Two Million Miles of Advice

When you have driven more than 2.4 million miles in one car and you reside in East Patchogue, New York, you're going to have more than your share of experience driving in winter weather.  So it's not surprising that Irv Gordon, the retired Long Island science teacher with the record-setting Volvo, should offer up some winter driving tips.

"It takes plenty of planning, a true understanding of your car, and the right music to make your winter driving safe and relaxing," Gordon said.  Gordon favors Johnny Cash, by the way.

The 64-year-old has done more winter driving than just about anybody, and he has gained worldwide fame for being the first person to drive more than two million miles in the same car, a shiny red 1966 Volvo P1800. Gordon takes delight in driving his Volvo to Philadelphia for lunch, Montreal for dinner or California just for the fun of it.

"In the snowy states and in some sunny states, winter driving is as inevitable as that crazy, belligerent uncle visiting for the holidays," Gordon said. "Sooner or later, you're just going to have to deal with it."

So how does he deal with it?  First he has his car professionally prepared for winter.

"I like to have a qualified mechanic give my car a full winter physical -- checking tire inflation, treads, battery, brake wear, fluids, etc," he said. "Get the cooling system flushed. Have him check all hoses and belts for cracks, bulges, soft areas and leaks. Inspect the brakes, rotors and the action of the emergency brake. The last thing you need on a cold morning is a frozen emergency brake because you failed to make sure all the linkages were free of road dirt and salt. And, for the love of Pete, put winter blades on your wipers!"

He's also a proponent of treating your car like a wife should treat a husband.  Keep it warm and full.

"Is it a myth that you need to warm up your car or keep your tank full in the winter?" he asked. "Who cares? Don't gamble. On cold days, warm your car a few minutes to get its heart ticking. And, always try to keep the gas tank at least half full lest water, condensation, dirt and debris find their way in there. And remember, don't warm up your car and fill it up at the same time, okay?"

Not only is Irv funny, but he also is one of those rare people who actually reads the owners' manual.  One thing he learned concerns the proper lubrication.

"You really are supposed to use different grades of oil over winter months," he said. "Check your owners' manual and make the adjustments."

He's also a proponent of snow tires.

"Instead of all-season tires, try four genuine snow tires," he said. "And buy the best snow tires you can afford. It's still cheaper than paying for what happens after you skid into your friendly neighborhood light pole."

Gordon purchased his Volvo P1800 in June 1966 from a neighborhood Volvo dealership for $4,150. His 125-mile daily commute to and from work, his passion for driving and his meticulous car enabled him to clock the miles. In 1998, The Guinness Book for World Records honored Gordon's car as the vehicle with the "highest certified miles driven by the original car owner in non-commercial service."

Gordon breaks his own world record every time he drives his celebrated car. Some time in 2006 -- the car's 40th anniversary -- he'll mark his 2.5 millionth mile, in hot pursuit of turning three million miles by decade's end.

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley is in hot pursuit of understanding the auto industry and the human condition.

Accidents Waiting to Happen

Falling asleep at the wheel is no laughing matter. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), approximately 100,000 collisions are caused every year on U.S. highways by drivers who fall asleep. Of that number, 1,500 of the accidents result in fatalities and 71,000 cause physical injuries.  Clearly driver fatigue is a major safety problem so Volvo Car Corporation has launched an extensive initiative to deal with the problem.  The result of that effort is the new Volvo Driver Alert system, a decisive step in active safety.
 
The technology is designed to monitor a vehicle's progress on the road and alert the driver if it detects signs of fatigue or distraction. The system does not take control of the vehicle, but instead helps drivers make the right decision. Volvo Cars intends to patent the Driver Alert technology and make the system available in Volvo vehicles within two years.

Instead of tracking lane markers or viewing the driver's eyeballs, Driver Alert monitors the vehicle's movement to determine if the vehicle is being driven in a controlled way. This method is unique among vehicle manufacturers, and it is designed to be reliable in a variety of circumstances.

"We have chosen to monitor the vehicles progress on the road instead of steering wheel input or the driver's eye movements," said Dr. Wolfgang Birk, project manager for Driver Alert at Volvo Cars. "This gives us a more reliable indication if something is likely to go wrong, allowing the system time to alert the driver before it is too late. We do not monitor human behavior, which varies from one person to another, but instead the system monitors the effect of that behavior. That is why there is less of a risk for false alarms."

(We know of some human behavior that triggers a lot of alarms, but that's another story.)

The Driver Alert system consists of a camera, a number of sensors and a processor. The camera, which is installed between the windscreen and the rear-view mirror, continuously measures the distance between the vehicle and the markings on the surface of the road. The sensors register the vehicle movements (like weaving within or outside the lane) while the processor stores the information and calculates whether the driver is at risk. If the risk is assessed as high, the driver is alerted via an audible signal and a text message appears in the vehicle's information display.

The system also warns if the driver loses concentration for a reason other than fatigue. The system can detect if the driver is focusing too much on the navigation or audio systems or children in the vehicle, issuing an audible and visual alert before control is lost.  But it cannot spank the children.  After all, it's Swedish.

What's more, the driver can retrieve a safety rating about their driving style, based on consistency of performance. Included in the vehicle's trip computer, a display will provide the driver a rating, based on five stars. The less consistent the driving, the fewer stars illuminate.

"Driver Alert should not be confused with a system that alerts the driver if a lane marker is breached without activating a turn signal," Birk said. "Driver Alert monitors the way the vehicle is being driven and alerts the driver to their actions, rather than the vehicle's position relative to a lane marker. In fact, Driver Alert will respond without the vehicle even crossing a lane marker."

The company's goal was to ensure the system would only activate where the risk of falling asleep is the greatest and where a collision would have severe consequences. For example, a straight, smooth road has the potential to lull a driver into a deep sleep not unlike a meeting with an estate planner. The system is activated at speeds above 40 mph and remains active until speeds fall below approximately 37 mph.

"During our tests, the system never once missed a driver who was falling asleep at the wheel," said Birk. "Nonetheless, we will continue to test and fine-tune the system until Driver Alert is offered to Volvo customers. We expect it to be available within two years."

Frequently accused of sleepwalking through life, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the human condition and the automobile business from his home in Villeperce, France.

Traffic in the Forest

Don't look now but some people who are buying off-road-capable vehicles like SUVs are actually taking them off-road.  In fact, the trend has become so significant that the U.S. Forest Service just created a new regulation to standardize the way off-highway routes are designated in the lands it administers.  The goal is to change the haphazard way trails and the vehicles that can use them are authorized to protect the forests while still allowing use by a large number of Americans.  Predictably, the new rule is drawing fire from both radical environmentalists and gung-ho off-road vehicle fans.

First, it should be noted that something had to be done.  Virtually all Americans are doing it outdoors (97.5 percent of the population, according to a 2000 survey), and, more to the point, from 1946 to 2000 the number of National Forest visitors grew 18 times. In 2002, 214.1 million Americans made National Forest visits, which resulted in 256.2 million National Forest site visits overall.

While the picture you might have in your head is of a solitary hiker with a backpack on his or her back striding confidently thorough the forest, the fact is that many wilderness treks are taking place in motorized vehicles.  Nationwide, there has been a sevenfold increase the in number of off-road-vehicle owners and users in the last 30 years.  The number jumped from five million off-highway vehicles (OHVs) in 1972, to 19.4 million in 1983, to 27.9 million in 1995, to almost 36 million in 2000.  And in the five years since these figures were gathered the number has grown even higher.  Estimates indicate that of all National Forest visits more than 11 million involve off-road vehicle use in off-road situations.
 
What does this mean?  In addition to indicating that millions of Americans are enjoying the outdoors in their National Forests, it also means each year hundreds of miles of new, unplanned roads and trails are created. Erosion, recreation use conflicts, spread of invasive species, damage to cultural resource and historical sites, disturbance to wildlife, destruction of wildlife habitat and even risks to public safety are potential results along with untold learning experiences and uncalculated amounts of pure fun.

On July 15, 2004, the Forest Service published proposed travel management regulations in the Federal Register.  Then, less than two weeks ago, after extensive public comment, Forest Service chief Dale Bosworth announced the new plan, which looks to standardize what are now haphazard procedures in designating off-road-vehicle trails and approving appropriate vehicles.
  
The rule requires each national forest or ranger district to designate individual roads, trails and general areas open to motor vehicles. Designation will include the class of vehicle that can use each trail or area and, if appropriate, the time of year for motor vehicle use.  A given route, for example, could be designated for use by motorcycles, ATVs or street-legal vehicles or any combination.

In an attempt to put an end to the blazing of new trails, a practice that is rampant within some National Forests today, once the designations are put in place, those will be the only trails and areas open to motor vehicle use. The rule will prohibit motor vehicles off the designated system or inconsistent with the designations.
 
While this is certain to rile dedicated off-roaders who would like wider access to unspoiled areas, the good news is that decisions will be made locally, with public input and in coordination with state, local and tribal governments. Meanwhile, environmentalists, some of whom would like to severely limit motor vehicle access to National Forest lands, will be lobbying to take as many trails and other areas off the designated list as possible.

Cleveland-based writer Luigi Fraschini, a Driving Today contributing editor, is a staunch believer in conservation and the limited use of motor vehicles in wilderness areas.

Checked Your Tires Lately?

Tires are so good these days that few people give them the attention they deserve, and that could be a serious or even fatal mistake.  The advances the tire industry has made over the last three decades is truly startling.  Today's tires frequently offer 60,000 miles of life or more, but that doesn't mean they don't need to be maintained.  And, ironically, the key maintenance that has to be done on your tires is as free as the air we breathe.  In fact, it is the air we breathe.  Maintaining your tires costs you virtually nothing except your time, and maybe that's why it is so often neglected.

For your own safety and the safety of your family, you should do a tire check monthly to make certain your tires are carrying the vehicle manufacturer-recommended air pressure.  A simple air pressure gauge and less than five minutes of your time is all it takes.  The benefits are substantial.  Properly inflated tires give you better fuel economy, ride quality and handling ability.  Your ability to maneuver your vehicle will be enhanced, helping to keep you out of dangerous situations.

Of course, one dangerous situation arises from tire underinflation itself.  Underinflated tires generate heat from internal friction that can seriously shorten the life of the tires or even cause sudden tire failure.  This internal wear is exacerbated by heat and heavy loads, which means a tire that can carry a given load in total safety on a 50-degree day when properly inflated could be prone to failure on an 80-degree day when inflation pressure is below manufacturer recommendations.  And don't think you can eyeball your tires and determine if their air pressure is too low.  If your tire looks underinflated odds are it is seriously underinflated and could be causing dangerous variations in your vehicle's handling ability.

To help bring this crucial information to the public's attention the Rubber Manufacturers Association highlights tire maintenance and safety issues during National Tire Safety Week now through April 30. More than 10,000 tire and auto service outlets participate in the RMA's initiative through the distribution of educational brochures and other efforts to promote tire and auto safety. Bridgestone Firestone participates in tire maintenance and safety efforts through its retail tire centers and its Web site TireSafety. 

"At Bridgestone Firestone we understand the difference between wants and needs," said Phil Pacsi, executive director of consumer tire marketing, BFNT.  "Tires are certainly a necessity: they support the load of your vehicle, when properly inflated they offer fuel savings which is critical with today's skyrocketing gas prices, and tires offer peace of mind when selected with key attributes such as wet traction design, Run-Flat technology or specific compounds or design for better grip in rugged or difficult terrain."

Now through May 7 Bridgestone Firestone's Need New Tires(tm) promotion will offer a rebate of up to $100 with the purchase of four select Bridgestone brand tires. The Need New Tires campaign begins just as the automotive aftermarket industry celebrates National Car Care Month with a renewed focus on building consumer car care awareness. The Car Care Council spearheads the effort through a consumer education campaign, "Be Car Care Aware," which promotes the benefits of regular vehicle care, maintenance and repair.

Automotive journalist Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on maintenance and safety issues from his Cleveland office.

Hold the Phone

Splash!  The conclusions of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's most recent study on cellular phone use in automobiles recently got a lot of play in the worldwide media.  The conclusions of the study were stunning.  The report stated that drivers using phones are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves.  And in addition, the report opined that "banning hand-held phone use won't necessarily enhance safety if drivers simply switch to hands-free phones. Injury crash risk didn't differ from one type of reported phone use to the other."

But when one takes a more critical look at the study and the press release that accompanied its publication, questions emerge.  The most telling question, of course, is: is the study a reliable, rational way to examine cellular phone usage in automobiles in the United States?

The first issue is the locale in which the study was done -- the Western Australia city of Perth.  Are the drivers and driving conditions there analogous to U.S. drivers and driving conditions?  Another issue is the inferences that were drawn to derive the conclusions.  For instance, the researchers did not ask the subjects of the study -- drivers who were treated in Western Australia emergency rooms in 2002 through 2004 -- if they were using their phone at the time of their individual crashes.  Instead, purportedly to avoid asking drivers to admit some culpability because they were talking when they should have been driving, the researchers asked the drivers how often they used their cell phones and derived from that an estimate of the numbers who were speaking on cell phones prior to or during their accidents.  As the IIHS put it, "The increased risk was estimated by comparing phone use within 10 minutes before an actual crash occurred with use by the same driver during the prior week."

Yet another question has to do with the study's conclusions on hands-free versus hand-held phones.  On this issue the IIHS was not equivocal.  

"You'd think using a hands-free phone would be less distracting, so it wouldn't increase crash risk as much as using a hand-held phone," said Anne McCartt, IIHS vice president for research and an author of the study. "But we found that either phone type increased the risk."

But one might wonder how that conclusion was drawn since Western Australia bans hand-held mobile phones from use in cars and trucks.  That being said, one-third of the drivers said their calls had been placed on hand-held phones.  Does that represent a level playing field for a comparison of risk between hands-free and hand-held phones?

According to IIHS, weather wasn't a factor in the crashes, because almost 75 percent of the crashes occurred in clear conditions. Eighty-nine percent of the crashes involved other vehicles. More than half of the injured drivers reported that their crashes occurred within 10 minutes of the start of the trip.

The implications of this data are obvious.  First, we must ban driving on clear days because that is clearly a more dangerous time to drive than during inclement weather.  Second, we must ban all other vehicles from the roadways because a huge majority of accidents involve other vehicles.  And finally, we should ban trips because a majority of injuries came soon after trips began.

A student of auto safety and the human condition, Tom Ripley writes for Driving Today and other publications from his home in Villeperce, France.