Focusing driving on both safety and pleasure

Interview / Betty Lou McClanahan

If Betty Lou McClanahan's dream becomes reality, teenagers would borrow the family car to head for the mall - not to shop, but to practice their driving maneuvers on a course laid out in the parking lot.

"That would be a beautiful thing," she rhapsodizes about aerodriving, a new sport she's trying to get off the ground (not literally).

Ms. McClanahan is an automotive theorist and designer who works out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory in Cambridge.

She spends her days thinking about cars, driving, and the new directions both could go.

McClanahan is convinced that Americans are missing an opportunity by not enjoying their cars and the simple pleasures of driving them more. They take the rewards of this act for granted at the very time many regular activities are becoming increasingly "synthetic," she says.

McClanahan's eyes were opened to what driver education can be, she says, when she enrolled in a two-day, advanced driving course. The instructors, all highly skilled racing drivers, spoke a different language, filled with references to oversteering, understeering, "the line," and other technical concepts.

Once a serious pianist, McClanahan perceived she was only at the "Chopsticks" stage of driving. McClanahan says driver training is much more intense and serious in Germany and could be that way in the US if professionally trained drivers were enlisted as instructors.

Taking the concept nationwide would require time, but McClanahan says that making the effort to instill good driving attitudes in young people is a sound investment, since teenagers are involved in a disproportionate number of crashes.

McClanahan says it's important to find some means of promoting precision vehicle control. Race-car drivers corner public adulation by going fast, which can be costly and dangerous.

For those who'd like to experience some of racing's excitement in greater safety, she's developing aerodriving, a performance-based sport she wants to be similar to figure skating or aerobatic flying. When unveiled, hopefully within the next two years, judges will apply rigorous standards to scoring competitions in compulsory figures and musically accompanied freestyle.

In her view, aerodriving is not a waste of fuel or a threat to the environment, given today's cleaner-burning engines. Any extra fuel consumed in encouraging better driving skills, she says, only helps to address the huge cost of car accidents in property repairs, medical bills, and loss of life. The idea is to bring dignity and honor to the art of driving, much as martial arts venerate skilled self-defense.

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