By Nick Nicholson

When you look at that title, one conjures up the sense of power, authority and we often relate it to some type of enforcement. We’ve all heard the assertion, “Walk softly and carry a big stick”. As a safety practitioner in the transportation industry, I was well known for using “My Big Stick”. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it?

I took an old broom and cut about three feet off the handle, rounded the cut and I carried it as a pointer. That was my big stick. It was much more precise pointing out specific areas on the wall screen with that stick to make my point. I could have used one of those little laser pointers but the stick had a much bigger purpose.

One of the things that happen in a classroom is that people get comfortable. When they do, they can drift off into, at the minimum, a mesmerized state, if not totally asleep. As they sit there, you know that they are taking in roughly ten present of what you are saying and, down the road, will only remember only about ten percent of that.

As an instructor of material designed to keep people alive and safe, there are moments when I wanted to make sure the participants in my class absorbed all the information and didn’t forget. So, I carried a big stick!

There are probably a million things that a driver trainer can say to Nick-2015help keep the trainee safe. When you want to emphasize the most important message the candidate will hear in that class, you want to have something that catches everybody’s attention and ensures that he or she is fully awake. You want them to remember it for the rest of their lives and hope that they remember it when it becomes a hazard to them in real time. Ah! That big stick!

To me, it is generally acceptable for a driver to keep the vehicle between the white lines, drive at a speed enabling you to avoid trouble when it shows up, and be aware of the dangers that other traffic creates. But, there is one major factor that will keep most drivers safer on the road than all others. To me, that one factor is called “space cushion”.

What is “space cushion”? It is the safe following distance you leave between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead. The gap that you allow so that you can stop safely without hitting that vehicle ahead. As you have a responsibility to other drivers as well, it is also the distance you build into it so that not only can you stop without hitting that vehicle but, to provide sufficient warning to the vehicle behind to do the same. Human safety is most important. Prevent injury.
So, the big stick! I would ask the class to sit back and relax and “dream along with me” for a few minutes. “Close your eyes if you like and just listen.”

In a monotone voice, I would begin to tell a story where you are on your day off and have decided to enjoy the nice weather by going for a drive with the person you love the most in this world. I would interject that I didn’t care if it was your spouse, or somebody else’s, same sex or different, your child or perhaps your grandchild. It has to be that person you care the very most about sitting beside you, I continued.

Lulling the audience to sleep, I would express to them: “You’ve been following a tractor-trailer down the road for quite some time and you’ve begun to trust the actions of the driver: smooth slow downs, plenty of pre-signal warning, no sudden moves, stable on the road” – a very comfortable ride.

“All of a sudden, the brake lights come on, the trailer starts to go sideways, smoke comes from the tires and WHACK!” With my big stick coming down hard and flat on a table surface, the noise was deafening. The whole room would jump.

“You see the glass shattering in-front-of you I continued, you feel the steering wheel coming into your belly, you smell the steaming anti-freeze escaping, you hear tires screeching behind you and the vehicle comes to a stop. Shaking your head, you look around to see, still sitting beside you, that person you love so much – their eyes are wide open with a fixed stare but, you know that there is nobody in there. You’re looking at eyes that will never look back at you again. They are gone and you know it.”

At about this point, after asking the class how they feel, that I go into my spiel about the “three-second space cushion count” (for cars). “When the back bumper of the vehicle ahead passes a stationary object on the side of the road, begin counting, one-thousand and one, one-thousand and two, and one thousand and three. If your front bumper passes that same stationary object before the word “three”, you are following too close. Back-off and try your count again until you fit within that space.”

Using my big stick, now as an indicator, I now point to the screen and follow along as a visual depicts the spacing required to emphasize my message. Increase that distance for larger vehicles. From feedback, I know that it has worked.
I only wish everybody had learned and practiced it every day. We’d be a lot safer.

Keep your people safe.
 The beauty of life is in your hands.

About the Author

Your Old Uncle Nicky’s Opinions

Nick Nicholson, is a retired safety practitioner who spent many years researching the human behaviour factors of driver and pedestrian actions. Specifically, he spent 25 of those years devoted to highway crash investigations, regulatory compliance, the design, implementation and presentation of safety programs. Nick enjoyed many hours presenting professional driver enhancement training to adult participants.

As a long time Fleet Safety Council Member (1988) and the Founding Chair (1992-1995) of Council’s Hamilton-Niagara Chapter, he presents his opinions in hopes of improving the safety knowledge of readers. Nick is a firm believer in human advancement through positive attitudes, solution thinking and the understanding that the beauty of life is always in your hands.

Old Uncle Nicky’s Opinions are his own and in no way reflect the opinions of Fleet Safety Council

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