Sleet dots the windshield. My hands slide over the steering wheel, clammy with shame. I round a curve, precariously close to a snack shack. The vehicle shudders and groans. On the second bend, I turn too sharply and toss my passengers from side to side. A quick look in the rearview mirror confirms they are as green as I am. On the third bend, I clear the corner—but mow down several orange traffic cones. The landscape whirls and the car hiccups. Every divot in the pavement represents a canyon of potential error. I worry that I'll be sued.
I apologize profusely to my fellow passengers; it's not what they signed up for when they got into the car with me.
Or, just maybe, it is.
I'm still a relatively recent (two years now) East Coast transplant. For a decade, when I lived in New York, I didn't need to drive. So I didn't. Hell, part of the reason I moved to Portland was its embrace of public transportation. But when I have to arrive somewhere very early or somewhere the bus or MAX doesn't readily go, I suck it up and drive.
Drenched by Portland's bad winter weather, I decided to boost my road IQ. It couldn't hurt: According to a 2005 report published by the Oregon Department of Transportation, over 3,700 crashes took place in January 2005 alone. And you can bet your seat belt that Oregon's icy, wet roads didn't help matters.
So I signed up for a half-day Car Control&Defensive Driving Class at Pro Drive, the official driving school of Portland International Raceway. I figured I needed all the help I could get to start off the new year without a bang.
The three-hour class, which costs $299, is taught using "SkidCars" that turn out to be several white Toyota Camrys fitted with steel frames and hydraulic systems. The class instructor can adjust the SkidCar's system to mimic the type of crappy weather and the type of skid—rear or front—they want to help drivers avoid. Pro Drive educates more than 1,000 Portlanders a year about what to do—and what not to do—when encountering difficult driving situations.
Classes are small—ours consists of six students and one instructor, Chris Knight. A professional race-car driver, Knight started racing go-carts at age 6. He's been with Pro Drive for nine years, teaching people like me how to avoid crashing, as well as instructing high-performance driving classes.
The first half-hour of class takes place in a trailer near the race track. Knight launches into a lecture that would make any teen's mom cringe. "Two people standing side by side have more contact with the road than your tire does with the pavement [while you're driving]," he says, pointing to his feet. The solution? Get a fat ride. Excess poundage might be bad for ballerinas, but it's great for your car: weight equals traction. Then Knight shows us how to turn into a skid, illustrating by moving around a large toy race car on a desk. Here's the deal—in a front skid, try to straighten out. In a rear skid, turn the steering wheel in the direction you want your car to go.
It's all too much information. I'm pretty sure that if my car starts skidding, I'm not going to calmly ponder which end is going where.
That's pretty common, it turns out. Most drivers, Knight explains, encounter problems when they second-guess themselves. He says defensive driving should be—and usually is—instinctive.
My instinct, right now, is to take the bus and get caught up on my magazines.
Too late, time to get behind the wheel. I swallow my fear (along with my bile) and climb into the Camry. The class splits up: Two high-school juniors and I go with Knight; the other three students go with another instructor.
"The SkidCar is like a magnifying glass," Knight cautions as I fasten my seat belt.
You know those small circular mirrors in hotel bathrooms, where one side is a normal reflection and the other makes your pores look like the surface of the moon? That's what driving a SkidCar is like. A nudge of the steering wheel the wrong way sends the car wildly off-course. A last-minute attempt to right the car leads to a panicked slam on the brake. OK. Good. Braking's good, it stops the car, right?
You actually want to give it a little gas if you get into a skid, instructs Knight, eerily calm. Even if it seems counterintuitive, jamming on the brakes can actually make a skid worse.
Apparently, I have the instincts of a lemming.
On another attempt, I glance down at the steering wheel as I'm driving to check if I'm correctly practicing the "shuffle-steer-push-pull" technique that Knight suggests: Again, we twirl to a stop.
"When we're driving a car, it's the only time we can see our future," is Knight's Zen response to my failure. "Look where you want to go."
"Everyone likes to think they are good drivers," he consoles.
I certainly wasn't better than my copilots. Those 16-year-olds piloted the Camry around Pro Drive's figure-eight course with minimal help, while I continued to spin us around like Dorothy Hamill in a triple lutz.
As the only thirtysomething in the class, I salute these kids' parents: Experiencing this kind of stressful situation in a controlled environment probably would have made me a better driver from the start.
Too late. So I'll continue to work on my driving, to be cautious and to look where I want to go. I'll follow Knight's advice about slowing before a corner and about not braking while turning the corner. And I'll remember, as he said, that cars want to be straight; that's when they're most stable.
As I belt up in my own vehicle to head home, I think of my first driving teacher. My parents didn't teach me to drive. Instead, they hired an elderly gentleman who told me, "Smart people don't make good drivers."
After almost 20 years and one very cautious post-class drive home, I'm still not sure into which category I fall.
Fresh from my Pro Drive experience, I asked some local driving pros for their take on common PDX-driver stereotypes.
Pro Drive's Chris Knight agrees that California drivers do tend to be more aggressive. But as more people move to Oregon from California, Knight believes Oregonians are now driving more aggressively. "Be the nice person on the road," he urges. An Oregon native himself, Knight adds, "You also hear people talk about 'bad Washington drivers,' but no one really knows why."
I vent about this stereotype to Mike Kennedy, who taught driving in Portland for about seven years. (Full disclosure: When I moved here, I took a few driving classes with Kennedy. Fuller disclosure: He no longer teaches driving. He swears it's not because of me.) "People in Portland generally drive slower than [people in] other cities," he says. "On the freeway, people in the slow lane go right at or below the speed limit. You generally don't see that elsewhere."
As Knight puts it, "If you can do it, then someone is doing it behind the wheel of a car." He recalls seeing a woman driving on the freeway while filling out a crossword puzzle attached to the steering wheel. Cell phones are a frequent culprit for inattentive driving. Although certain counties in Oregon have outlawed the practice, there is no statewide rule against phone use while driving. There was also, sadly, no mention of the direct correlation between atrocious driving and "Coexist" bumper stickers.
Find out more about Portland International Raceway's Pro Drive Car Control & Defensive Driving Class at prodrive.net.