Three degrees of decision

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You can drive up to where the hang gliders jump off the mountain. It’s an awesome view.”

The man who spoke these words will never know what his offhand remark inspired. He probably never dreamed that my wife and I would look at each other five minutes later and say, “Hey! Let’s go check it out!” even though temperatures had dropped below freezing, the road to the hang-glider launching area was unpaved, and the word “blizzard” was in the weather forecast. That was stupid decision number one, and it was enough to get us stuck in an icy ditch on a remote forest road as the first snow began to fly.

Then came stupid decision number two: I decided I could dig our truck out of the ditch unaided. Lucky for me, my wife didn’t agree. She got on the cell phone and kept dialing until a weak signal allowed her to summon a tow truck . Since we had no detailed map of the area, it was a challenge to describe our location accurately. Fortunately, the tow truck drivers were intimately familiar with the network of forest roads in the area, and they figured out where we were from our description of signs and natural landmarks. We had to eat a fair amount of crow, but at least our poor decisions cost us nothing more than our pride.

With little difficulty, I can think of dozens of examples of travelers who have made poor decisions in response to something that arose unexpectedly on a road trip . It always amazes me how quickly a minor decision can lead to seriously significant consequences. Driving an extra hour, eating questionable cuisine, taking an unfamiliar route -- each of these seemingly minor decisions can play out to a nasty conclusion. Compounded by other dubious decisions, it can evolve into a headline-generating catastrophe.

The good news is that I know even more stories in which one good decision directly countered adverse conditions and transformed a problem into a road trip adventure. Few situations are so bad that a well-prepared traveler can’t resolve them. The key, I’ve discovered, is to avoid making more than two bad decisions in a row.

Most of us are familiar with the theory of “six degrees of separation,” by which Kevin Bacon could theoretically network with the pope. I’ve modified this concept into my own “three degrees of decision” rule. It’s been my experience that it takes only three missteps to transform a mildly entertaining adventure into an unmitigated disaster.

All road trips, and probably every kind of travel, involve “wild card” factors like unexpected weather changes, mechanical problems, illness and other natural and human-caused disasters. In my experience, three successive bad decisions about routing or destination, driving technique, health and safety, rest and relaxation, or other factors affecting a trip are more than enough to cause circumstances to develop that can result in dangerous, disturbing and even life-threatening situations. What is helpful to remember is that one bad decision is not generally sufficient to ruin a trip or cause injury. More importantly, a good decision almost always trumps a bad one, and there is almost always a way to escape a dangerous or unexpected situation if you keep your wits about you.

The key is advance preparation. If you prepare for trouble in advance, you increase your odds of correcting your course when trouble arises. Professional risk managers know this and they base their training on preparedness. First responders and search-and-rescue professionals drill constantly to train their situational instincts to make smart decisions when they are faced with unexpected scenarios. This same “brain training” starts when, as young children, we practice fire drills and other safety skills. Similarly, when faced with such fearsome road trip challenges as tornadoes, blizzards, flooding, extreme heat waves, tire blowouts, tractor-trailer pileups, hotel fires, salmonella poisoning, vehicle mechanical problems or even criminals bent on harm, all travelers can make the best possible decisions and increase their chances of surviving and thriving -- if they are ready.

Here are four tips to get you ready to make good decisions.

1. Be prepared
Carry and maintain a complete “Go Kit” of road trip supplies, tools, water and food.

2. Be knowledgeable
Keep abreast of road and weather conditions and make decisions about alternative routes if weather or other obstacles arise during the trip.

3. Practice Active Driving
Drivers are not passengers! If you are the pilot, be completely engaged in the act of defensive driving and be fully prepared to respond to changing conditions. Be ready to make proactive decisions about whether to continue if road conditions worsen.

4. Practice Active Enjoyment
Look around, enjoy the view. Stop for frequent breaks and rest stops. Practice driving relaxation skills. One of the easiest is to stretch out your fingers when holding the steering wheel to prevent gripping the wheel too tightly. Another is to roll your shoulders for a few moments each hour.

One aspect of car travel that most road warriors find appealing is the element of the unknown, that “wild card” that can and will pop up every time we set tire to pavement. Road trips aren’t rides at Disneyland, where all the thrills are safe and predictable. They are intrinsically risky, and that’s a major part of their allure. The secret to enjoyment is embracing the risk and accepting the responsibility to make proactive, well-informed decisions. While there are times when no amount of skill and forethought can overcome a calamity, it’s been my experience that a good decision trumps a stupid misstep. Avoid taking two more, and chances are you’ll make it home safely with some great stories to tell.

Mark Sedenquist is the publisher of , a Web site providing expert planning, advice and suggested itineraries for road trips. He's spent 30 years and a half-million miles on the road in North America. or visit his .