Channeling My Driver's Education: Mr. Watson and Mr. Yost

It seems like driving skills and driver etiquette have diminished since I first got behind the wheel of an automobile and began traveling the highways and byways of this earth. Maybe this is just the musings of someone in search of the good old days, but I don't think that's completely true. I'm not averse to traveling at a mile or two above the speed limit on a highway, and I am willing to suffer the consequences of receiving a traffic ticket. What does disturb me more and more is the disregard for a red traffic signal or coming to a stop at a stop sign.

Yes, I did learn to drive some time ago. It has been more than fifty years, but who's counting. I acquired my learner's permit in Pennsylvania when I was sixteen years old. I did most of my behind the wheel learning on two vehicles, a 1952 Plymouth and a 1951 Dodge pickup truck. Both had a three speed, manual transmission with shift lever on the steering column. Most of my learner's permit hours were in the Plymouth.

 The truck was a high milage and far from pristine vehicle. Functional may be a suitable descriptive word, but additional adjectives elude me at the moment.
The Plymouth was a 2-door Belvedere. This high mileage gem was to become my car after $50 made its way to my father from me. It had well worn upholstery (read full of rips and tears), and a rusted through floorpan that allowed easy viewing of the road below.

In addition to learning to drive while accompanied by a licensed driver, principally my father, I had driver training classes in high school.

Mr. Watson was my instructor for the classroom portion of driver training. He was normally a physical education teacher, but he had a scare the bejesus out of you approach to explaining driving rules and the consequences one would face by breaking them.
Mr. Yost was the behind the wheel instructor. I don't recall that he had additional teaching responsibilities. I'm sure that his time in the car was a fair exchange for his salary. His only protection while driving with student drivers was an additional brake pedal on his side of the front seat.

My time with Mr Yost had a somewhat rocky start. The vehicle used for on the road driver education was a late model, full size Chevrolet (maybe 1962 or 1963 Biscayne). It had power brakes and power steering both were completely new experiences for me. Mr Yost did not get to use his brake pedal very often while I drove, but he may have wished for a helmet as the possibility of his head hitting the dashboard existed when I applied the brakes.

On the morning that I was to take my driving test, my father  decided that I should take the exam in the family car, a 1954 Pontiac station wagon. My heart became securely lodged in my throat. I had never driven the family truckster, and my father decided he would drive to the testing site. Failure was on the horizon. To my complete surprise, I passed the driving test on my first attempt. It was the first and only time that I drove the Pontiac wagon.

Mr Watson, and to some degree Mr. Yost, instilled in me a strong regard for the rules of the road both the written laws and common driver etiquette. For example, when approaching an intersection where a traffic signal was turning yellow, one was expected to stop. When one came to an intersection with a stop sign, one must come to a complete stop. I did as Mr. Watson instructed because I would remember the films he would show of people who did not obey these simple rules. The movies would visit the scene of accidents that resulted from someone failing to stop. The movies depicted smashed cars and lifeless bodies on the highway resting in large pools of blood. Mr. Watson's warning reverberated through my brain, "Steady yellow or amber lights signal that the light will turn red soon. So, you must come to a safe stop before the crosswalk, or, you will be splattered all over the road." Similar voices could be heard when approaching a stop sign.

Today, I instinctively apply my driver training. I no longer hear Mr. Watson's voice, but I do attempt to follow the rules of the road, speeding on highways may at times be another matter.

Here in Austin, things seem a little different. When I am stopped at a traffic light, and it turns green, the first thing I do is look left and right before entering the intersection. In a high number of instances, drivers seem to believe that the first second or two of red should be treated as green. About 4 years ago, I was hit by one of those who opted not to stop at red. The driver actually told the policeman that she thought she could get through before anyone started to move. That driver was wrong as two cars were struck by her failure to stop.

Failing to stop at stop signs is another irritant for me, especially when I need to do hard braking to avoid a collision. At times I feel like I am driving in a part of Europe where la priorité a droite is the rule. Priorité a droite or priority to the right  existed when there was an absence of traffic signals or signs. It is/was common in France and Belgium. Basically it means when entering a street or intersection, the car to the right has la priorité a droite or right of way. In the illustration below, the green car always has right of way in the absence of traffic signs or signals.
We lived in Belgium for about four years, and I drove in France, often. It took some time to get a grasp on la priorité a droite. While driving in neighborhoods in Austin, I am often reminded of living in Europe as drivers frequently enter a main street without heeding stop signs.

Perhaps, this is simply a rant inspired by musings of days gone by. I do wonder from time to time if subsequent generations of drivers have had their own Mr. Watson and Mr. Yost. Maybe political correctness and fear of lawsuits has ended the showing of gruesome movies depicting the results of breaking the law. Perhaps, today's drivers have a different set of priorities, neither right nor left.


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