Thoughts on Driving

 (I'm a driver - Andrew.dll)


As you may (or may not) know, for the past year and a half I have been a commuter. Living 45 minutes away from my workplace makes for a tedious 90 minute daily commute. While much of this time is spent listening to music or cursing at the other idiots on the road, it also allows me quite a bit of time to think. Sometimes this thinking leads to meditation, while other times it leads to a close inspection of my surroundings, and still others a broad overview of my daily journey.

Two major revelations have come to me while driving, concerning two different styles of driving. Each style is appropriate at different times and weather conditions. First, a little background on the route which I take. I drive from southern Brown County, Indiana through Nashville and into Bloomington via two major state highways, 135 and 46.

These highways are both two lane roads, with few viable passing zones. They wind up and over several large hills, and curve between the various settlements along them. Driving on such hilly and windy roads can prove to be difficult, with only adequate road maintenance and a large number of deer and animals living in the woods alongside them and frequently crossing.



The Snake

And so the first driving idea came to me one chilly night, while driving home in a long chain of vehicles. I began to visualize what our chain of cars would look like from overhead, or from a distance. Thanks to one slow driver and an absence of passing zones, the half-a-dozen cars driving around the curves with equal spacing would resemble a giant headlight snake slithering along the winding road.

This snake configuration also proves to be a very successful and safe way of night driving. One car follows another at the maximum distance of headlight effectiveness, illuminating as much of the road between it and the next car while keeping a safe and manageable distance. The lead car in the formation, or the "head" of the snake, uses its bright lights to create a distinguishable leader. This driving formation also creates a certain safety against animals such as deer. As far as an animal is concerned, there is an unbroken train of light which it typically will want to avoid (or at least be more inclined to avoid than a single set of headlights). This chain of light also helps the driver spot potential suicidal deer much sooner than if he were driving alone, by taking advantage of the headlights of the cars in front of him.

Perhaps my favorite property of the snake driving formation is the ease at which meditation comes while driving this way. Knowing the curves of the road and being able to anticipate what is coming next, I am able to zone out and focus on keeping myself a consistent distance away from the red taillights in front of me, thinking about everything and nothing all at once.



The Buffer Zone

The other noteworthy concept that I have considered/developed during my daily commute is one that I have termed the buffer zone. It takes its name from the buffer we are all familiar with concerning internet videos. If you do not start to load a video first, you will often play it faster than it loads, creating unwanted pauses in the playback while the loading catches up. This same idea applies to driving.

First, to understand the buffer zone and its justification, let us consider the ever-rising costs of gas. This is another thought that frequently crosses my mind, as I go through a full tank in a week or less. So, I decided to try to maximize my gas mileage. To do this, one has to attempt two different things: brake as seldom as possible, and keep the engine RPMs as low as possible. I drive a manual transmission Toyota RAV4, so it is fairly easy for me to kick the car out of gear and into neutral. This, of course, is the most efficient way to lower the RPMs, short of turning the car off. In neutral, the car idles at around 1000 RPMs. But putting the car into neutral only works when going downhill. There are a lot of down-hills on the way to Bloomington, but just as many up-hills. The most effective way of keeping engine RPMs low on up-hills is of course to keep the car in the highest gear possible, or in my case 5th gear.

So how does one accomplish the feat of coasting down hills in neutral and flying up hills in 5th gear, without braking? The buffer zone. To successfully use the buffer zone, you have to know the route you are driving well and anticipate the hills in advance of coming to them. Usually I am stuck behind at least one car, with the inability to pass. Thus, whenever I know I am approaching a downhill, I intentionally slow down and either coast or lower my RPMs by not accelerating as much. This allows the distance between the car in front of me and my car to grow. Then, whenever I come to the hill, I let my car coast down. By the time I reach the bottom of the hill, I am coasting so quick that I am approaching the car in front of me. If I create the buffer zone correctly, my coasting will slow to the speed of the car in front of me just before I reach the car. Then I simply put the car back into 5th gear and drive along the flat area. Similarly, whenever I know an uphill is coming, I again slow down either by coasting or not accelerating as much, creating another buffer zone between the car in front of me and myself. Just before I start to climb the hill, I accelerate. If the buffer zone is large enough, I am able to keep my car in 5th gear all the way up the hill without reaching the car in front of me. By the time I reach the top, I am again behind the car, and moving at the same speed.

Occasionally I will make the buffer zone too small and have to down-shift or brake going uphill or downhill, but often times I can hit it perfectly. The length of the hill and presence of sharp turns requires manual adjustments to buffer zone driving, and it is different for every road. The better you know the road, however, the more effectively you can drive using the buffer zone. People who drive automatic transmissions will probably have a more difficult time using the buffer zone on up-hills, although it is still relatively easy to coast down hills without braking, if planned correctly. While buffer zone driving, one must pay extra attention to hazards and other obstacles in the road, as you are often driving slightly faster than the speed limit and occasionally out of gear. It is a very safe method of driving if done correctly, and maximizes the fuel efficiency of your vehicle in the most primitive way. The only downfall of buffer zone driving is that it is much more difficult, and not recommended, to meditate while doing.