The fatal flaw of Henri Paul

September 05, 1997|By Robin Miller

ONE THING I've learned in over 10 years of driving cabs and limousines is that you can't always do what your passengers want, even if those passengers are as famous as Princess Diana and her super-rich boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayed.

When the people in the back of the car order you to act in an illegal or dangerous manner, you must refuse.

My heart goes out to Henri Paul, a security man for Mr. Fayed, who was pressed into service to drive his boss and Diana after he'd been drinking.

Mr. Paul's first mistake was not having the strength to say, ''I can't do it tonight. I've been drinking. Let me get one of the other men to drive you.''

But I believe his fatal mistake was not driving after he'd been drinking, but his willingness to let his passengers' emotions affect his driving.

People who get into a car after making their way through a camera-equipped mob are upset and confused, even if they are famous and accustomed to causing a hubbub among onlookers.

They are usually angry and frustrated, and more often than not their eyes are reddened and hurting from all the photographers' strobes that have been flashed at them. They tend to take their frustration out on their driver, and often curse and yell. And what they typically yell are demands for the driver to get them away from the madness RIGHT NOW, preferably at 100 mph or however fast the car will go.

This is the moment when a professional chauffeur has his mettle tested.

Platoons of paparazzi on motorcycles may be annoying, but they are not a physical hazard. It makes no sense risking an accident to get away from them. The smartest course of action for a chauffeur in Mr. Paul's situation is to drive steadily, as if nothing is going on outside the car. And to calm his passengers with his own steadiness, not to speed wildly or screech around corners.

''I'm going as fast as it's safe to go right now,'' Mr. Paul should have told his employer, while proceeding at a safe and dignified pace. ''As soon as I see a good place to turn away, I'll lose them, and I'll give you notice before I maneuver sharply so that you can brace yourself."

Use of these words, or their French equivalents, would have mollified Mr. Paul's passengers and given him time to think -- and time to call the police on his cellular phone and report the motorcycle-riding photographers surrounding him for reckless driving.

I suspect that even in Paris, a chauffeur who called the police emergency number and said, ''I'm driving Princess Diana and a group of motorcyclists are swarming dangerously close to our car" would get a quick response.

Smarter ways

And even if that chauffeur didn't get any help from police, there are smarter ways to lose annoying pursuers than trying to outrun them at 120 mph.

My favorite method of losing pursuers is to take them into local street-mazes where I won't get lost, but they probably will. In NTC Baltimore and Washington, the two cities where I do the bulk of my limo driving, I have a number of such mazes memorized in case I am ever in a situation where I need to get away.

Using my pre-learned ''courses,'' I can throw anyone off my track while driving so smoothly that my passengers can forget their anger and let their eyes recover from flashbulb exposure.

I have dealt with paparazzi, autograph hounds and carloads of drunken college boys following strippers home from bars.

I have never failed to get away from these pests, while driving at a safe speed for the prevailing conditions, and I have never come close to losing control of my vehicle while being chased.

But the main skill I exercised in these situations had nothing to do with driving. It was the ability to transmit my calm to my passengers instead of letting them transmit their confusion to me.

It takes a certain amount of empathy, and a certain eagerness to please, to be a good servant. I have these characteristics to a degree sufficient to please my customers. But they do not allow me to be talked into doing foolish and dangerous things.

Henri Paul was undoubtedly a far better servant than I'll ever be. But as he proved, there is such a thing as being too good a servant, especially behind the wheel of a high-powered car in heavy traffic.

Robin Miller owns and operates Robin's Limousine in Elkridge.

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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