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The Driven Life

John Cassidy, Rally Driver
Adrian Segura, editor

For this second installment in Last Ditch Racing's, "The Driven Life," series, I wanted to focus on situational awareness.

If you're a pilot or perhaps an operator in the U.S. Special Forces, you already know what situational awareness is.

For purposes of driving, I consider situational awareness the knowledge of where you are in immediate space at any given moment and a exhibiting a constant reassessment of the environment around you.

This is critical while in the rally car, but perhaps it is even more important on my daily run to Starbucks for coffee in the morning.  

In T-4, our rally car, there are all sorts of things that I have to attend to while racing.  There are things inside the car, like temperature, fumes, noises as well as other physical feedback I receive through my body's contact with the car.  I'm also looking outside the car, primarily as far ahead as possible.  I like to think of the information coming through the windshield and into my ears from the codriver as a stream of data that enters the windshield and exits through the back of the my helmet.  Once that point of time and space is past, it's no longer important.  As rally drivers, we're often processing information from the co-driver that pertains to segments of the road that we can't see, while still working on the piece of road we're negotiating.  Some professional drivers in the World Rally Championship (WRC) like to have road information 3-4 corners ahead.  Depending on the stage, I usually prefer two corners ahead.

Hyper-vigilant is how I'd describe the state of the racing crew (driver and co-driver) is in while on stage.  We're hyper-sensitive to everything.  The processing of information, when things are going well, is effortless.   The amount of data that our brains are processing at any second is quite amazing.

How does this relate to that trip to Starbucks in the morning?  I'll give you some examples.  Here in Maine, I warm my car up before I head out.  I don't want to be distracted by my own complaining of how cold it is or distracted by my own shivering.  Comfort.  Preheating the car also ensures that the windshield is clear. For those who don't have to worry about warming up their car (and those who do), how's your interface with the controls?  Steering wheel tilted correctly?  Seat adjusted?  Mirrors?  Lights on?  I drive with my lights on all the time (my car doesn't have DRL), because I'm of the mind that being more visible is a good thing.

Being aware of the size of your vehicle and specifically where the corners of it are is important.  This is especially true when you're driving a car/truck that's unfamiliar to you.

I start my tunes playing before I leave the driveway so that I'm not fumbling with phone (or any other digital music device) controls as I drive into the sun towards town (in the winter, I'm driving due East towards the highway and it's truly blinding).  Sunglasses already on if needed.

There's a temptation to feel rushed when pulling into morning commuter traffic on my road.  People obviously have places they want to be and their driving reflects that.  I consciously try and loosen my grip on the wheel and make sure I take a couple deep breaths as I progress onto the road.  Acceleration is smooth, but not aggressive.  The engine may be warm, but the transmission and differentials are not.

At each light, I can usually see the crossing traffic signal, so I have an idea when my respective signal will go green.  I don't do this to jump the light;it's just another aspect of situational awareness.  When I get the green, I always check that the crossing traffic has stopped.  Stopping safely at a red light is Driver's Ed 101, but I see people blow red lights every morning.

Merging onto the highway is a challenge I enjoy.  Most Mainers are courteous and pull left to allow you to merge, but not always. I adjust my driver's side mirror so that I can see, "back" up the highway as I go down the ramp. This is done so that I can plan my merge.  I nearly get to highway speed, but I am always wary of the cars ahead.  Have you ever been behind someone that stops on a highway on ramp?!  Me too.  Just to jog everyone's memories, merging traffic does NOT have the right of way. The traffic on the highway does. If you have to stop, you have to stop.

Checking your blind spot without changing lanes takes some practice, especially at speed.  This is a good practice point.  On a clear section of road, check your blind spot for a few seconds and see how much you drift off your intended line of travel. Consciously relaxing your grip on the wheel will help prevent drift.  

On the highway, maybe that nice guy/gal that pulled left to let you in needs to get off at the next exit.  Resist the urge to speed up and keep them out of the right lane.  Take a couple more deep breaths and have a situational check.  Who's beside you?  Who's in front?  Who's in back?  Patience is a virtue, especially in a town like mine where the quickest way to get across town is the highway.

Another game I'll often play while on the road is trying to guess people's intentions by the way they're driving.  Even without them stepping on their brake lights, could you sense they were slowing down?  Could you sense that the driver in front is driving tentatively, perhaps looking for a street address?  Do you notice someone on their phone or leaning in towards the center console like they're looking for that Hello Kitty change purse they dropped?  Now is likely not a good time to pass them.

I'll often play a game with myself and try to adhere to the speed limit for the few miles until my exit.  Have you ever noticed that you tend to speed up when that fellow commuter starts to pass you?  Me neither!  ;-)

As in the race car, I try to look as far down the road as I can.  I watch for brakes lights ahead,sometimes through the windshields of other cars.  I avoid staying behind big trucks that obscure my view.

Most dangers in rally lay in front of you.  On the street, they can exist in all directions, but mainly forward and rearward.  A distracted driver behind can easily rear-end you as you come to a stop.  Someone can stop quickly 10 cars ahead, causing a pileup in the blink of an eye.

In our current age of multifunction devices in the car, it often seems the last thing we're focused on is actually driving the car:this mutli-thousand pound weapon of steel with huge kinetic energy!  

Is being hyper-vigilant on the street stressful or tiring?  It may be initially, but becomes second nature with practice.  It can be a calm and relaxed state of mind that will keep you, your passengers and other motorists safe.

If you're usually aware and find yourself not, be introspective.  Are you tired?  Cranky?  Intoxicated?  Overly competitive with other drivers?  Do you need to let someone else drive?  Don't let your ego affect your safety.

I figure if I can make it safely to Starbucks, I can make it to the start of the next rally.

If you missed the initial short discussion on left foot braking, please visit the LDR Facebook page at

Be safe and stay driven! John

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