Friday, October 26, 2012

Shared Space: Road Signs Are For Idiot Drivers

A few months ago, I had no idea there was a movement going to get rid of road signs. And pavement markings. And traffic lights. It sounded counter-intuitive at first ... like collisions and congestion would increase. It's called Shared Space and in the real world, cities that removed their traffic control devices have shown us that it can be done with positive results. The more I learn, the more I like it.

The very idea that we hide behind signs or justify our driving behavior because of them intrigues me. Do I alter my behavior because of a sign? Unfortunately, I believe the answer is yes. If the light is green , I usually go through it without a second thought. What I should be doing is scanning the intersection for safety.

A similar case can be made for red light and school zone cameras. Instead of focusing on where the children are in a school zone, I go through ours looking on my speedometer and making sure I'm going under 20 mph. If I was a mile or two above then I check the rear view mirror to make sure the camera's flash didn't go off. After all, I don't want a ticket. Have I lost sight of what's most important? Yes, noticing unpredictable young children going to school is more important than not getting a ticket.

In the UK, they have integrated a Shared Space concept for traffic control. Segregation vs integration. Watch this 2 minute video for a short introduction on it. Notice how they use road surface materials and the camber of the road to affect the driver behavior and alert the senses.

Perspectives of Germans in Bohmte where traffic control devices were removed. I like that motorists think for themselves and communicate more with others.  

When I was in Belgium last month, we sought out the town Oostende, which has a Shared Space area. We found it, but it was early on a Sunday morning and we didn't see much traffic, nor need for traffic control. A man with his dog walked by and we asked him about the project. He'd never heard of it. Hmmmm, I think we would have better observed Shared Space in Bohmte. We did observe some signs and roadway markings, but the intersections in this neighborhood were uncontrolled.

And we saw some fantastic road users and great advertisements. 

I would love a follow up on how Shared Space is working now. Google can only find articles from 2008. There ought to be more information now that it's 2012. So if you are from Bristol, Bohmte, Oostende or another Shared Space city, please update us in the comments! 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Do You Have A Counterfeit Airbag?

This sounds ridiculous, but if you have had your airbag replaced in the last three years, you may need to verify that you have a real airbag.
According to the Associated Press, the Obama administration is preparing to warn us that counterfeit bags may have been installed in your cars.
A public announcement will be made on Wednesday, October 10, 2012. NHTSA will ask car owners to check a government website,, or call their manufacturer or local dealership to learn if their car model is among the number of models in which counterfeit airbags have been installed.
The counterfeit airbags are made to look like airbags made by automakers and usually include a manufacturer's logo. They were marketed to auto dealers as the real thing. However, they are far from the real thing. In at least one case, instead of deploying properly, the bag fired shards of plastic on impact. Yikes. That does not sound good.
*Update 10/10/12
NHTSA's counterfeit air bags press release including makes and models of vehicles which may be affected. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Pump, Crank, Reverse: Rocking Out In The Desert

Last month, I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

As part of a team building exercise with his colleagues from other countries, we went on a desert safari. Let me tell you that riding around in the desert made me a little bit nauseous. We drove straight up dunes and slid down the back side sideways. Several times the sand flew over the top of the vehicle and I was profoundly grateful for roll bars but also perplexed as to why the vehicles weren't rolling down the dunes.

I thought I knew how gravity worked. Apparently not, because the rules in sand seemed to operate completely different than what I expected. Just look at the sand spray in the photo above. That's what sliding down sideways looks like. Now look at the lead vehicle in the rear view mirror shot. How does it not flip? What do these drivers know that I don't???

A couple of days later, I got to find out. While my husband attended his business meetings, I headed to Dubai to attend a desert driving class with Emirates Driving Institute.

Wow. This class was the highlight of my trip and I'm so happy that they accommodated my request for a class since the only day I could do it was a week before their official desert driving season began. (It's too hot to do a class in the desert in the summer heat.) I was the only student that day, which was perfect. I could ask all the questions I wanted to and got a few hours of actual driving time in the desert. And the weather was...well hot...over 100 and we immediately started sweating if we got out of the vehicle.

The first thing my instructor Rafiq did for me was drive straight into the side of a dune and get stuck. As in wheels spinning. No traction. Then we traded places and he told me to get our vehicle out. Nice. Notice the sand on the windshield. And half the front wheels disappeared into the sand. I've never worked so hard behind the wheel in my life. I pumped that clutch and cranked that wheel from side to side until the sand lost its hold on me and I could reverse out of there.

Properly trained drivers get unstuck through driving techniques. Inside the car. With air conditioning. Rafiq told me that those who teach themselves through trial and error often find themselves outside of the vehicle trying to dig themselves out when they get stuck. Although sometimes I like to figure out new skills for myself, I'm grateful I didn't in this circumstance. I would have died without Rafiq's expertise coaching me.
Rafiq and his trainer, the driver of the second vehicle (a safety net).
How Gravity Really Works
Vehicles can drive across slopes, even though it seems like gravity would pull them down. They are being pulled toward the earth. I understood gravity better through this experience...especially since the concept was hard for my mind to wrap around. But like electricity, I don't have to understand how it works exactly to use it. The digest version is this: If a desert driver slides down a dune and turns the wheels to the top then the vehicle will roll. But if the driver goes with the natural downward flow of the land then the sliding doesn't actually defy gravity. Nice.

I got us stuck several other times during the course of my training and my back was fairly sore at the end of the day from working so hard but I am confident that I can get out of most sticky situations. This photo shows the worst situation I got into.

I almost fell out of the vehicle when I opened the door. We're sideways. My foot is deep in the sand. I tried to get us unstuck, but had a lot of trouble. We ended up getting out of the vehicle and stepping on the sand to encourage it to roll down the side of the dune. Then Rafiq got us was the only time he took control of the wheel.
Random camels grazing on a small oasis of bushes.

After lunch we found our way to a new area and went cruising up and down the dunes. It was really fun...we picked up so much speed that I could shift from first to second gear! There was something different about our this new area. Not only were camels grazing nearby (Rafiq's never had a student take so many photos), but the slopes were quite a bit gentler and I never got stuck.

I asked Rafiq about the ease of the course. It would make sense to me to start off with the easy and then build up to the harder terrain. His answer has kept me thinking for the last couple of weeks.
"If I had started you out here, you would have given up when we got to the really hard places."
Hmm...I've used that same logic when advising parents to have their teens learn to drive in the fall and winter. Those students are rarely afraid of driving on a dark and rainy night. When driving in adverse conditions, new drivers can relax knowing that their driving instructor is sitting next to them, and prepared to help when their own inexperience threatens their lives. Thank you Rafiq. There is wisdom in your teaching style.
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