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LIFE ON WHEELS

Drivers Insist That the Best Defense Is a Defense

May 04, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Dick Cominolo isn't paranoid, exactly.

He just has this feeling that someone's out to get him. Nobody in particular; just every other driver on the road.

"They're out to hit you," he says matter-of-factly. He doesn't mean they will bash you intentionally, of course. "But we do have some, well, inadequate drivers out there," he says. "You have to expect the worst."

If you thought defensive driving meant simply watching out for the other guy, think again. Cominolo and his six co-workers at Pacific Bell's Operational Support Group in Orange have taken the common-sense practice to a higher level.

They don't make U-turns, period. And they turn left only when there is no alternative. Whenever possible, they'll go around the block and make 3 right turns to avoid a left. They don't just stop at crosswalks; they stop 3 feet behind the line.

All that caution has paid off. Last month, Cominolo and fellow communications technicians Dick Jorgensen, Steve Kilmer, Ron Mansfield, Darla Pogwizd, Laura Robison and Dan Spellings were honored for making it through 8 years and 2 million miles without an accident. And their personal driving records are just as clean, says Pacific Bell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen.

Let's put those numbers in perspective. Assuming they were car-pooling, the group could have circled the Earth more than 80 times, or made 4.2 round trips to the moon.

"Some of it's got to be skill," Cominolo says. "But a lot of it's got to be luck."

That spotless record only makes the team more cautious, Cominolo says. "We're due for an accident," he says. "The longer we go, the more nervous we get. It's going to happen eventually."

By now, there's also a certain amount of peer pressure. "Nobody wants to be the one to mess it up for all of us," he says. "There would be a lot of ribbing--good-natured, but still. . . ."

In addition to Orange County, the seven technicians drive to offices as far away as Furnace Creek, near Death Valley, and the Arizona border to maintain computer equipment.

Like any Pacific Bell employee who drives a company car, the technicians went through a company defensive-driving course before they were allowed on the road. For Cominolo, that was in 1961.

"It was a big change for me," he says. "A lot of the stuff at first I thought was petty--always wear your seat belt, avoid following too closely. Those were the days when if you didn't have your seat belt on and the boss caught you, you'd go home for the rest of the day. So once or twice and you learn. Now it's just second nature."

In addition to their formal training, the technicians have come up with their own unofficial guidelines over the years. They've learned to be extra, extra watchful near Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and in Newport Beach, Cominolo says, where there are more tourists and young drivers than elsewhere.

They can't guarantee you'll have the same results, of course, but the technicians and Pacific Bell are happy to share some of their defensive driving tips.

* It's important to adopt the right attitude. "Be calm and positive," Bonniksen says. "The right attitude overcomes maintenance problems, road hazards and bad weather conditions." Cominolo puts it another way. "When you're stuck in traffic, there's not a whole lot you can do about it, so you might as well relax."

* Before driving, check your turn signals, headlights, brakes, tire inflation and mirror adjustments. You don't necessarily have to get out the pressure gauge every time, but it doesn't hurt to at least glance at the tires.

* Walk around your car before pulling away, and look for children, animals or other cars parked around your vehicle.

* Back into parking spaces (where it is not prohibited) and pull out forward. That way, you'll always know what's in back of you and what's in front.

* Don't make U-turns, and avoid left-hand turns. Cominolo says that was a hard rule to get used to, but now it doesn't bother him. To him, the extra few minutes it takes to go around the block are worth the added safety.

* Keep your wheels straight before making a turn. That way if you're hit from behind, your car will be pushed straight and not into oncoming traffic.

* Try to "read" the cars around you. Exhaust from a parked car could mean the driver is about to pull into traffic. If a parked car is occupied, the doors may open suddenly. And look at the wheels of oncoming cars--if they are turned, the driver may be about to pull in front of you.

* Watch for out-of-state license plates, especially near tourist attractions. The driver may be lost or unfamiliar with the area.

* On the freeway as well as on surface streets, find the lane of least conflict and try to stay there. That's usually the center lane.

* Make sure you can see three blocks ahead in city traffic, one-quarter mile on the freeway. If you're behind a truck or van that blocks your vision, go around it--carefully.

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