if you lose any time on the front end from panicking, or not paying attention or being alert, or not knowing what steps you need to get underway, it won’t go well. And that’s how disasters happen.

This wasn’t the only obstacle I’ve had to dodge on freeways. Just maybe the weirdest. All manner of animals, corpses, wrecked or stalled cars, washing machines, tires, boards full of nails. Fire. I’ve even had to dodge a whole couch…at 90mph. Yes, there are freeways with a speed limit of 85 in the U.S., and since everyone does 5 over limit in America, you will often find yourself doing a regular 90 for hundreds and hundreds of miles—more or less legally, given the de facto enforcement of speeding laws in this country.

I’ve also had to radically decelerate due to stupid drivers suddenly switching lanes because they are impatient with some driver ahead and don’t think of anyone else on the road. And braking safely in those conditions is always a dance, front and back, lest you get rear-ended. Because the driver behind you might not be paying attention and start braking as soon as you expect, or they might not be maintaining a safe distance (I always try to force them to, or get out of their way so they go kill someone else, but often you can’t shake tailgaters for all you do or can do…please don’t be one of those douchebags). So you can’t decelerate too fast. Nor too slowly, lest you collide with the vehicle in front of you (who might not even be the culprit, but another victim, of some lane-swerving douche ahead of them).

You have to watch, simultaneously, the car ahead of you and the car behind you, and match your deceleration to both, seeking a kind of dynamic equilibrium, so that you stay a safe distance from both.

Once I tried my damnedest to do that, and got rear-ended on the freeway anyway. Because the woman behind me just wasn’t even paying attention. But even then, managing distance as you decelerate, even when you can tell they are going to hit you, can reduce the impact of that collision and hence the danger and damage, and that’s just what I did, slowing as slowly as I could and not hit anyone ahead, while still reducing the relative velocity on her rear impact.

Of course, as the cops pointed out, “Did you hit the guy in front of you?” “No.” “Then she is the one who wasn’t driving safely.” Had she been (safe distance at speed, alert, with a properly maintained vehicle), she’d have stopped in time even if I’d slammed on my brakes like a madman. Which is actually the point of safe driving distance. Nota bene, douchebags. Likewise, maintaining your vehicle: brakes and tires in good condition can make the difference between the living and the dead.

And remember, any of those things? They can also happen in slick, dark, icy, foggy, rainy, or all manner of poor conditions. Which makes things even more dangerous and complicated.

So you need to be on your ball.

Oh Shit, That’s Not Tarmac

Photo of a wintery road covered in black ice, looking exactly like a merely wet road.Long ago I went on a road trip with an Airforce friend when I was in the military. 1963 Beetle with no starter and no functioning heater, in winter, driving from Southern California to Eugene, Oregon. Scratchy wool military blankets compensated for the lack of heater (we couldn’t run it because there was an exhaust leak into the venting system). And I earned my keep as passenger by pushing the car into start every time we got moving. For days.

So we are buzzing along the I-5 into the mountains of Northern California when we see a police cordon. Everyone is being stopped. “What’s the matter officer?” “We are setting up a no-chains, no-go zone. You’ll have to put on your chains or turn back. No one continues without them.” “Oh?” We look at the freeway. Why are they asking us to put chains on? There’s no ice! Do they really want us to chew up their lovely taxpayer-funded roads running chains over them dry??

Oh shit. That’s not tarmac.

And thus I had my first experience with black ice.

We’d been on it for miles already. And didn’t even know it. That black road we saw? Not a dry road. It was transparent ice. It looks like merely wet tarmac. If you don’t stop to look too closely. Or don’t feel it as you drive. By which time it might be too late.

That was my first experience putting chains on. And then we did fine, of course. The funniest part about that—and this is a bit of foreshadowing to the next story I’ll tell—is that we visited my grandparents on that drive, up a mountain near Shasta, and the roads up that mountain were all snowed in. But we had chains. So we just buzzed right up.

At the final leg, where the road was quite steep, there was a giant fancy 4×4 trying to get up it, but all it did was spin all four of its wheels and slide back. All that horsepower. Useless. But us? In our light-as-a-feather-practically-a-snowshoe-on-wheels VW rolling on chained tires? We zoomed right up without a hitch. Right in front of that poor fellow. I imagine the driver of that 4×4 was rueing the day. Beaten by a bug—an ancient, tiny, hamster-powered, 2-wheel-drive.

The Fake Cowboy Penis Replacer

Photo of a jacked up, knobby tired, black Chevy pickup truck.The endless variety of totally unexpected ways you will need to make a sudden stop at 85mph in the middle of nowhere includes interstate cattle runs.

No kidding.

I was flying along down south in Fall through some mountains of Utah, singing to songs, so far from civilization my cell had no service and my nav was just guessing on “last information received” that I was still on track to my destination. And bam. Stopped cars. Dead stop. Right in front of me. Holy shit.

I’m an alert enough driver, so I safely decelerated in time. But it occurred to me if someone wasn’t on the ball or paying attention, they might not have. And then I’m always thinking if that someone is in the car behind me. Or the car behind them.

But why is there a mile of stopped cars on the freeway in the middle of the Utah mountains a hundred miles from fuck all?

Eventually it became clear. First the permanent signs. Permanent, mind you. Not temporary. Do the math on that. But permanent signs, that warned drivers to be alert for cattle runs. Basically, the signs explain, there is no other way to drive thousands of cattle from one ranch or grazing site to the next, other than down through that pass, and mostly the only navigable land through that pass, is the freeway. The rest is mostly uneven bog and impassable hills and brush.

Well. This was weird. I’ve never been stalled behind a thousand head of cattle sharing the freeway before. Seems odd for that to still be a thing in a first world country, but it’s not. Anyway, it was easy to adjust to. I figured, we’re going to be here for a while. Slowly, cars got to pour around the cattle in one of the oncoming lanes, and each side switched off without anyone directing traffic, which is impressive. But it was just a trickle. And unorganized.

I got far enough up to see the cattle run, and the real life cowboys herding the cows, on horseback, dressed the part, right out of a Western. That was nifty. I admire professionalism and competence, and they were exhibiting it. Tons of respect for skilled folks doing their job. So I kept my eye on them and any signals they may send me. While keeping my engine noise low and rolling slow, keeping well clear of any stray cows. Because…don’t spook the cattle.

I’m a city boy and even I know that.

In Calgary, Stampede is a week long festival of fun. In the mountain passes of Utah, stampede is a death funnel. The harm and destruction, could be, you know, bad.

So it was alarming when a guy a couple cars behind me started getting impatient, in one of those giant flashy penis replacers, I mean, one of those jacked-up 4×4’s, with the giant knobby tires, suspension so high Sansa Stark could tip it over, black and chrome, gun rack of course. Revving his engine, squealing his tires on the pavement because his horsepower is that successful at replacing his penis is that impressive. Jerking his vehicle suddenly here and there, trying to get around the cars ahead, so he can wail into a gap that I guess he figured he could drag race into (into oncoming traffic and cows…but, thinking things through was not, evidently, his forte).

He was clearly your typical, young, rich-boy Honky-Tonker, who imagines himself a cowboy, guns and steerheads and boots and cowboy hat and crisp Westerny shirt and bolo tie. And here his toxic masculinity was oozing into the street about to spook a thousand cows and cause a stampede.

The funniest thing about it (after I got past the scary thing about it) was that I could see, just fifteen feet ahead of me, one of the real cowboys, giving that joker the total stinkeye. He was figuring on what to do about that douche. I think the fake cowboy noticed and calmed down. But to see a real cowboy react to the fake cowboy doing what any real cowboy would never fucking do, because cowboy is a skill that involves knowledge and things, did make me feel like there was a little more justice in the world than if it had just been the loser in the penis replacer high-rolling 4×4, playing the dangerously impatient idiot.

Anyway. Keep in mind. Sometimes in America, you have to rapidly decelerate on major freeways for a thousand head of cattle. And then be patient.

Why Do Fucking Trucks Do That?

Photo of a semi-trailer veering into a lane on a rainy blurry day, taken from inside the car in the lane it is veering into.I’ve been freeway driving for so many years and miles now, I finally had to just find out why the fuck trucks keep doing that. You know. That thing.

You are on a freeway. Two lanes each way. Trucks dutifully occupying the slow lane, and you whoosh along past them in the fast lane, happily resting your leg with cruise control. Or so you think it’s supposed to be. But no. Constantly. Constantly. Those eighteen wheelers, always countless numbers of them, keep passing each other. Over and over again. Ponderously slowly. They roll into the fast lane and take ages to pass the other; sometimes don’t even succeed. And you lose your cruise control and have to match speed at, like, ten to twenty below limit. In the fast lane! Why!?

Are truck drivers just assholes?

No.

I googled this. And I found a really cool web article run by a trucker (by the handle TruckerMike) where all he does is patiently explain shit like this to us outsider folk.

I’ll just let him explain it to you:

This has to be the number one question I get asked. It’s clearly something that irritates those we share the road with. Well, here’s a little secret for you. It irritates us just as much as it irritates you. Most trucks you see on the road have their speed governed between 60 and 65mph. So, let’s say there is one truck governed at 62 and one governed at 64. The faster truck will pull out and try to pass the slower truck. The faster truck only has 2mph to get around, so it takes a while as it is.

But to make things even worse, the terrain plays a big role too. Should those trucks hit an incline, the slower truck might be loaded lighter or pull hills better. So the “faster” truck has now become the slower truck until the incline ends. The trucks sort of become “stuck” next to each other. All the while, cars are piling up in the passing lane getting upset at the “stupid truck driver.”

The truck being passed could slow down, but momentum is huge for these trucks. Letting up on the fuel just a little bit on an incline could set up for a chain reaction where the truck will just keep slowing down, eating up more pricey fuel. Then, it could take that truck a half mile or longer just to get the speed back up.

It’s a situation that truck drivers hate just as much as everyone else on the road. When this happens, please don’t tailgate us. We’re doing our best, and we’re not sitting in the driver’s seat laughing because of the backup we’re causing. Riding next to another semi is dangerous and we don’t like doing it, but sometimes the small inclines catch us by surprise and we get stuck. It doesn’t take much of an incline to slow us down. Tailgating us will do no good at all. If we blow a tire, guess where the rubber is going to end up? Right on your windshield. We can’t go any faster, even though we want to.

Oh, and that tire thing? A blown tire at 65mph is going to spool off the axle directly at you like a bullet from a catapult, all 65 of those mph straight back at you. Just FYI. So don’t be there.

Mike has a lot more to say about things you might never have thought about. But you should. Because a major part of longmile driving is living in that ecosystem with trucks. Miles and miles and hundreds and hundreds of trucks. So you should know what they are thinking, and why they do the things they do. Truckers are highly trained and experienced professionals, doing a difficult and dangerous job. You need to cut them some slack. And think safety. Because they are.

Mike covers the variety of entirely sensible reasons why trucks sometimes veer into the slow lane, for example. You shouldn’t get angry. You should take that as a signal something is up, and you should accommodate it as a safety maneuver. Help the truckers out. Join in helping them, by slowing safely, keeping safe distance, staying alert for when they have to do this, maybe even activating your hazard lights for the benefit of anyone flying up behind you (more on that later).

For example, trucks are often required by law to get over, if they can, if there are emergency or other vehicles or workers on the shoulder of the slow lane. And even apart from the law, it’s just safer if they do. You should do that, too, BTW. It’s always safer if you can ease into the next lane, when anyone is on the shoulder you are otherwise approaching. And you can help truckers do this, too.

If you start noticing this more, you might on occasions be able to see a vehicle or workers on the shoulder ahead of a truck in the lane next to you. And then you should back off so that truck will have room and feel safe executing a lane change for safety, even though it means you have to slow down to accommodate them. If you visibly back off and flash your lights, a trucker will know you are giving them room; but unfortunately, flashing your lights is also what impatient, unsafe drivers do to try and signal they are going to pass instead…so make it clear which you are by visibly backing off, so they can tell. Or just don’t do the light flashing thing; let them assess the safety of the lane change you’ve facilitated for them.

And then if you miss all the cues and find yourself passing or speeding up on a truck in the other lane, and then notice there is a shoulder obstacle they’d like to get clear of, it may be faster and safer to speed up, race out of the lane area beside them, so they are clear to change lanes behind you. That’s not ideal. But it’s better than being the manspreader who just cruises next to them, locking out their safety options by keeping a whole lane occupied they’d rather have open for safety.

But the overall lesson is, read through Mike’s whole page. It’s super handy to have a better handle on why truckers do what they do, and what they need from you to make the road safer for everyone.

“Loose Gravel – No Center Line”

Photo of a forrest mountain road with a bunch of warning signs, one orange saying Loose Gravel, another orange reading Construction Ahead Extreme Dust and Loose Gravel Next 11 Kilometers Please Slow Down, and showing little symbols of men at work, and one yellow indicating a two lane highway with no center divider.That’s a sign. For real.

And boy. It’s not often posted much sooner than it happens.

Darned tootin. You are about to be barreling down a gravel-strewn unmarked highway at 70mph. And that’s a little scary.

It’s also super weird. How often do you have to keep your car under control as it rolls suddenly from clean tarmac to graveled tarmac? And dodge the rocks the other cars’ tires are now catapulting at your windshield. How often have you driven dozens of miles on gravel-strewn freeway with no lane markings? What are you supposed to do?

Sure. Slow down. But even that is dangerous. Too rapid a deceleration over loose gravel is as bad as accelerating or flying too fast over it. And go too slow, and folks behind you who aren’t as cautious, will crash into you. (Note that this is so for solid roads that are breaking up or with gravel scattered on them; you should not be going above 10mph on actual gravel roads.) On top of that, when there are no lane markers, the road needs your full attention, so you stay in a safe “lane” and don’t collide with anyone, or anyone with you.

The basic idea is that experience matters:

What to do when suddenly confronted with something you’ve never encountered before and have no idea what to do. That’s what you need to have a plan for. If it’s not “Loose Gravel – No Center Line,” it will be something else weird you’ve never encountered or thought of before.

Study all the weird signs on the highway you see, everywhere, all the time, no matter what, even the ones that aren’t relevant to you. Because someday, they might be relevant to you. And you’ll process faster, if you’ve already processed what those signs say and mean, before you are in a situation where it’s vitally important that you immediately know.

Crossing Guards in 85 Zones??

You know what can suddenly happen?

You can be driving along at 90mph….because, again, there are legal 85 zones all over the U.S., and everyone drives five over limit…and then…BAM! A human walks out holding up a little stop sign. WTF!?

Welcome to America.

You have to be on it, all the time, when you are cruising along. Not just because of sudden turkey corpses and cattle runs. There can also be a massive lane closure, usually due to insane road work (or occasionally a horrific trucking accident), that requires only a single lane to function. And that means someone has to stop all the traffic on one side, and let through traffic heading the other way. Then stop traffic on the other side, and let your side use the only functioning lane.

In other words, an improvised full-stop intersection. In an 85 zone. Or in the more common 70 or 75 or 80 zones. But still.

Photo of a portable stoplight in operation.The end result is often a traffic backup miles long. Well past any warning signs they thought to set up. So you might not get any warning. You’ll just suddenly see cars at a dead stop in front of you. And it’s not easy safely decelerating from 90 to 0 in the time of sudden. Then it’ll be half an hour to an hour before the miles of cars stopped ahead of you get their turns through the pass. In case you are wondering what’s going on: as long as there is some sporadic movement, it’s probably that.

BTW, sometimes (like in Canada!) they use robots. No kidding. Actual portable electrified stop lights that watch the lane by radar and communicate with each other by wi-fi. So the lane is always safely being used by one direction of traffic or the other. Same sitch, of course. The humans with crossing-guard stop and slow signs on high speed freeways just seem more absurd.

When the Freeway Is On Fire (and Other Weird Shit)

Dashcam photo of a brush fire engulfing a freeway in La Tuna.I’ve logged many tens of thousands of miles, and I’d never encountered a freeway on fire before. Until this year in California, when several miles of the I-5 deep in the San Joaquin was engulfed in flames. And I didn’t have any options. It was an interstate. I couldn’t turn around. There was no offramp. I had to just drive through it. Fortunately only a few miles of it was burning. And most of the tarmac was free of fire. So really, I just had to go slow (owing to poor visibility and the need to make sudden decisions), and to avoid getting hit with flames, and avoid driving over anything burning that the wind had blown onto the road, and smoke.

That last is a thing you might not have thought of. Ever wonder why you might need that button or knob on your dash that switches between external and recycled air venting? Hey, did you know your car has one of those? Learn where it is and how to operate it. Especially if you are in a new, borrowed, or rental car. So when you suddenly need to switch to recyc venting to stop dangerous and awful smoke from being sucked into your cabin, you won’t lose a second doing that. Because you know you have that option. And you know right where it is.

That’s important, because the more you have to concentrate on where that thing is or whether you even have one, you are distracted; and rolling over a burning, smoke-covered freeway in near zero visibility, is not a time to be distracted. There could suddenly be vehicles stopped ahead of you in the smoke. Burning bushes right in your lane. Firefighters. Or who knows what.

If you know you might need to drive through burning areas, check the web for road closures and dangerous areas. There are sites for that, with dynamic maps. In both the U.S. and Canada. Maybe also stow some simple disposable face masks in your glovebox just in case you have to drive through some pretty nasty smoke—since the recyc vent does not keep the smoke out, it just avoids full-on sucking it in.

Roads don’t just burn. And freeze. They also flood.

Once I was en route to Reno through the eastern mountains between California and Nevada, and all was fine. Cruising along at 75 in a 70. And then immediately a fantastical torrential rain fell, so outrageously intense the visibility was instantly reduced to less than a car length, and the tarmac started flooding, enough to start hydroplaning.

Hydroplaning. Ever experienced that? That’s when the wheels of your car start sliding on a thin surface of water above the tarmac. The result is, you lose all friction with the road. You can’t turn or control the car. It will simply drift in whatever direction physics and random chance move you. And there is fuck all you can do about it. Which you can imagine is a scary-ass recipe for possibly dead.

The risk of hydroplaning is reduced by two things.

First, having tires in good condition (more so tires designed for heavy rain conditions), as their grooves will be deep enough to displace the water and keep rubber in contact with the road, so you can use the resulting friction to turn and control your car. But when there is too much water, arriving too fast, no amount of tread will stop the tire from gliding up on the water’s surface.

Second, speed. The faster you are going, the more likely it is your velocity will propel your car onto the surface of the water. Slow down, and the weight of your car becomes great enough to push the rubber onto the road against the impact of the water that is trying, like a hydraulic ramp, to push the rubber above the road. So slow the fuck down. But slow down slowly. Too fast a deceleration, and you can lock your breaks, or launch your car back onto the water’s surface, fishtail, and lose control again.

Also, of course, since you can’t always anticipate every condition, learn what to do when your car starts to spin out. Because of hydroplaning or ice or anything else. Sudden pools you couldn’t see coming or a sudden intense enough rain can create hydroplaning conditions before you even have time to realize it or even time to slow down (because, physics: cars don’t just instantly change velocity). Follow those links above for what to do when losing control of your car. There are some basic principles about how to react. They won’t always save you. But they can better your odds.

Chief among things these maneuvers account for is the fact that your rubber may grip the tarmac at any unexpected time, and that can cause alarming reactions in where and how your car moves or turns. And best results, come from just instinctively following the procedures.

On my encounter with instant flood conditions on my way to Reno, I had to rapidly slow down from 75mph to a near crawl, and couldn’t see beyond a car length ahead or behind as the wall of showers continued to fall. That was scary as fuck. Because anyone could have been racing up behind me. Up to and including an eighteen wheeler. The hydroplaning was scary; but safely slowing down solved that. The going 5 in a 70 in a world full of stupid drivers was scarier.

You know what you should remember to do when that happens?

Get safely over into the slow lane, of course. Or safely off the road altogether.

But also: if you are moving at below 20mph in a zone over 40, and it’s legal in the state you are in (and that varies, so be aware), activate your hazard lights. So people behind you are jarred into realizing something is unusual and thus know to slow down before hitting you—if they haven’t been wise enough to do that already. You shouldn’t use hazards at higher speeds; their primary function is to signal a stopped or impaired vehicle. But if you are moving so slowly that your car is as much a hazard as if it were at a full stop, then hazards make sense. Even so, some states still outlaw their use in motion—but even in those states, if you are forced to a full stop, your hazards are appropriate. (Here is a handy list of laws by state and province.)

Don’t know what your hazard lights are, or where the button for them is? Learn it. Now. Those are super handy.

I activate my hazards almost any time I’m forced to stop or drive dangerously slowly on a freeway or highway. Other than regular traffic jams I know anyone on the road will already be looking for, of course. But sudden unexpected traffic jams on the I-80 in the middle of Wyoming? Hazards on. Catastrophic drop in visibility from rain, smoke, or fog? Hazards on. Wreck on the highway I have to slow to maneuver around at a police officer’s direction? Hazards on. Likewise if I have to stop on a shoulder (like when cops are pulling me over, or I need to check on something, or handle a phonecall, or I’m getting over to let emergency vehicles through).

The thing is, in most of these cases, dangers already loom that you don’t want to be distracted from. So already know where your hazards are and how to activate them without much thought, so you aren’t distracted thinking about where that button is or whether you should use it. But only use them in those remarkable conditions. And in accordance with law.

Concluding Litany of Basics

Image of the cartoon character Felix the Cat and his Bag of Tricks.Okay. Enough with the funny stories with rib cages in them. Here’s just some straight advice…

Just to summarize a bunch of stuff most people know but maybe some don’t…

Tired eyes? Pulling over to a safe turnout and sleeping for even just half an hour in your turned-down driver’s seat will help you way the hell more than you might think. Find a safe turnout; not the shoulder of a highway, but someplace more shielded than that. A full turnout, or other secure spot a little off the road. You don’t want some sleepy or drunk driver veering into you at eighty miles an hour. But just thirty minutes can help immensely. If it doesn’t, then give up and just sleep in your car.

Make sure you have tire chains, a window ice-scraper, and a full road emergency kit (complete with jumper cables) in your trunk. Note there are often spaces to stow such things under the floorboard of your trunk. You may think you never need chains and scrapers or jumpers. Until you have to overnight at some small town in Wyoming or Virginia en route across-country and suddenly next morning…snow; ice; dead battery. And no AAA service.

But get AAA road insurance anyway. It supplements standard liability insurance, by covering essentially the circumstance of breaking down in the middle of nowhere. Locked your keys in your car? They’ll send a tech to get you back in. Run out of gas in the middle of nowhere? They’ll send someone with a can of gas. Break down? They’ll send a tow, and get you to the nearest mechanic. Don’t know how to replace a flat? Or have a broken arm and can’t? Or your spare is…um…you forgot you didn’t have one? Or your jack is missing. Or your lug wrench. They’ll send someone. Some of this is free, some minimal fee, some fair rate, and so on. Read the terms. But trust me, it’s so fucking worth it.

But even AAA requires comms. In fact, most survival these days definitely benefits from comms. And payphones mostly don’t exist anymore. And not every interstate has emergency solar-powered road-phone stations every few miles. And not every place you’ll need comms is a federal interstate. You might be taking a working cellphone for granted. But if you forget to charge your phone or to have in your car even the means to, you’ll regret it. So don’t. But even if you’re on top of that…there are a lot of dead service areas in the hellscapes of America. So…

Include lots of bottled water in your trunk road kit. Maybe some durable energy bars or even MREs. Because if the snow and ice don’t get you, breaking down in the middle of the Nevada desert might. There are a lot of “no service” cellphone zones in the deserts and mountains and snowy plains of this vast country. Never count on civilization being able to find you in a matter of hours. Plan on a worst-case scenario of a couple days.

If you are flush and fancy, include a hand-crank universal charger in your road kit. When your car and battery are dead and your cellphone battery just spent, you’ll thank the Science Gods they invented a little machine that will charge your phone just by turning a crank. If you have one of those machines. Otherwise you might find yourself cursing the Economics or Planning Gods that you don’t.

Hey, you know what? You should also make sure that when you get your car’s oil changed and twenty-point-inspected-or- whatever, that the service includes checking the inflation of your spare tire, not just the four you’re rolling on. It will kind of suck when you need that spare and it’s pressure is gone.

Oh, and BTW, you should get your car’s oil changed and twenty-point-inspected-or-whatever. I’d say every 5,000 to 10,000 miles, and right before any vast drive. Plus, rotate your tires. Keep everything in condition. Lights. Fluids. Everything. Listen to all the maintenance advice the experts give and keep track of the maintenance schedule for your car; even use a logbook if you have one. Whenever the “experts” say you should replace x after every y miles, double y. Then make damn sure you replace x before you reach y. The rest of the car can go to hell. But the shit that matters, take care of that. Nothing is more important for longmile driving than a reliable vehicle.

Canada is metric. In case you forgot and are now confused by all their distance and speed limit signs. Hey, did you know your car’s speedometer also has kph on it? Yeah. Been there all along. And now that you know that, notice how noticing that can now teach you intuitive mph-kph conversions in your head. More importantly, all your trained intuitions about how well your car handles at certain speeds in certain conditions, changes when you convert to metric, so know the conversions. Likewise gauging safe driving distance, and other assumptions you take for granted.

Also, Canadian gas pumps do not work with American credit cards (even though everything else in Canada does). So if you’re doing any longmile driving there, stock the hell up on cash (I knew that going in, having researched it, but I can only imagine the crisis it could cause if you didn’t know). Oh, and, of course, that means Canadian cash.

Two words. Cruise control. Azrael says no exquisite sin is greater than central air. For a longmile driver, it’s cruise control. Get a car with cruise control.

Be aware. Your license plate is bait. U.S. cops will roust out-of-staters for minor infractions. They’ll say you didn’t make a full stop as you exited a freeway, when you are pretty sure you did, or that you were going seven miles over the limit, when you were really doing five. Of course, it’s a universal cultural rule that, in fast lanes at least, everyone does five miles over the speed limit in the U.S. (and the equivalent in Canada and the UK). And cops all turn a blind eye. They only ticket you for exceeding that, or driving dangerously (like tailgating).

However, in states your plate isn’t, especially South of the mid-line (e.g. Wyoming is more Devil-may-care; New Mexico is not), I recommend making that 4 mph over. And be super vigilant about complete stops and signaling and other traffic rules. Just to dissuade cops a little from choosing you for their hourly roust. I think they use this as an excuse to stop and question you and run your ID and look in your backseat, and shit like that, hoping to get you on something. Usually they’ll then let you off with a warning slip. But they’ll have blown half an hour to an hour of your day. And freaked you the shit out.

(BTW, the above advice is for holders of the White Male Privilege card. Those without, you already know what you need to do, or can’t do, to minimize getting rousted. I have no advice to offer there. Likewise, if you look like “a thug” or a “troublemaker” (tattoos; 420 bumper stickers), your WMP card is less effective. Sorry. I have no advice to offer there, either.)

Watch out for speed traps. That’s where suddenly your 70 mph limit drops to 35 in a matter of seconds. For one, it does that for a reason (doing 70 in a 35 is fucking dangerous: it means there are kids and pedestrians and bumpy tarmac and cars stopping and whatnot). For another, cops.

Watch out for gas-pump credit card skimmers. Those are fake machines scammers put on gas pumps to steal your debit and credit card info, while still transmitting to the pump so you get your gas and don’t even know it went through a third party. They then run up a bunch of charges in far-off states. There are skimmers that install outside, and inside pumps (here are some examples of what each looks like). And always read your credit card reports (even if paperless, read them online) and know what charges aren’t yours. Report any suspicious charges to your card company (or bank, as the case may be).

Learn safe passing principles on two lane highways. The road markings are not enough. Certainly obey all road signs regarding legal passing. But don’t assume when they say it’s safe, it is. Passing on two-laners is extremely dangerous. Take that seriously. Here’s what I mean…

I know my car’s acceleration rate; especially at high speeds, when it’s worse. And as a result, I know when I simply cannot complete the pass before hitting the limits of my initial visibility or an oncoming vehicle. Even though the road is marked safe for the pass, and the oncoming traffic looks super far away, it can easily not be enough. Remember, oncoming traffic isn’t a stationary object. They are racing towards you at the same speed. Halving the closing time. So you need to be able to gauge that drive time accurately.

And that requires knowing the vehicle you are in well. So that’s a problem if you are driving a new, borrowed, or rental car. So always practice at some super safe passes, paying attention to how long a run you need, and how far you had to go, so you know how far your visibility or an oncoming vehicle needs to be, before you try passing in more uncertain conditions. Even a distant upcoming hill is dangerous: you don’t know what oncoming traffic is on the other side of it. So if you can’t complete the pass before cresting that hill, don’t even try.

Always drive with your headlights on. Even in daylight. It makes it more likely oncoming traffic will see you, and reduces your risk of collisions or scary close calls. Make sure your brights are not activated though. That will piss everyone off. And blind them, decreasing road safety, for everyone. Unless you need them, of course. Then it might be the other way around.

Remember, many states have toll roads. You might end up having to use one, or suddenly find yourself on one by accident, or unable to get off the highway beforehand. This is a problem. Here’s why:

Automated tolls are annoying if you don’t have the right transponder. Some require you to send them a check, literally in the mail. Some require you to pay online somewhere. And both require you to magically know what stretches of what road you were on. So get the transponder. Or research in advance how to handle toll roads in every single state you plan to traverse…because they may all be different. What information do you have to record, so you know what tolls to pay? And where do you pay them?

Or figure out how to avoid all toll roads. But I recommend not counting on that. Sometimes you won’t have a practical choice. Also, of course, since some tollways still allow cash tolls, always have hidden but easily reached cash in your car, both coin and small bills. Getting stuck at a toll booth with no cash sucks. And keep your eye like a hawk on what lane you need to be in for that, well ahead, so you don’t zoom through the transponder lane before you can safely change lanes to get over into the cash lane!

And…are you driving for business? Find out how to write off your miles on taxes. Not driving for business? Figure out how you can turn your drive into business! Trust me. If you are doing thousands of miles, the deduction is impressive.

Other advice? Add yours in comments! I’ll post comments from anyone, if your advice looks good.

6 comments

  1. Marc Miller November 16, 2017, 8:19 am

    Dr. Carrier, AKA Tom Bodett, I also have spent a lot of time on the road. I am a machinery mechanic, and worked six years of my career out of a big bright red Peterbilt service truck, with a large crane, welder, work bed, and all the goodies that extend a mechanic’s penis. I have tons of stories, that my current coworkers are tired of hearing, so I will victimize you…with just one.

    I was driving north on I-95 south of Philly one morning, minding my own business, doing about 65mph in the right lane, listening to Howard Stern, when somebody rear ended me so hard that it pushed me ahead violently! I looked out my back window and see an SUV swerving all over the road, front end smashed to hell.

    I pull over, and he pulls behind me. A well dress yuppie type of guy gets out and starts apologizing, and saying he fell asleep… He had to be doing over 80mph to push me so hard. I look at his new SUV. The hood was smashed up so you couldn’t see out of the window, his coolant was running out all over the highway, and the entire front end was a mess. I look at my tailgate, which was a steel work platform with a vise mounted to it…there wasn’t even a scratch in my paint!

    About this time, a woman stumbles out of the passenger side, bleeding profusely from the face, so much so that the whole front of her blouse was soaked in blood. I immediately went for my phone to call medical help. But the guy insisted that I didn’t, in between screaming at her to get back in the vehicle!

    It became obvious that he had no interest in having the authorities involved… So I took another look at my tailgate, and said have a nice day… As I was driving away, I could see him trying to make his way along the guard rail to the next exit, and wondered if he’d make it before his engine seized up.

    Lesson: You meet some really fucked up people on the road.

    Reply
  2. Roger Crew November 16, 2017, 8:29 am

    An annoying driver is matching my speed and position in the lane to my right, so I can’t just change lanes.

    Um…, so,… that right there is arguably a Defensive Driving Fail.

    NEVER drive in formation: You have buffer zones to your left and right and you do whatever it takes to keep them empty so that you can swerve into them if you need to. (yes, there are urban rush-hour situations where this is clearly impossible, but the situation you described where you had lots of open space behind you was evidently not one of these)

    If someone insists on pacing you, then it’s up to you to break things up; go a Different Speed for at least a short time, which then means you have a decision to make: Pass With Honor vs. Let ‘Em Go. And if you’ve been paying attention, learning the personalities of the cars around you, or at the very least keeping track of whether this is somebody who’s caught up with you vs. somebody who you’ve caught up with, the decision will usually be obvious.

    Pass With Honor means if you’re going to pass somebody, then you just do it, and get it over with as quickly as possible, and put a bit of distance between you. An extended period of creeping by someone at a 1-2mph differential due to fear of going over the limit is generally WAY worse than a BRIEF stint of going the 10-15 over the limit — precisely because the former allows way too much opportunity for dead chickens and other shit to ruin your day.

    (yes, there exist drivers’ ed courses that teach the exact opposite of this; they are simply wrong. And yes, if a cop happens to be watching the moment you make your move, then you’re just Screwed, but this is, or at least should be, statistically very unlikely — if it’s not statistically unlikely for you, then you’re driving too fast/aggressively).

    Let ‘Em Go is the converse of this, in which your #1 job is to get them in front of you as expediently as possible… and this is often the Right Thing — if they’re generally going faster than you, then they’ll disappear soon enough, and if not, then you’ll have this nice Radar Shield that’ll last for a while.

    Reply
    1. That’s all spot on. But alas, sometimes people creep into the zone before you notice it.

      You can’t count on always being in perfect position. So you need to plan on what to do when you aren’t.

      Reply
  3. Re. “As soon as something weird crops up, immediately maximize your attention and brain-ops”, I’d like to add that you really need to always make sure you have an escape route out of your lane. Always. As an example, I was one traveling on North I-405 in California where it meets up with US-101, heading west. This interchange dives under the 101 while turning to the left. There’s no way to know the speed of traffic on the 101, just around the curve. The traffic around me was going close to 50 through this curve when I suddenly found the cars in my lane completely stopped! There was no way I could break fast enough, however I already knew that nothing was to right. I knew that because I had already noted that I had an escape route from my lane. I instantly switched lanes and then had time to come to a stop in the other lane. Had I not already known that there was nothing to my right, I would have been in a serious accident and possibly dead. I didn’t have time to check before changing lanes. So, always make sure you have an escape route!

    Reply
    1. But alas, we can’t attend to all escape route positions 100% of the time. It’s literally physically impossible (as we don’t have insect eyes surrounding our head).

      So yes, try to keep zones clear. But also, know what to do when someone creeps into one before you have time to notice.

      Also, when you can’t get them out of that zone (as happens a lot).

      Reply

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