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GRINDING GEARS: My dad, a sensible driver, was rear-ended by four cars

Here are some tips to help you avoid a similar fate
Luckily everyone was OK in this recent chain-reaction crash on Highway 1 in North Vancouver. photo District of North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services

Last week, my folks (regrettably) made page 5 of the Wednesday edition.

A picture of their Subaru Forester, snapped by the North Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service, was tucked at the bottom of a local news brief discussing a 10-car collision on the Upper Levels highway.

Happily, everyone was all right. However, it was certainly not the call I wanted to get when Dad rang me up to say that they’d been rear-ended by no fewer than four other cars, all wedged together in a chain reaction.

I have to say, after things had calmed down, I had a bit of pride in what that picture said. Alone of the cars in the shot, my folks’ Subaru was the only one without any damage to the front. My dad is in his 70s, and no longer has the reflexes he once did in his motorcycle-riding youth. He does, however, still retain some of the lessons he learned back then. He knows to leave a bit of space in case the unexpected happens.

Regrettably, in today’s age, that skill is something of a lost art. When I was in driver training, the rule of thumb was to leave approximately a three second gap between you and the car in front of you. It’s easy to measure if you’re actually doing so: simply pick a lamp-post or cat’s eye on the road, and count how many seconds it takes you to reach it after the car ahead has passed.

You’d be surprised at how big of a gap three seconds is at highway speeds. At the 80 kilometre per hour speed limit on the highway up around Lonsdale (which most people don’t religiously adhere to, it must be said), three seconds is enough time to cover about 65 metres. That’s well more than half a football field.

Let’s say you did nothing else other than maintain this gap, and the car in front of you suddenly stopped instantly. According to data from Car and Driver, the average full-size pickup truck – hardly the best performing thing on the road – can stop from 112 km/h (70 mph) in about 60 m. Thus, if you were leaving enough distance in front, even a Chevy Silverado should be able to stop.

The problem is two-fold. First, modern traffic abhors a vacuum. Second, following too closely is a hard habit to break.

Also last week, I spent some time at the headquarters of Damon Motorcycles, a Vancouver-based electric superbike startup that’s looking to revolutionize motorcycling. Their bike, the Hypersport, is mind-bendingly fast, but that’s not what’s interesting about it.

The Hypersport is, uniquely among motorcycles, equipped with most of the advanced driving systems we’re starting to see on cars these days. These include blind-spot monitoring, side-traffic alert, and a simple system to let a rider know if they’re following too closely.

Everyone at Damon is an experienced rider, with years of riding on the track and street, and they all said that it was pretty easy to get sloppy and start tailgating a bit too closely, over-relying on their reflexes. The safety alert systems didn’t replace rider inputs, they just aimed to give the motorcyclist a bit more time to avoid an accident.

That extra time is something that you can create yourself, by leaving just that little bit more space. However, there’s a problem. Odds are, if you leave a gap, some other entitled driver is going to think it’s a special space just for them, and slide right in front of you. Adjust again, and here comes someone else. It can get frustrating.

Until such time as Transport Canada approves my hood-mounted combination spatula/car-catapult, there aren’t really any solutions for dealing with motorists helping themselves to your space. You just have to remember that you’re leaving the buffer there for your benefit, not theirs.

And you shouldn’t just be leaving a space in front. Another lesson drummed into my head during driver training was to always look for an escape route. If traffic suddenly slows ahead, are you keeping a gap to your left or right that you could move into in the event of an emergency? Modern braking and stability systems are all well and good, but they still can’t touch a human brain with situational awareness for keeping people safe.

It’s probably never been more important to develop these skills, and they’re the kind of things you can work on every day. Here’s why: reporting from Global News, also focusing on events from last week, said that the Burnaby RCMP had seen a 50 per cent failure rate from their recent commercial vehicle safety blitz. The result were 147 trucks deemed not road safe.

Those are just the vehicles that the Commercial Vehicle Safety team caught. When a heavy truck is involved in a collision, especially plowing into a line of cars, things get very serious, very fast.

So, keep your eyes up, and watch farther down the road than just the car ahead of you. Make space for yourself, both to the front and the sides, to buy yourself a little extra time for when you need it. And give trucks an extra-wide berth. Professional truck drivers will appreciate the extra respect, and either way taking a bit of extra care is a smart move.

Taken all together, this advice should be enough to keep you out of the body shop for years to come. And, more importantly, out of the newspaper.

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at [email protected]. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.