Gridlock Guy: Keeping your eyes on the blind spots

The lost art of obeying the a main tenet of safe driving.

There’s nothing like a little real life fright to remind us of the little details that matter. People may, for a split second, leave their kid in the back seat and then run back and get them. Or someone’s co-worker might test positive for COVID, forcing those who saw them to get tested. An officer might pull a driver over for speeding and send them off with just a warning, instead of a pricey ticket. Crises averted.

My wife, Momo Lesser, was driving my mom, Stephanie Turnbull, recently when they got a chilling reminder of a driving technique that is becoming a lost art, but is absolutely mandatory for all of us.

As they rode in one of the center lanes on I-85, someone merging in from the right side started cutting over rapidly toward their lane. In a split second, the merging driver was entering Momo’s lane even with her black SUV.

“I checked my blind spot light on the outside mirror briefly, but had to jerk the wheel and move us over one lane,” she told me. They got into the left lane next to them without incident, as the careless merging driver continued on. “I was shaking,” she said.

This near-cataclysm prompted Momo to nudge me to write about the importance of checking blind spots while driving. Spot on. April is Distracted Driver Awareness Month and being keenly aware of one’s surroundings is a tenet of that cause.

So here it goes: whenever a driver changes lanes, they should check the rear view mirror, the side mirror, and then look over their shoulder to make sure the lane is clear, before changing lanes.

We would be hard-pressed to find any disagreement with that advice, but practice is more important than preaching. Not long ago, the roads were more empty, so drivers were much less likely to encounter anyone while switching lanes. Speeds, of course, picked up, so the consequences were worse when cars did make contact. Neck swivels got rusty and they could use some oil.

The safety features on cars have made the over-the-shoulder look-see a little less necessary. Blind spot sensor lights on mirrors illuminate when cars are close enough to them. But those extraordinarily helpful warnings should not replace our double-checking the space next to our vehicles. That extra confirmation doesn’t cost us time; it’s just smart. Those blind spot sensors, much like GPS apps, have made us safer and more on-course. But they’ve also made us subconsciously take less ownership in driving.

When driving in areas with more cyclists and pedestrians, particularly downtown areas, we should also check our blind spots when making a turn. For example, if a car is turning right and the driver doesn’t check over their right shoulder, a cyclist could be zooming up to that spot or a pedestrian could be starting out in a crosswalk. While the biker and the walker should also be more careful in this spot, the driver is the one behind the steel behemoth that can cause the most damage.

Our failures to check blind spots can cause chain reactions of problems. Take Momo’s example. The merging driver’s failure to check if Momo was in the lane caused her to make an evasive move and switch lanes quickly. She checked her blind spot sensor in that brief moment, but didn’t have a chance to look over her shoulder. She could have easily cut off or hit another car or caused that other vehicle to make its own evasive move and wreck. When we are careless, we cause others to behave evasively, and all of that creates chaos.

Considering the numerous factors on roads we encounter that cause trouble - a sudden stalled vehicle, debris, potholes, people merging into lanes without looking - we simply cannot afford to give less than our full attention behind the wheel. And checking one’s blind spots is easily overlooked, but largely important.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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