Some years ago I worked as a chauffeur for an upscale limo company. (Think ex-heads of state, nobility, and CEOs of Fortune 100 companies.) During that time I drove in excess of 350,000 miles in everything from sedans to 16-passenger limousines, at least half of it on some of the busiest interstate highways in the US, which is to say in the world. Prior to that I spent a number of years as a part-time driving instructor for law enforcement cadets and officers.
I know a little bit about drivers. I know what separates the good ones from the bad ones. I know what causes accidents. More than anything else, though, I know my own limitations. That’s what may make me a better driver than you–or not. But I’m not selfish. Here’s some of the stuff I know. Take it or leave it.
I. Driving is about 5% physical and about 95% mental. If you aren’t thinking about your driving every second, you’re not driving as well as you should be.
II. Driving is about communication: turn signals, lane change signals, eye contact with drivers at intersections, polite beeps of the horn when necessary, and so forth. If you refuse to communicate, you deprive other drivers of the information they need to keep from hurting you.
III. The best drivers are the ones no one notices. They drive neither too fast nor too slow. They do not make sudden maneuvers. They think ahead. They know what they’re going to do before most other drivers even suspect a problem. They pay attention.
IV. Another sign of an expert driver is how seldom he or she uses the brakes. Frequent brake use is a sign that a driver is not thinking ahead, and not paying attention to what is going on in the neighborhood. Get away from them, and stay away.
V. On any highway, if you see that you are being passed consistently on the right, you need to move into the right-hand lane to avoid obstructing traffic. This is true whether or not you are driving at the speed limit. It is not up to you to enforce speed limits. By driving slowly you are causing other drivers to maneuver in order to avoid you. If this causes an accident, it is partially your fault for being pig-headed. You are a member of a community on the highway. It is your job–as well as everyone else’s–to facilitate the smooth flow of traffic, not to dictate to other drivers.
VI. Don’t antagonize other drivers! Road rage is fun to joke about, but not so much fun when some redneck rides your bumper in his dually for the next ten miles or follows you home, or waves his .45 caliber penis substitute at you. Even if none of those things happen, when you anger another driver you are creating a hazard for every other driver he or she interacts with until they cool off. Endangering other people sucks, and if you could have avoided pissing the guy off and did it anyway, YOU are morally responsible for whatever happens as a result, whether you know about it or not.
VII. If you are changing lanes, signal. Although it is not required by law in all states, it is always the safe thing to do. Begin to signal at least five blinks of the blinker before you allow your vehicle to move from a straight line, and continue to signal until the maneuver is complete. Then make sure you turn the signal off. If you blink only once or twice, the cars behind you may not notice until it is too late, and if you hit the signal when you are halfway into the other lane it doesn’t count, it just makes you look stupid. Signal every time. That way you’ll do it automatically and won’t forget at a critical time.
VIII. Remember that signaling does not confer the right to change lanes. You must always yield to other vehicles if your lane change would interfere with their progress. That’s the law in all states. Signal well ahead of your lane change. Communicate! The same general rule applies to turns. One hundred feet from the intersection is the minimum required by law. Make it two or three hundred feet.
IX. If there is any possibility that your turn could interfere with any other vehicle (apart from causing it to slow) then don’t maneuver!
X. The exception to this is a left-hand turn off of a roadway where there are no turn lanes. In that case, it is necessary to slow, even stop, and wait for traffic to clear. Such turns should be signaled well in advance, 300 feet or more (6+ seconds). On roads with exceptionally heavy traffic, it might be best to continue to a point where you can pull off, turn, and come back to the driveway you need.
XI. Ultra important: Most automobile manuals and most drivers’ handbooks suggest that the rear view mirrors should be adjusted so that you can see the back bumper of your vehicle. This is only necessary if you intend to back up using the mirrors. Many professional drivers prefer to adjust them so that they give a view of the blind spots to the right and left rear of the vehicle (that place where those people like to hang out instead of passing). With the side mirrors adjusted this way and the inside mirror properly adjusted, there should be no areas toward the rear of the car that you cannot see immediately or by moving your head slightly to the side. Turn your head and look over your shoulder anyway. It will keep your neck limber. Those cervical collars are so restrictive!
XII. I don’t like the little round stick-on convex mirrors because I think they make you lazy, but if you use them, make sure you position them so that they don’t block the part of the big mirror that you use the most. Outside lower corner is best for most people.
XIII. Turn your head when you use the side mirrors. This not only ensures that you will look in the mirror rather than just glancing at it, but your peripheral vision will at the same time pick up movement to the rear of the car.
XIV. The alcohol polymer liquids that are put on the windshield to improve visibility in rain are worth their weight in gold. I won’t drive a vehicle in the rain without them. Rain-X® once saved my butt on the DC Beltway when a wiper fuse blew at 60 mph behind a spray-throwing semi. Not only was I not blinded, I was able to continue until I could exit safely and replace the fuse. Stopping and applying it on my daughter’s car a few minutes previously could well have saved both our lives. Put it on your outside mirrors, the driver and passenger windows, and the rear window.
XV. Do not drive with your hazard flashers on. The only excuse for doing this is if your taillights or brake lights are out and you need to proceed to a place where they can be repaired. Flashers are to indicate a stationary vehicle…by law. Especially, don’t operate them in the rain. It confuses other drivers. If conditions are such that you feel you need flashers so other drivers can avoid you, then you need to pull over until the conditions improve.
XVI. When merging onto a high-speed motorway, accelerate to the speed of the traffic flow before trying to merge. This may seem scary at first, but it makes it much easier to slide into the gaps in traffic and reduces the chance of you being run over by a semi while you try to accelerate ahead of it. If you are afraid to work at and master this technique you have no business driving on high-speed motorways. (See the above comments about driving too slowly, as well.) You do not have a right to endanger other drivers, ever. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right, and what goes around comes around.
XVII. Speed is deceptive. After driving a few miles at higher speeds you tend to forget that you are traveling fast, and begin to relate your speed to other vehicles instead of the surrounding countryside. This is a major cause of accidents. For example, your speed relative to the car you are following can be zero, while your speed over the roadway can easily be in excess of 100 feet per second (about 72 mph/110 kph.) If the car ahead of you changes speed by 20 mph, which can happen in less than two seconds with a quick brake application, you can suddenly have an overtaking speed of 30 feet per second until you apply your own brakes. Since the average person’s reflexes require about 1.5 seconds to react and apply the brakes after the other car’s brake lights come on, you can travel 45 feet before your car even begins to slow down. If you’ve been following too closely, or if you were distracted for a moment, you now have a new hood ornament. If you’re lucky, it won’t be a Fruehauf trailer.
XVIII. The reason so many people get away with following too closely for as long as they do is that most drivers are fairly careful about applying their brakes too quickly. All it takes is one who isn’t–or someone with defective brake lights. The 1-car-length-for-every-10 miles per hour rule does not allow any extra room. If you follow more closely than that, you are turning your wellbeing over to the stranger who is driving ahead of you, perhaps the same one you were cursing seconds before because of his lousy driving. Now who’s the dumbass?
XIX. If you’re allowing a safe space between you and the car ahead, and some jackass slips into the hole, give him even more room because he just proved that he’s not a skillful driver. People will do that a lot. Allowing them to do it won’t slow you down at all. The fact that it annoys you doesn’t change the laws of physics. You be the one who does it right. The other guy isn’t getting anything over on you, he’s getting over on himself. He’s the only asshole in the scenario–unless you step up to the plate as well.
XX. Keep your speed down when it’s raining. Most cars hydroplane at about 60 mph/97 kph if the water is deeper than the tire treads on the front tires. if the tire pressure is low, the hydroplaning speed will be lower yet. Don’t believe that stuff about front-wheel drive cars not hydroplaning. If the water is deep enough, they will too.
Hydroplaning simply means that instead of being pushed out of the way, the water is piling up in front of the front tires because of the high speed. The front tires will then ride up onto this “bow wave” and no longer touch the ground. This makes it difficult to steer. Really difficult.
The proper way to deal with hydroplaning is to take your foot off the accelerator, hold the wheel straight, and do nothing else. As your speed drops the front tires will drop back onto the road. DO NOT APPLY THE BRAKES…NOT EVEN ANTI LOCK BRAKES. Applying the brakes will stop the tires from spinning, and if one of them contacts the road before the other, it will throw the car into a spin. Real quick. Even faster than that. Most single-car accidents in rain are caused by hydroplaning, and they are always high-speed crashes by definition. Hydroplaning kills lots of folks, and it doesn’t make any difference how skillful a driver you think you are. Until the tires are back on the road, you are not in control (and maybe not even then).
The obvious corollary to the above is never use your cruise control in the rain!
XXI. Keep the correct pressure in your tires. This is usually 35 lbs/sq. in. or more. Carry a gauge and check them monthly and before trips. By the time a tire looks low, the pressure will be at least 15 to 20 lbs. below normal. Low tire pressure wastes gas: about 10% less mileage for every 5 p.s.i.. below the recommended pressure. And if that’s not enough incentive to make you keep them where they belong, consider that low pressure is the number one cause of tire failures, low pressure accelerates tire wear–a bunch–and also contributes to hydroplaning.
XXII. WALK AROUND THE CAR before you get in to drive. Look for damage, leaking liquids, and low tires. Pilots do it before every flight, and airplanes are maintained much better than cars. They are also much less prone to damage. Many drivers seem to think that their car only has wheels on the left side. At night, use a flashlight. If you don’t have one, get one for your keychain, because there are other good reasons for having it.
XXIII. If you have to pull over on the shoulder of the road, THAT is the time to turn on the emergency flashers. Get the spare out of the trunk and don’t stand behind the car (or in front) any more than absolutely necessary. Drunks have a habit of following the car or taillights in front of them, and they are often not too careful about whether they’re moving or stationary. When a moving vehicle strikes one stopped on the shoulder, the offending driver is almost always drunk…and it happens a lot. Every few weeks we hear about a law enforcement officer or paramedic getting pinned between two cars and losing a leg or two. Your car is no protection. It’s a TARGET. Stay to the side of the car, well off the road, until someone arrives and deploys flares or reflectors. NEVER stay in the car, especially if it’s raining, unless you get at least 15 feet out of the traffic lane. I know you won’t follow that advice, but I have to give it anyway. Did I mention flashers?
XXIV. Only idiots try to change tires in the breakdown lane of a high-speed roadway. Wait for a tow truck. It’s worth a few bucks to have the other guy take the chance of getting mashed. Most auto clubs with breakdown protection are less than five bucks a month, and you get a magazine too.
XXV. Don’t use a phone when the vehicle is in motion, even with hands-free. Study after study has shown that people are just as distracted when using hands-free as when holding the phone. That’s why God invented automated answering systems. Pull over and make the call, if it’s so important. If it isn’t, do it later.
Research in the US, Canada, and the UK has shown that mobile phones cause as many accidents as drunk drivers, and it doesn’t make any difference if you’re using a hands-free set or not. It’s the distraction of the conversation that leads to the accidents. Be honest, now: how many times have you scared yourself using the phone while driving? See? And we’re not even going to mention texting. That gets into the Darwin stuff. (See below.)
Since I know you’re going to go ahead and use the damned thing anyway, here are two things to look out for. (1) Don’t hold the phone to your left ear. If you do, you’ll rest your left elbow and won’t turn your head when you need to. (2) Keep your head upright. Your visual perception changes when you tilt your head.
XXVI. Oh yeah. Seat belts. I consider them to be functions of natural selection. If you’re too stupid to wear them, maybe you won’t get a chance to reproduce. That will improve the gene pool tremendously. Your senses of balance, motion and body position are critical components of controlling your vehicle. Also, it’s hard to drive if you’re no longer behind the wheel. Since you’re already handicapping yourself with the damned phone, don’t make it worse.
Make your passengers wear belts, too. In the event of an accident, you don’t want your passengers flying all around the car interfering with each others’ survival and your ability to control the car. You’d be surprised how not cuddly your sweetie is when he or she snuggles up to you at a couple of dozen feet per second. Most fatal injuries in accidents where there’s no ejection (keep the doors locked) come from people bouncing around inside the car and bashing against hard objects and each other.
There are a lot of other things a safe driver needs to know, but I’ll absolutely guarantee that if you follow these suggestions religiously you’ll be a safer driver than the vast majority of the people out there, and you’re the only one who counts. If you cause the accident, it doesn’t make any difference how careless everyone else was.