Backing Up

Many departments report that the number of accidents while backing up is higher than other types of accidents. More often than not, these result in fender benders. Not dramatic accidents, but still annoying and expensive.

Driving in reverse is deceptively hard, and has no correlation to driving forward. There is a simple reason for that. Cars are designed to go forward, when traveling in reverse the driver is asking the vehicle to do things the car was not designed to do. The major culprit is the vehicle's suspension system. Automobile suspensions possess a quality known as "caster." When the driver turns the steering wheel, caster is the force that helps to straighten out the front wheels after the steering wheel is turned. Caster also gives the car stability while traveling forward. Unfortunately, this stabilizing forward force destabilizes the car while it's in reverse. Adding to the difficulty is that while driving in reverse, the steering wheel will not center automatically. If you loosen your grip, it will stay in its last position. Another little quirk of caster is that the car becomes unstable while traveling backwards; and small changes in steering wheel movement will cause big changes in the way the car reacts to your inputs. The faster you go in reverse, the more difficult control becomes. A driver can lose control of the vehicle rather easily in reverse at low speeds. There is nothing you can do about caster. You need to understand that it's there, live with it and learn to control it.

There are a variety of techniques used to teach backing up at EVOC programs. No matter what backing up technique is used, there are some techniques that can help make backing up easier, and above all, safer.

Look first

No matter how short the distance you wish to travel in reverse, look where you're going and drive slowly. Most drivers back up and then look. Most cars feature a blind spot or spots to the rear large enough to hide a small child. Anytime you back up, press the horn. But whatever you do, be absolutely sure there is no one behind you when you back up. In an EVOC program, a good exercise is to have a driver sit in the vehicle and place a tall traffic cone (three feet high) directly behind the vehicle. Move the cone away from the back of the vehicle and ask the driver to let it be known when they can see the cone. Depending on the vehicle and the height of the driver it will be about 30 to 50 feet away from the back of the vehicle (in an SUV, that distance can be as much as 50 to 60 feet). That distance is the blind spot in the vehicle. If a child the height of the cone was within that distance, the driver would not be able to see them.

Clear the front

Before you put the car in reverse, make sure the area in front of the car is clear. Most police vehicles have long hoods and broad front ends. As you maneuver backwards and turn, the noses of many large cars swing out to the side dramatically and you could hit something--or someone. Many police vehicles have badly dented fenders because drivers neglected to perform this check.

Use smooth applications of the brake, steering wheel, and accelerator. When backing up, never combine a great deal of steering wheel movement with a heavy foot on the gas pedal. Life will get exciting real quick. The faster you travel in reverse, the more sensitive the steering becomes, and the greater the chance for disaster. Please keep in mind that, because of the caster mentioned above, and the instability it creates, it doesn't take much to flip a vehicle moving in reverse (unfortunately, I speak from experience)

Keep in mind that the handling characteristics of a vehicle driving in reverse is not the same as driving forward. A vehicle that handles well going forward may be very different while driving in reverse. As an example, if a vehicle moving forward can drive around an obstacle at 60 mph, the same obstacle, same distance, same vehicle driving in reverse may lose control at 20 mph.

If the vehicle has a lot of equipment in the trunk, or for whatever reason is heavily loaded to the rear, that vehicle has a great chance of losing control. In most scenarios there is nothing much you can do about having a vehicle loaded in that manner, but the driver needs to be aware of what can happen.

Another problem with backing up is knowing what to do with the steering wheel. The correct direction in which to move the wheel while in reverse can be very confusing. Actually the problem is mainly perceptual. The correct way to move the wheel is really quite simple: move the top of the steering wheel in the direction you wish the car to move. It's actually no different from what you do while driving forward; it just feels different in reverse.

While this may sound a bit foolish, make sure the car has come to a complete halt before you put it in reverse. Dropping an expensive transmission out of a car by slamming it into reverse can ruin your whole day. Keep a foot on the brake while putting the car in reverse. There's nothing like shooting out of a parking space and into the path of an oncoming car to add a little spice to daily life.

Make sure you are able to reach all your car's controls. It's a little foolish to hike yourself up in the seat for good visibility, put the car into reverse, and then discover you can't reach the brake pedal!

Short people have a hard time backing up because they have a hard time seeing over the back of the front seat and out the rear window. If you are short, position yourself as best as you can, making certain that you can see out the rear window and access all the car's controls.

Try to always park the vehicle so you will not have to back up to leave the area.

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