Letter from campus: Life in the fast lane

Author: William Schmitt

I recently took my first course at Notre Dame, and it had all the thought-provoking features I would have expected.

You might say it was interdisciplinary, with elements of philosophy, sociology, psychology, physics and biology, along with practical tips for the business world. It was timely, reflecting current trends but drawing lessons from history. It was multimedia and interactive, with the basic lecture approach enhanced by two short films and workbook exercises. The instructor had intensive hands-on experience in the field, and his comments reflected a genuine desire, you might say, to point his students in the right direction.

Okay, I should clarify: This was a four-hour class taught in the University’s Maintenance Building to about 15 members of the Notre Dame staff. Denny Navarre, assistant manager of transportation services at ND, led this defensive driving course authorized by the National Safety Council. We earned no college credits but did receive a four-point credit on our Indiana driver’s license, useful if, for example, one were to receive a speeding ticket.

That was a bonus. More important, I enjoyed the class—well, maybe not the video of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash in which she wasn’t wearing a seat belt or the video of radically rude “aggressive drivers.” Still, the experience raised my awareness of the lack of thinking that goes on behind the wheel. “You can control your behavior,” said Navarre early in the session. “That’s what this whole class is all about.”

There were good utilitarian reasons for Notre Dame as an employer to be instructing its staff about collision-avoidance skills—for their own good as well as for others’. As Navarre pointed out, in Indiana, the number-one factor in occupational deaths is driving.

The course often touched upon attitude as the key to improving behavior—an old-fashioned and somewhat moralistic approach to teaching that is not in step with our modern culture. Technology has been making us safer for a number of years, but “fatalities are starting to rise,” Navarre warned.

“The problem is not the traffic. It’s the attitude. One selfish driver can screw up hundreds.” Navarre should know. This military veteran, former Indiana state trooper and ex-teacher of pursuit driving is the careful and courteous guardian that Notre Dame administrators frequently call upon to get them to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. He’s seen it all, and he has some great stories, like the time when, as a trooper, he told a lost driver to follow him. Navarre soon received an emergency call, however, and after he raced to the scene with his pedal to the metal, he realized that the other driver had dutifully followed—at full throttle, with a trailer in tow.

Driving has become more stressful as everyone feels the dual need for speed and multitasking, he acknowledged. He has seen Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway at its NASCAR-like worst: “I can only associate that with when I was in Vietnam,” he half-joked. “Death’s only a few feet away.”

Navarre has found his own response to road rage. “I’ve become more compassionate,” he confided, perhaps hoping that this lesson will rub off. “The main reason not to drive aggressively is to live a better life. What are you driving for?”

Many in the class are driving for a living, and Navarre was putting living into perspective—especially into the perspective of a college campus. Notre Dame’s campus has a preferential option for the pedestrian. Lacking the Toll Road’s thrills and chills, it’s a place to become thoughtful of others—and ready for surprises, like those that might be caused by today’s plentiful construction zones. “It’s going to be that way for a number of years,” said Navarre.

Driver education, too, is here to stay. The classes may become mandatory for employees with driving-related duties, and another course is set for those who handle big rigs on campus. New lessons also may be prepared for students who use University vehicles.

As courses go, they could do worse. I came away from this one seeing connections to Catholic values and the (Slow! Yield!) pursuit of wisdom. Don’t worry, National Safety Council: Navarre steered clear of preaching. But check out this supplemental text I found afterward: “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.”

Bill Schmitt is communications manager in the University’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications.