defensive driving, aikido,

Drive to Survive

Drive to Survive

© 2006 Wellness Clubs of

Wayne and Greg laughed as their motor home headed northwest on I-94. The coming days were certain to be filled with relaxation, the thrill of the hunt, and father-son camaraderie – one of those special times in life from which memories are made.

Nancy was glad to be approaching her home. The evening with her friend had been fun, but it was time to go to bed. After all, working with children each day was not only rewarding but also quite demanding, and she needed plenty of rest.

The school week had gone okay, but Megan, Hillary, and Crystal were glad it was the weekend. They hopped into Crystal’s car and headed for WalMart to check out the action.

Wayne and Greg never made it to the duck blind. As they were talking a suburban crossed the median and met them head-on. The motor home’s propane tank exploded and Wayne died in the flames. He was 66 years old.

Nancy never got to bed that night. Her car was broad sided by a drunk driver less than a mile from her home and she was killed instantly. She was 21.

The girls never made it to WalMart. The car swerved out of control on a curve and hit a tree. Megan died at the scene. She was only 16.

Perhaps an article on survival driving is out of place in a newsletter devoted primarily to teaching methods to support the body’s healing mechanisms, but I do not believe that to be the case. Few things in this world kill or maim more quickly or more frequently than motor vehicle accidents. The impact of vehicular accidents upon wellness is so great that I am devoting this entire issue to describing principles that can, if applied, significantly reduce the number of injuries and deaths resulting from them.

Consider the Cause of Death statistics for 2000, the last year for which they are currently available. Motor vehicle accidents were the number one cause of death in people under the age of 35. They were the second leading cause of death among individuals between 35 and 44. Every day, on average, 115 people in the United States die from injuries sustained in vehicular accidents. Sadly, the majority are either just starting out in life or are at the peak of their potential. Left behind are parents, spouses, children, friends, and associates whose lives will never be quite as rich as they might have been.

“Driving,” says George Leonard, “can be a fine art, finely balanced between long periods of seemingly routine and brief moments of terrifying challenge, with the possibility of injury or death always awaiting around the next corner.” What follows are sound survival principles from the art of Aikido, a form of self-defense, as they apply to the operation of a car, truck, motorcycle, motor home, or any other form of mechanized transportation.
  • Principle One: Ground and Center
  • Principle Two: Full Awareness
  • Principle Three: Anticipate Challenges
  • Principle Four: Eye Contact
  • Principle Five: Mai Distance
  • Principle Six: Move Off the Line of Attack
  • Principle Seven: Maintain Contact With the Ground
  • Principle Eight: Upright Posture

Simply knowing that these principles exist will be helpful, but to be truly effective they must be put into practice. They must become instinctive and reflexive so that they are performed without conscious thought, for it is the nature of accidents to occur unexpectedly and with unforgiving suddenness. When an accident situation develops, there is rarely, if ever, time to evaluate the available options and make a conscious decision. It is the reflexive response that will determine the outcome in nearly every instance.

Principle One: Ground and Center

The fact that most drivers approach the task with a cavalier attitude is perhaps the most significant dynamic leading to accidental injury or death. As an individual moves from the status of a student with a learner’s permit to that of a fully licensed driver the first hesitant attempts to gain the skill are quickly forgotten, and the operation of the vehicle becomes virtually automatic and secondary to hundreds of other concerns. The average motorist enters the vehicle, turns the key, engages the transmission and steps on the accelerator more out of habit than from conscious intention.

The hazard of this behavior is demonstrated by a study performed at UCLA in the 1960s. The brainwave activity of astronaut candidates was measured while they were practicing a lunar landing. Their brainwave activity was also recorded during a simulation of driving a car on a Los Angeles freeway. It was found that driving on the freeway triggered much more brainwave activity than negotiating a landing on the moon.

Operating from the physical center of the body, a point slightly below the navel and midway between front and back, is critical to the success of any Aikido technique. Taking a moment to become grounded and centered in a vehicle before starting the engine may mean the difference between life and death.

Becoming centered while driving involves taking a moment to consciously recognize the gravity of the task that is about to be undertaken. Upon entering the vehicle pause and take a deep breath. Relax. Clear any disturbing or pressing thoughts. Adjust the seat, steering column and mirrors if necessary. Allow yourself to sink deeply into the seat so that you become aware of the mass of metal you are about to propel at speeds that were once thought to be incompatible with human life. Fasten your seatbelt to further solidify your relationship with the vehicle. Proceed only when you are firmly grounded in the responsibility of operating a deadly weapon and centered in the mission of arriving safely at your destination.

Principle Two: Full Awareness

Closely aligned with the principle of being grounded and centered while operating the vehicle is that of achieving and maintaining full awareness of what is going on around you. Be present now.

Practicing full awareness begins before entering the vehicle. Take a lesson from conscientious aircraft pilots. Do a visual inspection of the condition of the tires, the body, and particularly the visibility available through the windows. Check and correct the pressure in any tires that appear low, investigate and repair any loose hardware, and clean the windows if necessary. Develop the habit of checking fluid levels periodically.

Take a moment to assess the weather conditions. Is there a wind? Has it been raining or snowing? Where is the sun? Could the temperature be a factor in creating slick spots or other hazards? Is the time of day associated with a greater risk of animals crossing the roadway?

Remaining fully aware means being alert to changing conditions and responding accordingly. It means being attuned to sights, sounds, smells, and changes in the feel of the car and the road that could signify a problem.

Principle Three: Anticipate Challenges

Anticipating and avoiding a potential attack is the best form of self-defense. Better to never have encountered an assault that to have successfully responded to it.

Continually anticipate challenges while behind the wheel. Is another vehicle following too closely? Could a stalled car be present just over the crest of the hill you are approaching? Is there an intersection ahead that could be run by a speeding car? Is there a curve ahead that you should enter at a reduced speed? Are you approaching any debris or other hazard in the roadway? Could there be ice on the bridge ahead?

Anticipating potential disasters and taking measures to avoid them is a major factor in avoiding injury or death while driving. It is far better to have slowed to avoid a skid than to have skillfully steered through it and regained control.

Principle Four: Eye Contact

Maintaining eye contact with an attacker will allow a defender to sense and respond more quickly to his or her movements. Responding a fraction of a second sooner can mean the difference between gaining or losing control of the situation.

The same is true when driving. Taking one’s eyes off the road for an instant in a car traveling at speeds of 70 or 75 miles per hour can spell disaster on the highway. The same is true at much slower speeds when driving in city traffic.

The type of eye contact is also important. It is equally possible to look ahead with “hard eyes” and “soft eyes”, but one is infinitely superior to the other in terms of survival.

To appreciate the difference turn back to the front page of this newsletter. Look closely at the letter “e” in the word “Health”. How would you describe it to someone? Are the lines rounded or squared? What color is it? Is it uniformly shaded, or is the tint graduated? Does it appear happy or sad? Do this exercise before reading further.

Do you have a vivid impression of the letter “e”? Good. Now answer the following questions: How many shaded “bullet points” are present? What color is the “In This Issue” box? Where is it located? Is the photo shaded in black and white or violet and white?

If you really concentrated on the letter “e” you probably missed the answer to one or more questions. That is because you were looking at it with “hard eyes”; your concentration was focused almost exclusively on the letter.

Turn back to the front page and look at the letter “e” once more. This time, however, soften your focus so that you become aware of features in your peripheral vision. You are now viewing the letter with “soft eyes”.

Develop the habit of not only keeping your eyes on the road ahead, but doing so with “soft eyes” bringing in an awareness of what is happening not only directly in front of your vehicle, but what is approaching from the sides and, if possible, from the rear as well.

Principle Five: Mai Distance

There is a distance, referred to as mai, at which a potential attacker cannot punch, kick, grab or otherwise cause injury to his or her intended victim. Maintaining mai distance is fundamental to being able to react successfully to an attack.

This is a powerful principle in avoiding a motor vehicle accident. Maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles is critical in providing the reaction time necessary to successfully avoid a collision.

Two techniques are commonly recommended to determine this safe distance. The first is to remain one car or truck length away from surrounding vehicles for each 10 mph of speed. The other is to remain one second behind other vehicles for every 10 mph you are traveling. To estimate how many seconds separate you from the driver ahead pick an object ahead and starting as the car or truck you are following passes it count one thousand one, one thousand two . . . until you yourself pass the point of reference.

Practice this exercise each time you make a trip and you will quickly develop a sense of mai distance and find yourself instinctively taking steps to maintain it.

Principle Six: Move Off the Line of Attack

While stepping to the side of a charging bull or ducking a punch may seem the obvious thing to do it is not the usual response to a surprise attack. The most common is to freeze, to become the proverbial “deer in the headlights”.

Evidence of this is the finding that many, if not most, head on collisions could be avoided if drivers facing an oncoming vehicle would veer away from the approaching impact. There is no more deadly scenario than that of a head on collision, and in many instances a clear lane or shoulder is available. One of the most notable examples is that of comedian Sam Kinison, who died when his Pontiac Trans Am was struck head on by a pickup near the California Nevada border. There was nothing but level ground beside the highway for as far as the eye could see.

Since turning your vehicle off the road is not a natural reaction, the action must be practiced regularly until it becomes an automatic reflex. It is not necessary to risk injury or death by repeatedly turning off of the roadway to develop a conditioned response of moving off the line of attack. Simply develop the habit of at some point during each trip of imagining that you are facing an oncoming car and turn the wheel quickly, but ever so slightly. Having done so the reflex will be triggered automatically should an impact actually threaten.

Principle Seven: Maintain Contact With the Ground

Anyone who has studied Aikido is aware that the ability to protect oneself and maintain control is severely compromised if even one foot is in the air. When a foot is raised balance is in jeopardy and a fall is much more likely.

The same is true for a vehicle. If one or more wheels lose contact with the road surface control of the vehicle is in serious peril. Excessive speed, loose gravel, oil spills, or icy spots are some of the conditions that can cause a loss of traction. Worn tires increase the risk.

Hydroplaning is one of the most dangerous of all driving situations. This can occur when the roadway is wet, especially during a heavy drain. It is important to have good tires, reduce speed, and avoid the use of cruise control when driving in wet conditions. Hydroplaning is treacherous whenever and however it occurs, but if the vehicle’s cruise control is engaged when this occurs it is nearly impossible to regain control. The system will interpret the situation as requiring more power and the vehicle will accelerate uncontrollably when road contact is restored.

Principle Eight: Upright Posture

Good posture plays an important role in self-defense. Good posture in itself will prevent many attacks from taking place. Convicted muggers serving time in a New Jersey prison were shown videotapes of pedestrians and asked to identify potential victims. They were very consistent in their preferred targets. Those considered a good risk were not necessarily the smallest and weakest. The choices were predominantly individuals who appeared off balance in some way. People walking with a balanced upright posture were almost never identified as someone they would attack.

Good posture also gives an individual much greater stability and allows the person to exert significantly more control over any situation. Loss of posture puts one off balance and susceptible to attack.

Maintaining an upright posture while driving produces similar results. When good posture is being maintained a driver is at his or her peak alertness and exerting the greatest control over the vehicle. He or she is in the optimum position to respond to threats and execute emergency maneuvers. Conversely, someone adopting a slumped or leaning posture will have great difficulty remaining fully alert and responding quickly should a crisis arise.

The greatest tragedy surrounding accidents is that in many cases they could either have been avoided or have been lessened in severity. The death of someone we love or care about is painful under any circumstance, but it is doubly so when the loss occurs needlessly and unexpectedly.

Wayne may have been alive today had he reflexly turned his motor home away from the oncoming Suburban. The coach would undoubtedly have tipped, skidded, or even rolled over, but the outcome should not have been as deadly as the frontal impact.

Nancy may have been alive today had she anticipated the approach of a speeding car at the unmarked intersection or caught the gleam of approaching headlights in her peripheral vision.

Megan would almost certainly be attending school today had the speed of the car in which she was riding been reduced before entering the turn on a road that had been driven countless times before.

The eight principles presented have the potential to save your life and the lives of others, but reading about them once in this article will accomplish little. They must be actively practiced until they are performed as routinely as getting dressed in the morning and as automatically as pulling your hand away when it contacts a hot surface.

I recommend that you copy the principles and attach them to your sun visor, dashboard, or other location in your vehicle.  Review them each time you get behind the wheel.  Don’t simply drive to arrive, drive to survive.

Principle One: Ground and Center

Principle Two: Full Awareness

Principle Three: Anticipate Challenges

Principle Four: Eye Contact

Principle Five: Mai Distance

Principle Six: Move Off the Line of Attack

Principle Seven: Maintain Contact With the Ground

Principle Eight: Upright Posture

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