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One of the most unique driving students I ever had was a tall young man named Roman whose pale complexion was made to seem even lighter in contrast by the dark colored lipstick he favored. What made him unusual wasn’t his “goth” style of fashion, but his complete lack of driving knowledge. He had never sat in the driver’s seat before, and even just putting the key in the ignition was entirely foreign to him. I was excited by the prospect of taking him from a non-driver to one competent enough to pass the DMV behind-the-wheel test.
Roman lived on a busy street in Berkeley, and since I didn’t know of any
empty parking lots nearby, I called my wife Karen and asked her to search
Google Maps to find the closest suitable place where Roman could begin
After a quick search on the computer, Karen found the perfect location.
Only five minutes away from where Roman lived was an area with plenty
of open space, lots of different streets to explore, and very slow speed limits.
Because of his macabre sartorial style, I found it ironic that spot Karen sug-
gested for Roman to start driving in was “The Mountain View Cemetery.”
I drove us over there and entered through the stately gates out front. I
turned off the car, and we changed places. I got Roman settled in in the
driver’s seat. I enjoyed starting with him from scratch, not only did Roman
have no bad habits; he had no habits at all. I gave him the car key and had
him hold it, between his thumb and forefinger (thumb on the back) just like
he would with a house key, then insert it into the ignition, put his foot on
the brake, and turn the key forward until the engine turned over.
I taught him the hand signals and went over what all of the car’s axillary
equipment did, and how to operate it exactly the way I do. For example,
while keeping both hands on the steering wheel, I like to use my left-hand
middle finger to both flip on and flip off (no pun intended) the turn signal.
I’m very particular about where I want my students to put their right
foot. I told Roman that it should be in line with the brake, with the heel
kept down on the floorboard at all times. This allows the toes of his foot to
swivel over to the gas pedal from left to right.
A lot of beginners want to use the entire foot to control the gas pedal.
This makes it difficult to have the necessary finesse needed to gently increase
and decrease the pressure to accelerate and decelerate the car smoothly. I
asked Roman to keep his left foot out of the way, and explained to him it
should be placed firmly on the floorboard where the clutch would typically
be in a manual car.
I showed Roman how to place his hands on the wheel in the nine o’clock (left-hand,) three o’clock position (right-hand). The NHTSA (Nation- al Highway Traffic Safety Administration) suggests you grip the steering wheel, with your knuckles on the outside of the steering wheel, and the thumbs stretched out along the rim. This way you will reduce face, arm, and hand injuries in the case of a deployed airbag. I argue that keeping the thumbs wrapped around the wheel inside the rim gives you better control of the steering wheel, and helps you from not having to use the airbag in the first place.
The NHTSA states that there is no one correct way to steer a car safe-
ly, as long as the driver stays in control of the vehicle. I like to teach my
students three methods that they can use in different situations. Since we
would be driving at a very slow speed in the cemetery, I started Roman off
with these basic steering techniques.
I call the first steering technique one “The Race Car Driver” since it is
the same way a Nascar driver steers. The hands stay firmly gripped on the
wheel, and you just turn the wheel right and left without removing them
from the nine o’clock, three o’clock position. This method works well when
you aren’t making any sharp left or right turns, and reinforces the need for
the student to keep both hands on the wheel at the same time while driving.
For any turns at a slow speed that is sharp enough that the arms might
become contorted if they remain on the wheel, I teach the second method
called “cross-hand” steering. When turning to the left, I’ll start by pushing
the wheel in that direction with my right hand, and the left hand will cross
over it and grabs next to it. Then the left hand will continue pulling the
wheel to the left, while the right-hand goes back to its original position. To
turn to the right, I will simply reverse the technique with the right-hand
crossing over the left. This method is also called “hand-over-hand steering.”
The third method I teach is the “push/pull” Technique (also called
hand-to-hand steering). Depending on the direction one hand will push up
as the opposite one pulls down with the hands shuffling along the wheel.
This method can be used at higher speeds, and since the hands don’t cross
over the face of the steering wheel, there is less chance of injury to hands,
face, or arms if the airbag deploys.
We started driving at the sedate speed befitting the location, cruising
past headstones, statues, and fancy mausoleums. Roman slowly but sure-
ly gained control over the car and after about twenty minutes had gained
enough confidence for us to head out into residential streets. Roman may
have favored dark clothing and a Goth style he was by no means a gloomy
kid. As we left the cemetery, he turned to me and said: “boy wouldn’t that
be a great place to have a picnic.”
Working with Roman helped me not to judge a book by its cover. I often feel misjudged when I tell people that I’m a professional juggler, and I try to do my best not to assume too much about people based on appearance or circumstance. This attitude was a big help in the final chapter of my life that I want to share with the readers of this book (thanks for making it this far). My experience as a tutor in San Quentin Prison