Millions of cars operate on thousands of miles of public roads that are maintained in the city of Los Angeles. Unfortunately books about driving are not as appealing to publishers as are diet and exercise books. The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) updates and distributes a small handbook for drivers. However there is a dearth of new and updated books about driving, which might soon be populated by books on self-driving cars. Enter Ben Collins, professional racing car driver for Top Gear, NASCAR, and the James Bond movies. This is how Collins waxes poetic in the introduction about his skills, "I'll show you how to drive more smoothly than a jazz band surfing a soap dish down a butter mountain. You'll be so sexy through the curves that your passengers will need a cold shower after every journey." How's that for a driving instructor? That's the kind of language Collins deploys now and then. A taste of British humor perhaps and not written by a professional driver? But don’t say ghostwritten just yet. Collins studied law at the University of Exeter; he was born in 1975 in Bristol, England, and still lives there.
The book is organized into four parts, with generous illustrations to highlight various points. The first part delves into a brief history of driving, and underlines the reason why two-thirds of the world's population drives on the right side of the road, or, to Collins, " ... the wrong side of the road, using the weaker left eye to check the left side mirror and pass other cars." In ancient Rome, an empire that stretched from Syria to Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, horse-drawn carriages stayed on the left-hand side of the road. The habit is based on the idea that most human beings are right-handed and right-eye dominant. Now things changed when Napoleon Bonaparte came into the picture. The short of it is that Napoleon was left-handed, and imposed the keep-right rule across Europe.
Parts two and three are the book's driving forces, where Collins likens the car to a beast that, " ... connects your consciousness with a miracle of engineering that will transport you to the center of the universe." Before driving the beast, Collins urges you to center your universe on the basics: check your driving position, your seat-belt, and your mirrors, among other things. It’s the initial set-up to becoming a "smooth operator," the kind of driver who understands the relationship between speed and acceleration. The chapter goes deep into the subject of braking, and offers ample discussions on braking techniques and the difference between thinking distance and braking distance. Collins wants you " ... to channel your inner Jedi Master” and observe everything in your environment. Don’t trust anything you can’t see clearly, such as hidden entrances and hidden curves. But most of all, drivers must trust their instincts: if something’s not right, then it probably isn’t.
In the last chapter, Collins embeds emergency measures, as he writes about skidding, understeering, oversteering, recovering from a spin, hydroplaning, tire blowouts, and pulse braking on slippery surfaces, to name a few. In pulse braking, you apply and release pressure on the brakes, over and over again; it’s a loop that creates small windows of grip on the road. The faster you do the loop or pulse the better. The tip is a nice prelude into the chapter’s final section, which argues that stunt driving deserves a place in how-to-drive handbooks. To Collins, these techniques are not just stunts in a Hollywood set that forces the car to dance or do certain things, but are potential ways of evading a threat, even if they “ ... represent the theoretical outer limits of what is possible.” That’s why Collins has been invited to teach stunt skills to law enforcement operatives. And I assume some of those skills include the hand-brake-180 turn, parallel parking stunt 90, and the J-turn. But the star of this section is probably the donut black-belt turn, and drifting, that are the kinds of stunts you might associate with the lean, but somewhat humorless, James Bond of Daniel Craig.
In general I had trepidations discussing stunt techniques and high-performance driving in a how-to-drive guidebook marketed for regular drivers. Basic driving is deadly enough, but pushing your car to the “outer limits” is a kind of tease for those (young and old), who do all kinds of dangerous stunts on city streets. Some of them end up in emergency rooms, and, at times, the morgue. We have heard those sad, depressing stories on the news. Indeed, the quest for cool is an eternal Hollywood staple, from Jim Stark’s chickie-run in Rebel Without a Cause, to the muscle-bound elite street-racers of The Fast & the Furious franchise. It’s an old story: movies and real life feed each other. But perhaps the biggest quest of all is the race into the galaxy of being a safe and better driver. So I say give Collins a chance: the book contains numerous tips and reminders for the Jedi Master in you, slowly merging into the starfleet of smooth operators we want everyone to be.