I begin every journey by preparing for the worst and conduct myself accordingly. I take it personally if someone else’s bad driving interferes with my perfect execution because I should have seen it coming and read a vehicle’s body language to see what it might do next.
For example, a car lurking slightly off-centre in its lane means the driver can’t gauge the width of his car or is thinking of turning but hasn’t yet lit the indicator. Side-to-side motion is easy for the eye to detect, and if a car wanders all over the place, the driver is probably either drunk or plain awful.
Harder to detect, and more dangerous, is movement forward and back. The image of a car slowing ahead just grows or shrinks slightly. Viewed from a distance of around ten car lengths, a change in proximity of one or two lengths is barely noticeable, a minor design flaw in the Mark 1 eyeball. When someone slams on the brakes in front of you, the sensible gap you maintained up until that point should enable you to stop gradually in order to give the driver behind a chance to recognize what is happening and make it less likely that he will hit your car.
Many drivers are oblivious to what takes place behind them and miss out on a rich palette of disaster trailing in their wake. On one occasion in Pittsburgh, I stopped for a junction at the bottom of a hill with a truck coming up behind. It wasn’t slowing, so I checked the light was still red, looked behind and saw the big trailer was jack-knifed and inbound. I drove up onto the kerb to give it space and avoided being flattened.
Clairvoyance came in handy when I worked in Johannesburg on the Top Gear Live show where we had a convoy of Audis taking us to the venue. They drove too fast and too close for my liking, a military convoy but without the war or the training. After my driver conceded that his hometown was actually Cape Town, I rented a car for the remainder of my stay.
Two days later I drove past the Audi packet, with the fearless leader firmly embedded into the sharp end of a flat-bed trailer and the two sidekicks rammed up each other’s exhausts.
There are drivers who cause accidents, those who share other people’s and those who avoid them. Good drivers learn to adapt to an imperfect world by accommodating and anticipating other people’s mistakes until it becomes a habit. As Aristotle said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.’