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A night on the town

This is the story of two people who drive for a living. Cst. Lee Hamilton is Whistler’s first local traffic safety expert. He is also an accident investigator and trainer with the RCMP.

This is the story of two people who drive for a living. Cst. Lee Hamilton is Whistler’s first local traffic safety expert. He is also an accident investigator and trainer with the RCMP.

I am a professional racing driver, advanced driving specialist and development tester for several major manufacturers. I rode with Cst. Hamilton a couple of weeks ago for a night patrol, from 4 p.m. to the wee hours of the morning. I think it’s fair to say that we both found it an educational experience.

I was disappointed in Cst. Hamilton for his failure to live up to several cliches. We never stopped for doughnuts or coffee, he didn’t have a potbelly, and his attitude towards the job involved more co-operation than confrontation. From his standpoint, I guess Lee must have been relieved that I didn’t show up with helmet and driving gloves and could speak in complete sentences.

We stopped about a dozen drivers during the patrol, most of them locals. I have to point out, based on years of teaching advanced driving, that many motorists are horribly deluded when it comes to assessing their own skills behind the wheel. This is confirmed by a recent survey in which 90 per cent of North Americans stated they were better than average drivers. Locals in any area, including the Sea to Sky corridor, are often the worst. The reasons range from complacency to impatience to just plain ignorance.

Here are a few good tactics to avoid being stopped by the police: keep your vehicle well maintained, clean the windows, and obey some basic traffic rules.

Cst. Hamilton sets the standards and guidelines for enforcement in this area, and one thing he wants to see is complete stops at all stop signs. I’m guilty of the occasional roll-through, but in all honesty, I wish we’d adopt international standards and use more yield signs. Some places, a complete stop just doesn’t make sense, except as a make work project for the police.

Lee actually has made a few changes in this direction and one of his tasks is tidying up our messier intersections.

Lee is pretty observant, and also something of a negotiator. We stopped people for running red lights, not wearing seat belts, illegal tints on driver and passenger windows, faulty exhaust systems and speeding. In each case where tickets were issued, the drivers got some slack as long as they behaved reasonably. Several of the cars we stopped were in pretty poor mechanical condition. A lot of warnings were handed out, as well as orders to repair lights, replace tires or have a complete vehicle inspection.

As any racing driver will tell you, tires are the most important item on a car. It’s astonishing how many people spend money on a killer stereo and then drive on tires that have as much tread as the wheels on a shopping cart. I know how tight money can be in this town, but public safety has to be the number one concern.

We all know that there are better and worse police officers, just as there are people of various abilities in any profession. I don’t think you should have to be obsequious to an officer who stops you, though I remember a few southern sheriffs who would give you a pretty quick attitude adjustment if you said anything other than "Yes sir." But leaping out of the car while yelling "I hate cops" really isn’t a winning strategy. Jaywalking won’t make you popular either. Jaywalking and forcing traffic to avoid you or stop for you will probably earn you a ticket. A few kilometres over the speed limit, in a well-maintained car in good weather, will probably only get you a warning. Speed inappropriate for conditions will certainly dent your pocketbook.

Some observations on local behaviour: Tailgating is way too common around here. We follow closely on the racetrack not just for the slipstream but to force the other driver into a mistake. This isn’t a great highway tactic, since the mistake, if it occurs, could collect you as well.

Steering with one hand on top of the wheel is a classic example of incompetence, though it’s the most popular driving position in North America. Now that more and more cars have airbags, of course, there’s a kind of rough justice taking place. People driving like that end up punching themselves in the head if the airbag deploys. A standard joke is that you can determine the time of the accident by when the driver’s wristwatch stopped.

Multi-tasking? I don’t think anyone really believes they drive better while on the phone, taking notes, reading, or, as one of my lady students claimed to do if she was late for work, putting on her panty hose.

Suicidal, self-righteous pedestrians are an interesting Whistler phenomenon. It’s fairly common to find people walking two abreast, backs to traffic, in dark clothes. Another favourite is stepping out on a crosswalk, in slippery conditions, without regard to oncoming vehicles. Is this some sort of bizarre attempt to get a big insurance settlement for the family? On a dark night, many drivers have a hard time seeing these folks. This calls for a bit of imagination. Who really wants to risk being hit by a moving vehicle? Take a look at the greasy red pulp of recent roadkill, then answer.

Lee pointed out that due to the nature of the job it’s hard for officers to concentrate on driving well. In addition they receive little or no training on how to go quickly, effectively. This would include keeping the chassis balanced, using good cornering lines, correct use of eyes and above all, learning not to get buzzed on adrenaline behind the wheel. Professional racers, by the way, are not adrenaline junkies. That fight or flight response doesn't exactly aid fine motor skills.

I got the chance to give Cst. Hamilton a few driving tips, and he took the feedback well. We covered footwork, timing, and a few other things that I hope he can pass along to fellow officers.

All in all, it was an interesting experience. Use your head out there, and remember the police have a job to do and a mandate to do it. Bear in mind as well that whether you deliver pizzas or drive rally cars, you’re only as good as the amount of attention you’re paying at the time.