Driving in reverse? He can't give it his backing

September 02, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Last weekend while washing the family station wagon, I backed over a bucket. It was a stupid move, but it got me thinking about traveling in reverse.

Moving backward is, I surmised, a perilous way to go. Moreover, how we back up says something, I think, about our values, about our embrace of technology, not to mention the condition of our automotive rear ends.

In most cases our hindsight is not nearly as good as we think it is. It is easy to lose your bearings when backing up. The squashed bucket and my foreign-travel experiences are evidence.

While visiting Ireland with my wife some years ago, I felt I had mastered driving on the left side of the road. Things were fine as long as we were moving forward. But then I backed out of my first Irish driveway and panic set in. Following my American instincts, I headed the wrong way. My wife's shrieks and the oncoming traffic quickly moved me to the correct lane, but I had lost my moorings.

Even back in the good ole USA, backing up can be a bad business. The risks for collisions are higher while traveling in reverse, say driving experts who recommend ways to cope. My favorite bit of advice, listed as Defensive Driving Rule 19 on the Roadtrip America Web site, is "avoid backing up."

This was a regimen I was required to follow decades ago when driving a 1961 Plymouth. It had "push-button drive." Theoretically you could put the Plymouth in reverse by pushing a button on the dashboard. That might have been true when the car was new. But by the time my older brother and I got behind the wheel, the car had more than 100,000 miles on it. By then it had become "punch" button drive, and often the reverse button would not respond to the command to retreat.

We soon learned that the wisest course was to park the Plymouth so that it could go forth, never backward, into the hurly-burly world. This forward-looking parking tactic is, I learned, recommended even for cars that have functioning transmissions. A way to avoid mishaps in parking lots, the defensive driving Web site advises, is to park facing out. You can do this either by pulling into a space then heading onto the next row, or, in more crowded lots, by backing into the space when you arrive.

The advantages of backing in, the experts say, is that you "visually clear" the parking spot as you approach. This, they say, adds a bit of extra safety. Moreover, when it comes time to leave, you face forward instead of backing into the driving lane.

You can also make a quick getaway in this parking position, which could come in handy when a hasty departure is needed. For example, one of the first things that beginning recreational soccer referees learn, I am told, is to always park facing out.

Sadly, backing up has become a serious safety issue for families with large cars and small children. As vehicles have gotten bigger, so have the blind spots behind them, the areas the drivers can't see. A safety group called Kids and Cars reports that increasing numbers of small children have been injured or killed by relatives backing vehicles out of the family driveway.

Some safety advocates say one way to diminish these "backover incidents" is to require all new vehicles to come equipped with rear-view cameras and video screens. Others say educating drivers to take time to "spot the tot," to walk around the vehicle before backing up, is a better approach. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is studying the effectiveness of backover technology and is expected to issue a report in the fall.

Consumer Reports has measured the blind spots of a number of popular SUVs, minivans, trucks and sedans and lists them on its Web site (consum erreports.org).

My gut feeling is that we aren't moving forward as a society when we manufacture vehicles that limit our vision. This is my personal blind spot.

Strides in technology have given us these machines. I suspect the problems they create when moving backward will be solved in time by employing a combination of common sense and smart new devices. I hope the problem solvers steer clear of the backup beep, that annoying tone emitted by trucks and some vans when they are put in reverse. The backup beep is so prevalent that it is widely ignored, drawing your attention only when it wakes you up at 6 in the morning.

Last weekend, I couldn't blame anyone other than myself for backing over that car-washing bucket. The station wagon, a 1993 Taurus, has good visibility. I just got careless.

Traveling backward is something you get better at with practice. But I am not interested in moving in that direction. Tempting though it is to think about reversing the flow of events, I am going to focus on journeying forward.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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