Driving Safely: Pay Attention!
Driving Can Be Dangerous To Your Health
We've all seen the horrible images on the news of multi-car pile-ups resulting in death on the highways. Unfortunately, whether or not any one of us is involved in an accident, is not a matter of "if" but "when."
Getting into the car and driving off to any destination, be it a vacation or to the grocery store, is about the most dangerous thing we can do. The statistics are shocking. If you are taking an airplane to go on vacation, the drive to the airport is the most dangerous leg of the trip!
Whether the eventual accident is serious or a minor 'fender-bender,' it will involve literally months of paperwork and negotiations with insurance companies. If it is a serious accident, or worse, if fatalities are involved, no doubt lawyers will also become involved.
It is not something anyone looks forward to, yet statistics say it is something most of us will have to deal with on some level at some point. Here, then, is a checklist of things to help edge the odds in your favor, and keep you out of that column of unhappy statistics.
The only driver on the road over whom you actually have control is yourself. So, it makes sense to stay in control. I doubt if anything presesented here will be brand-new information. These are all things we hear about all the time; the government and news media routinely beat us over the head with these facts. What I hope to do is present a slightly different viewpoint.
Use Your Head: Don't Lose Your Head!
Here then, are things to keep in mind. We now have laws intended to protect us from our own potential stupidity, such as chatting on the phone while driving. We all know it's a bad idea, and dangerous, but many continue to do so.
However, it is not only cell phones. There are many other dangers that come under the general heading of "distracted driving," and should be avoided at all costs to avoid that dreaded sound of crunching metal. You may be inclinded to think some are silly, but I've not listed a single thing I haven't actually seen happening. In no particular order, the deadly driving sins are:
- Turning around to look at/yell at/slap at kids in the backseat
- Arguing with a passenger (of any age!)
- Reading a book
- Reading a map
- Looking away from the road to fiddle with music controls
- Making cell phone calls / Texting
- Putting on makeup
- Eating something messy that requires both hands
- Drinking (not necessarily alcohol, either)
- Looking away from the road to engage in a conversation
- Sightseeing ("gee--lookit that whatzitz up on that phone pole--I wonder what it is?")
There are oh, so many more, and some of these, I'm sure you're saying, "Say what??!!" because they are things more or less taken for granted and done all the time by so many, many people. Among these are the eating, smoking and drinking items. Here in California, those three activities are actually against the law, precisely because they are distractions. Eating most of the time requires both hands to hold onto that sandwich or hamburger; dipping your fries into the ketchup requires you to 'spot' the container, and just generally your attention is not on the road. Slow down, grab fast food if you must, but take a few moments to eat it before you drive off again.
Even though smoking is becoming less popular, and more frowned upon, there are still a great many smokers, and many of them smoke while driving. Why is this a problem? Well, getting the smoke out of the package, finding the light, lighting it, all take attention off the road. Then, at the other end, there are accidents that can happen with the smoking material itself, causing real mayhem.
For example, there was the guy who managed to knock the burning ember off the end, and it landed on his fake-fur coat collar, setting it on fire. (It is true--I personally know this person.) You want distracted driving? Try keeping your focus on the road with your coat on fire, trying to slap out the flames! It could just as well have landed on the seat between his legs, or down his shirt.
The Illusion of Safety
Ever since the law went into effect in most states requiring the use of hands-free devices for cell phones, that law provides only the illusion of safety. Carrying on a phone conversation is still distracted driving, because only half (possibly less) of your attention is on your driving. If the conversation is anything more than a quick confirmation of "running late--be there ASAP--goodbye," there is the potential for major distraction. The teen talking to her boyfriend..and maybe the chat gets a bit 'steamy.' .. Oh, boy..there goes her concentration (or his!). Or the adult who's arguing with a spouse is not paying enough attention to his driving. Hands-free notwithstanding; neither is a safe situation.
Time was not so long ago, there was no such thing as a cell phone. There is really nothing that vitally important that it cannot wait until you arrive at your destination. The trouble is, with the proliferation of cell phones, the old standby pay phone has just about disappeared along with the dinosaurs. Still and all, if a call is truly all that important, pull over and stop to make that call.
Modern cars also come equipped with convenient beverage holders, giving us the added illustion of safety in trying to drink our coffee or soda while driving. Drinking tips your head back, taking your eyes off the road, as does looking down to replace the container in the holder. True, only for a second or two--but that's all the time it takes to get into trouble. That's all the time it takes for someone to cut you off, and if your glance was away, then WHAM! you've hit them! Guess what? According to the insurance industry, you'd be considered at fault.
You Don't Want This To Happen
Control Means Awareness
To increase your chances of being safe on the roads, not only must you remain in physical control of your own vehicle, and mentally in control of your own actions, but you must play mind games of a sort with the other drivers on the road.
And I don't mean stop-light psych-out games, challenging them to beat you off the line, either. I mean games of ESP--trying to be aware of all the drivers around you, anticipate what they are about to do next, and be ready to act or react accordingly.
Here are clues to watch for--if you are aware, they will "tell" you or "telegraph" their next move to you. After the clue, in italics, is your best action.
- Weaving--maybe they're drunk or stoned; maybe they're about to change lanes. Slow down, or pass, but get away from that driver
- Driving very much too slow for the speed limit on a normal street, and gawking all over, but no turn signal. Watch for them to turn into a driveway, and prepare yourself to stop.
- The car in front of you is tailgating the car in front of them. Back off! This is a chain-reaction accident waiting to happen. Get around them both if you can; if not, slow down and give them room to get into trouble all by themselves.
- Tailgating YOU. If it is a multi-lane road, just move over and let them by. It's not worth the paperwork hassle for an angry, impatient driver to run into you, and not worth it to be first in line. If you cannot move over, check your own speed. If you're under the limit, speed up, if weather permits. If not, grin and bear it, and let them pass at the first chance you have.
- Road Rage directed at you. If you goofed, admit it; give a palms-up shrug and a 'sorry.' If you didn't do anyting wrong, then play deaf, dumb and blind. Don't give them the satisfaction of getting a reaction. However, if you feel threatened, in any way, or if they start to follow you, do not drive home!! Drive to the nearest busy, well-lit place you can or right into the police parking lot, if you are in familiar territory and know where it is.
- Drivers who change lanes without first looking to see if its clear. These are some of the most dangerous moves made on the roads! All you can do is keep your safe following distance, and do not drive in anyone's blind spot.
Avoid the Blind Spots
All vehicles have a blind spot, in which other traffic is not visible. The larger the vehicle, the larger the blind spot. Big rigs especially have huge blind spots, and you NEED to be able to see the drive in HIS side-view mirror in order to avoid his blind spot areas.
In driver's ed, we were taught to "always turn your body and check your blind spots." It amazes me that no one ever said anything about not driving in another driver's blind spot! It's pretty easy to figure out--for most passenger cars and trucks, the blind spot occupies an area between the rear corner of the car, coming up the side to just behind the driver's and passenger-side doors. Don't drive next to someone's rear doors, (or equivalent area if they're driving a 2-door car), and you'll be visible to them. Check their mirrors, as well--if you cannot see their face in their side-view mirror, then they cannot see you, either!
Traffic lights are there for obvious reasons. I do not need to explain their function here. However, there are too many people for whom the green light is an excuse to play drag-racing games, trying to beat all the other cars off the line.
This is a very dangerous game for many reasons, not the least of which is that you can be ticketed for doing this. It is also all too easy to lose control of your car while doing such a 'jack-rabbit' start, especially for inexperienced drivers.
There is another reason this is dangerous: you may end up in an accident with cross-traffic if one of those people decided to rush the yellow light, and actually ended up running through the red. Bang! It happens all too often. A driving instructor I had years back gave this advice to avoid that scenario:
Wait 4 seconds and check the cross traffic after the light turns green for you. How do you judge 4 seconds? Well, you can count, "one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two,..." etc. as I described for calculating follow distance.
But, make it a bit more fun, and do as this instructor suggested, and say to yourself, "Wait for Uncle Frank," before you step on the gas, checking the cross traffic as you utter the phrase.
You can substitute pretty much any one-syllable name or "aunt" for "uncle," as you prefer; just remember to use this tip. It specifically reminds you to watch for others who may be flouting the law.
- Ratio of Speed to Stopping Distance
Speed/stopping distance chart. The math is already done for you, and includes different types of vehicles.
Calculating Follow Distance On the Fly:
To check your following distance of 2 or 3 seconds behind the car ahead, look down the road past that car, and choose a point such as a building or shadow falling across the road. As soon as you see the leading car cross that point, count "one-thousand one; one-thousand two; one-thousand three." (Saying this out loud, in this format, takes just about one second for each number--that's your calculation.)
You sould not reach the same point yourself before you finish counting the 2nd second. Two seconds is fine for residential streets and signalized boulevards--move it up to the 3-second point for the freeway or for limited-access streets and minor highways with speed limits of about 45 miles per hour or more.
Some Laws You Cannot Disobey
While there are, unfortunately, many, many drivers on our roads disobeying the laws of the road, speeding, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic, tossing off rude gestures (yes, that's been made illegal in some states on the grounds that it contributes to or incites road rage.), eventually, those poor choices will come back to bite them square on the backside.
There are some laws,however, that no matter how hard you try, you cannot break or bend. No matter how great a driver you are or think you are, you cannot disobey the laws of physics. That is where the show-off teenage drivers get into trouble, as well as assorted others fleeing in police chases or just generally driving like idiots because they think they're invincible.
I'm no mathematician, but there are mathematical formulae to determine exactly how long it will take to stop a vehicle of a given weight traveling at a certain speed. The formula changes depending upon weather and road conditions as well. There are also speed and angle calculations that determine whether or not a driver's poor judgement will cause a rollover accident.
These are hard, immutable laws, and even the best, most experienced race drivers or Hollywood stunt drivers are not exempt. The laws of physics apply across the board to all, so pay attention to a safe following distance of 2 to 3 seconds behind the car in front of you, and never tailgate. Increase the following distance if the weather or visibility is poor.
- CDC - Teen Drivers Fact Sheet - Motor Vehicle Safety
Teen motor vehicle crashes are preventable, and proven strategies can improve the safety of young drivers on the road.
Exercise Caution, But Don't Be a Dweeb
There is a fine line between being a safe and cautious driver, and an overly-cautious fuddy-duddy who holds up traffic and causes accidents behind them. It is one thing to obey the speed limit--it is quite another to travel 20 miles below it. If freeway driving makes you nervous, take an alternate route, or have someone else drive, but don't slowpoke along on the interstate. It is just plain dangerous. Driving too slowly is just as dangerous as going too fast, and is an equally ticketable offense. Keep up with the main flow of traffic. Frankly, anyone afraid to do so, should just park it, and have others drive them around.
It is one thing to go someplace you've never been before; it is another thing entirely to fail to check your route before leaving home. These days, with GPS (Global Positioning System) devices built into many cars, and even portable ones, there is really no excuse for dawdling along, craning your neck to spot road signs. The GPS talks to you, calling out your next turns, so you can keep your eyes on the road.
And while we're speaking of keeping your eyes on the road, I'd like to address looking ahead further than the end of your own hood. Too many people drive without really seeing what's down the road, so if there is an accident in front of them, or a road work crew, they are caught by surprise. Don't be one of those folks!
Once I got caught by a trick question on the CA driver's license exam. It won't happen again. I now know the response they want, but in my opinion, it's the wrong answer. The question dealt with how far ahead you should look. It was multiple-choice. I forget all the choices, but I got it wrong, because I chose the largest number. The answer they wanted was "15 seconds." Well, I don't know about any of you, but I don't know how far ahead 15 seconds is going to be until I get there. I chalked that up as a trick question--I won't miss it ever again, but I don't follow it, either.
My strategy is instead to look down the road as far as I can see ahead, nevermind how many seconds that is. This way, I know there is a red light 2 blocks down; a big rig looking like it's about to change lanes in the next block, and the police car hiding in the gas station.
Keep Up To Date
In conclusion, keep yourself informed and up-to-date with any changes in local or state laws applying to use of the roads. Make sure your insurance policy is in line with your current vehicle and desired coverages. After the fact is no time to discover you should have had more coverage.
Keep yourself, personally, up-to-date, as well, making sure any corrective eyewear is serving you well. If you find yourseslf squinting, and having trouble seeing, even at night, it may be time for an eye exam. You might need new glasses--and who knows--in addition to helping your driving, they might prevent a trip and fall accident at home as well.
As we age, our bodies change, and it seems the older we get, the faster these changes happen. Aches and pains can affect our concentration, so if you don't feel well, avoid driving that day. Beware of pain medications, as well, for many may cause you to feel sleepy, and behind the wheel is no place to succumb to an impromptu nap.
Consider taking a mature driver course and learn how to compensate for such problems of aging as slowed reaction times and depth-perception problems.
For the young 18-25 male driver, statistically the most likely to be involved in, and probably cause an accident...I'm not sure any preventative tactic will work short of a whack upside the head with a 2 x 4! So, my final bit of advice, if you find yourself sharing the same stretch of road with a young driver is this: give them plenty of room to get into trouble all by themselves!
Being aware is being safe, and I wish you all many thousands of ultra-safe miles.
© 2011 Liz Elias