I had been behind the wheel for less than a minute. We were in a small car in a quiet suburb of Toronto, me with the instructor beside me in the passenger seat, and three other course participants in the back. It was the summer of 1985 and I was enrolled in a Government of Ontario Driving Instructor course. We had completed the theoretical part of the course and were now pretending to be first-time drivers to witness how a certified driving teacher deals with real-life situations. I considered myself a good driver, having started at 16, so I had been driving already for 15 years.
All I had done with my instructor is slowly approach a stop sign, stop, and then continue.
He had, like my original driving teacher, a strong European accent, an unshaven face and a generally pleasant demeanor. I felt embarrassed in front of my colleagues. What had I done?
“You rolled through the stop sign,” my instructor said. I had?
“You never completely stopped the car,” he continued. “During the driving test you would have failed immediately.”
This turned out to be an important lesson. In the course of that short outing, I committed a couple of other driving errors. I learned more in a few minutes than hours of theory regarding what constituted safe driving.
Fast forward 27 years!
Montreal is a city known for its stop signs and impatient drivers. A spate of letters to The Gazette recently focused on West Island police handing out tickets at quiet suburban intersections for people not completely stopping at stop signs. The writers complained that this was nothing more than a cash grab, but a lot of noise was also made regarding the great number of stop signs on the Island of Montreal.
And it’s true.
I live just off the western border of Outremont. Coming home from downtown I recently decided to take Ducharme Street instead of Van Horne Avenue and it was one stop sign after another. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. Stop. But, guess what? I’ve attained stop sign Nirvana!
It all happened suddenly as these things often do. My wife was noticing my habit of barely slowing down for stop signs, let alone practicing a “rolling stop”. The trip to work each day is blessedly short – I can accomplish it in roughly ten minutes. However, I had admittedly become totally overshadowed by the ruling Montreal driving attitude which sees each red light as an impediment and each stop sign a bothersome nuisance. The result had become nothing less than a stressful non-enjoyable drive, as well as a potentially dangerous one.
“You’d better stop at the stop signs,” Avigail nervously implored me one day. “The police are everywhere.”
This isn’t true, of course. Montreal police are never where they should be. They’re never there when cars drive through — sorry, people driving cars — drive through red lights due to impatience and frustration at having to stop. They’re not there to hand out tickets to people driving their cars with only their day lights on during the night. Don’t these drivers know that their rear driving lights are not on at the time and that their cars are difficult to see for those driving behind them? Or do they just not care?
Nevertheless, something in my wife’s words clicked. I vividly remember teaching my driving students, when I finally began teaching those many years ago, how to “feel” the complete stop at stop signs, the little jerk that a car makes when it stops. How to wait for it in order to be certain that one has really stopped. I never had a student fail his or her exam, and Ontario testers can be quite strict.
So, for the past two or three weeks, I’ve been strictly following my own old advice and making nothing less than a complete stop at each and every stop sign. But that’s not all: along with the physical mechanics of driving safely has come a profound 180 degree reversal in driving mentality. Each full stop becomes a full mental stop, allowing me to turn off, if even for a second, the stress of driving. I’m in a Zen-like state of mind now when I drive, totally serene, at peace with the law of the driving universe: driving in the city is all starts and stops, starts and stops. Driving, like personal evolution, is not a straight line from here to there; there are constant impediments, slowing-downs, stoppings. Frustrations are built into the system. Wholeheartedly accepting this fact, which originated from a decision to strictly follow just one very important driving rule, has resulted in driving now being a completely enjoyable experience. Where once I suffered from the distinctly Montreal and stress-invoking perception that nothing less than fighting each and every obstacle to constant motion is a failure, I’m now a new man behind the wheel.