Every day you plop down into the driver seat often with a mocha in one hand and a cell phone in the other with a hundred things running through your mind – none of them driving. You turn the key without even realizing it and merge into 60 mph traffic daydreaming about what you’ll do this weekend or wondering what that girl or guy really thinks about you.
Then it happens. There’s a loud noise that snaps you out of your reverie and suddenly your heart is in your throat as you realize something terrible is about to happen and that this is probably going to REALLY hurt.
If you’ve ever been in an accident or even had a really close call, you know what I’m talking about. The hard reality is that regardless of who is “at fault” in an accident, there is usually something both drivers could have done to avoid it. Tragically, even the person hurt the worst in an accident often could have done something to prevent the crash. It is so easy to forget that people – imperfect, everyday human beings – are behind the wheel of every automobile on the road and those people will make mistakes.
Here are a few tips to keep someone else’s mistake from costing you money, pain, or your life.
1. Pay Attention.
I can’t stress this enough. There are so many things to distract us on the road. Music, cell phones, passengers, stress, food – all these things can take your attention away from that forty ton truck in the lane next to you for just long enough for something really horrible to happen. The solution is to train yourself to focus first on your surroundings and second (if at all) on anything else going on. If it helps ask yourself these 6 questions as you drive:
• What’s going on IN FRONT of me?
• What’s going on LEFT of me?
• What’s going on RIGHT of me?
• What is about to happen ABOVE me?
• What is about to happen BELOW me?
• What is going on BEHIND me?
Being aware of what’s happening in these 6 areas should go a long ways to keeping you safe on the road – in fact most of the tips on this list have to do with those 6 questions.
2. Keep Your Distance.
Besides lack of attention, underestimating safe following distance has got to be the most common mistake drivers make. The simple rule for keeping a safe distance is this: in an average automobile the minimum safe following distance in ideal conditions is 3-4 seconds. This means when the vehicle ahead of you passes a stationary object (like a road sign, a bridge, or even the dashes painted on the road) it should take at least 3-4 seconds before that object passes you. Remember this is for ideal conditions when your attention is focused on the driving, it’s sunny and clear, and the roads are smooth straight and dry. That 3-4 seconds allows you just barely enough time to see a hazard, recognize that you are in danger, make a split second decision on how to react to the danger, act on that decision, and then finally – likely with screeching tires and smoking brakes – have your vehicle respond to your action. To avoid the screeching tires and smoking breaks, it is prudent to give yourself more than the minimum safe following distance. Here’s a Pro-Tip: in traffic keep your speed slightly slower than the car ahead of you. Cars may cut in front of you, but as they pull away, your safe following distance is automatically restored.
3. Slow Down for Conditions
Notice that I didn’t say “don’t speed.” This is more specific. The speed limit may be 75 mph but that doesn’t mean it’s always safe to go that fast. Obvious conditions that should cause people to slow down are things like rain, snow, ice, traffic, construction, etc. Not so obvious are conditions like blind curves, darkness, fog, fatigue, and many other conditions that can slow your response time or your vehicle’s response time or compromise your visibility. When in doubt, slow down or park.
4. Don’t Change Lanes.
Do you really have to pass that guy? Whenever you change lanes, you are at risk. You are either moving in front of a vehicle, into a space that another vehicle may be headed for, or even into a space that a vehicle you didn’t see is already in. In addition, regardless of whether or not you see the other driver, there’s the chance that they don’t see you (failing to signal your turn only increases that risk). Lane changes also often take your attention away from what is happening ahead of you as you check your blind spots and try to gauge oncoming traffic before you make your move. The bottom line is that lane changes are risky and the less you do it, the safer you will be.
5. Check & Maintain Your Vehicle.
The most dangerous accident I’ve ever been was on a clear dry road in the middle of the day with no other cars in sight. A tire blew causing immediate loss of control and I went careening off the road at 75 mph. Luckily I didn’t collide with anything but it was a close thing; and it could have been avoided by simply checking my tire pressure. Making sure that your wheels, steering and brakes are all in good order, as well as securing any loose parts or items attached to your vehicle is probably the easiest and yet most neglected way of preventing serious accidents on the road. Don’t skip it – the one time you do may be the one time that really mattered.
6. Don’t Take It Personally
The truth is, most of us are completely oblivious to how our driving is affecting the people around us. Driving is a very isolating experience with each driver is in his or her own little bubble so, while what the driver in front of you just did may seem anywhere from discourteous to downright insulting, chances are he or she had no intention of offending you and might even be someone you would enjoy having a beer with were you to meet them in person. There are many factors that can trigger us or make us feel threatened, from the appearance of another drivers’ vehicles to the way the vehicle sounds and moves. The driver, however, is NOT the vehicle. The driver is a person just like you or your spouse or mother or best friend. The vehicle may look and sound like it’s growling at you but it’s not. It can’t. It’s just a machine. Likewise the way someone handles their vehicle is probably not an expression of how they feel about you. Taking someone else’s driving as a personal affront is likely going to cloud your judgement and take your focus away from safely driving your vehicle. If you have trouble controlling your response to other people’s lousy driving, consider anger management counseling. It could save your life or someone else’s.
Driving is dangerous. Most vehicles these days weigh in excess of two tons and frequently operate and speeds in excess of 60 mph, very often in close proximity to other vehicles doing the same. It takes less than a second for something to go horribly wrong and the consequences could be fatal. You may have driven the same stretch of road a million times with out applying any of these tips and never had a problem, but remember this; it’s not the million times that kill you – it’s just that last one.