I do stupid things. I know; everyone does. But I’ve elevated it to an art form. I turn on the wrong stove burner, miss doctor’s appointments, forget to put the car in park. I’ve locked my padlock key in the gym locker, forgotten to close the garage door for the night, forgotten to lock the house doors, showed up for a wedding, and later a funeral, on the wrong day, turned into the wrong side of a divided highway, backed into a light pole guywire.
Take when I crashed my 2011 Toyota Prius. The hybrid Prius is easy to get used to. But being a hybrid, the car runs on an engine plus an electric motor, and the car can be “on” even when the engine is stopped.
This day I pull up to our mailbox and put the four-way flashers on. When I jump out, the car begins rolling forward until I jump back in and slam on the brake.
Another time I’m waiting in line for gas and get out to see how many cars are ahead of me. The car starts rolling. I jump in and brake just before I slam into the car in front of me.
I tell myself, “I’ll never do that again.” But I do, and the next time I pay for it.
I pull into my garage and sit there with my foot still on the brake, listening to MPR on the radio. The engine has stopped. After five minutes I turn the radio off and get out. The car then runs ahead into my workbench and damages the bumper ($700). Once again I’d forgotten to put the car in park and also forgotten to turn the car off.
Why did this happen? For starters, I was stopping the car for long periods of time keeping my foot on the brake without putting the car in park. Then I was taking my foot off the brake without checking that the car was in park or turned off.
Then there was the time I ran a red light. We are leaving my friend’s medical appointment in an unfamiliar part of the city. I’m talking animatedly about his procedure, our families, church. I approach an intersection, carefully look both ways—and then roll through a red light! I was focused on our conversation instead of focusing on my driving.
Worse when people do stupid stuff in the air. I flew a twin engine Cessna 310 to Amarillo, Texas, and offered to take three friends up for a ride. After we take off and climb to 4000 feet, I switch from using the main fuel tanks to the auxiliary tanks. Then I decide to practice flying single engine, so I shut down and feather the right engine. All goes well, but when I try to restart the engine it won’t start. I’m slowly losing altitude. I add full power on the good engine and frantically try to restart the dead engine. Nothing. Still losing altitude.
I decide we’ll have to land on a single engine, so I enter the Amarillo traffic pattern. We’re sinking lower and lower and I worry we won’t make the runway. I am so obsessed trying to restart the engine that I fail to check other systems.
I start my prelanding checklist and almost too late, I realize three things. I should never have practiced engine shutdown with a full load of passengers. The extended landing gear is creating more drag and causing our rapid descent.
Plus, I notice I’m still running on the aux fuel tanks. I switch the tanks back to mains and the engine immediately starts. Turns out that only the main fuel tanks have a boost pump to push the gas up to the engines. So you always need to start the engines on the main tank.
So how do I avoid doing stupid stuff? Problem is, there are different kinds of stupid mistakes. We can divide them into mistakes of knowledge, of skill, and of judgment.
First, mistakes of knowledge. When I ran the red light, I didn’t know the streets and intersections well; first time I’d been in that area of town. In the Cessna 310 case, I did not know the fuel valve had to be on the main tank for starting.
Once I worked three hours trying to fix the brakes on my car. Then I checked out a YouTube video and was able to finish the job in twenty minutes. I needed more knowledge.
Flight instructing at Orange County Airport (now John Wayne Airport), my boss told me to test-fly a repaired plane. I jumped into the little Ercoupe (“so simple anyone can fly it”) and took off. When I came back to land in a roaring crosswind, I just about wrapped it up in a little aluminum ball. I should have known that the landing gear swivels so that the airplane can land with its nose cocked into the wind. I hadn’t even glanced at the owner’s manual. Lack of knowledge almost killed me.
Preplanning builds knowledge. Once we were driving with some friends to a small-town event in Wisconsin and ended up driving one hour north instead of south. We missed the event. If I would have studied a map, we would have arrived in time.
Renting a car? Speeding away from the rental office at night, in the rain, in an unfamiliar car, in an unfamiliar city makes for some interesting (and dangerous) gymnastics in the first ten minutes. Always take the time to check out mirror-adjusts, emergency brake, headlights, four-ways, instrument panel, windshield wipers before moving.
A planning calendar, consulted weekly or even daily, means fewer missed appointments. In aviation, many (fatal) accidents could have been avoided if the pilot had checked the weather conditions beforehand. In flying, as in driving, you cannot do too much preplanning before you go.
Second, mistakes of skill. With my Prius, I had the knowledge; I knew how the hybrid system worked. But I had not practiced driving the car in various scenarios. I hadn’t developed good skills, such as never stopping without putting the car in park, or never removing my foot from the brake without checking to see if the car begins rolling.
In aviation, instructors talk about “overlearning”—continued practicing after you have learned a maneuver. Many states restrict driving privileges at night until the driver has practiced during the daytime.
My flight instructor would tell me, “Report incidents; prevent accidents.” Pay attention to incidents. An incident means you need more practice.
In aviation we practice emergency landings, flying with instrument failures, flying in unexpected weather. One should also (safely) practice emergencies in driving a car—loss of brakes, loss of steering, uncontrolled skids. Practice makes perfect.
Checklists build skill. With the Cessna 310, I failed to use the emergency checklist that would have reminded me to switch to main tanks for startup. Even in a car, it’s good to have a checklist. Checklists reduce the chance of missing something.
Be intentional. Do not rely on “muscle memory”—those automatic movements you are familiar with. Once my friend was flying, coming in to land. We were talking. He automatically reached down to pull on the carburetor heat but pulled the mixture instead. The engine stopped until I yelled, “mixture!”
A friend was transitioning to a new airplane. He landed, then reached over to raise the flaps—and pulled the landing gear up underneath him! In this new airplane, the landing gear lever was in the same location as the flaps lever in the previous plane.
Distractions. Managing distractions is a learned skill. After running the red light, I realized I needed to stop talking and concentrate on my driving in an unfamiliar environment. Other distractions: trying to talk to someone sitting in the back seat, juggling a soft drink and a sandwich while fiddling with the heater and the GPS. Answering your cellphone. Many pilots have the rule of a “sterile cockpit”: no talking or other distractions five minutes before takeoff or five minutes before landing. I try to have the rule of no distractions when driving through an intersection or even when driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood. For instance, I turn the radio off.
But mistakes of judgment are the most dangerous.
Risk factors. Years ago I drove through a construction zone at high speed—at night, in the rain, tired. I saw fast-moving bright lights, swerved, and barely missed a huge rumbling earthmover. I had underestimated the multiple risk factors: Night. Windy. Unfamiliar road. Construction zone. Exhausted driver. Any one of these is manageable but when they pile up, you’re in danger. For instance, you may be safe driving at night, but if it’s windy and the roads are icy, you’ve multiplied your risk factors. You must be conscious of how many risk factors you’re dealing with. Three strikes and you’re out.Good judgment demands assessing the risk factors.
Overconfidence. I ran the red light not only because I was distracted; I was also overconfident. Most people assume they’re better drivers than other people. We tend to overestimate our abilities—think about the sixteen-year-old boy who drives confidently at 100 mph in a residential neighborhood. The greatest judgment mistake is overconfidence.
So, how to avoid doing stupid things? Here’s a starter list:
- Read the instructions (written or digital)
- Plan carefully before executing a complex task
- Consider a written checklist and follow it
- Practice emergencies before you experience them
- Take “incidents” very seriously, and change your behavior
- Be intentional; don’t rely on muscle memory
- Reduce distractions
- Remember that multiple danger factors multiply risk
- Avoid the trap of overconfidence
We all need to learn more, practice more, and use better judgment. I still do stupid things—just not quite as often.
Here’s to your increased safety!