Five Steps to Being a Safer Driver

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 15, 2016

I admit having had two teenage drivers—and an ensuing pair of fender-bender accidents—motivated me to write this post. The best information is before the fact; it’s not as useful drilling down on driving safety after they crash the car.

I only looked away for a minute...But in even five seconds of distraction at 65 mph, you're traveling the length of a football field. (Jenny Lee Silver, Flickr)

Really, though, these tips—obvious as they may seem at first glance—are useful at any age. We all need a refresher course in being alert and aware of our surroundings. So here goes:

Look Before Hitting the Gas Pedal. I can’t tell you how many times this has been an issue for me, and how often it’s a factor in accidents. Parking lots are dangerous places. Don’t back out without looking—all around you are distracted parents trying to calm noisy kids, people late for appointments, and texters galore. Maybe they see you and maybe they don’t.

The insurance industry will tell you—in a parking lot, drivers in the “traffic lane” have the right of way—if they hit you while you’re pulling out, chances are you’ll get the ticket. With that in mind, I beg you to look both ways before backing out, and use your backup camera if your car is so equipped. I don’t know about you, but sitting by my mangled car, exchanging information with the disgruntled driver I hit, while we wait for the cops to come—that’s not my idea of a good time.

Slow Down. It’s not just that you’re more likely to get into an accident (or get a ticket) if you speed. You’re also reducing your response times, putting unnecessary wear on the car and wasting gas. And you really won’t get where you’re going much earlier. Speed too much, and the results could be much worse—i.e., you’ll never get there.

I was just trying to see how fast my Camaro could go....Speeding is a big factor in accidents. (Daniel X. O'Neil, Flickr)

FuelEconomy.gov (bookmark it; it’s the go-to site for determining what mileage new cars get) tells us that aggressive driving can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and by five percent around town. How about this: Every five mph over 50 you drive is like paying an additional 15 cents per gallon. And most Car Talk cheapskates would drive halfway across town for gas that was 15 cents cheaper.

Here are some good federal stats: In the National Survey of Speeding and Unsafe Driving Attitudes and Behavior from NHTSA, more than 25 percent of the people interviewed said they were speeding at some point on the day they were interviewed. That same speeding contributes to almost a third of fatal crashes, and its 54 percent of fatalities on snowy roads and 59 percent on icy roads.

Don’t Drive Distracted. One of my daughters was passing around a cell phone just before the accident happened. Almost a quarter of injury crashes happen because of distracted driving. Driving while texting or otherwise playing with electronics killed 3,179 Americans in 2014, and 431,000 were injured.

How many texts do Americans send? 169.3 billion a month in 2015, according to Distraction.gov. All those kids with their faces buried in their cellphones, barely missing walking into potholes or busy roads—do you think they just put away those can’t-live-without-them devices once they get behind the wheel of a car? Drivers in their 20s are 38 percent of fatal accidents in which a cellphone was involved. This can’t go on. Turn that stuff off.

Joe Scott, president and CEO of the Jersey City Medical  Center—the regional trauma center—is using a virtual reality simulator to give drivers a taste of what happens when they text and drive. They’re appalled when they see the results. “If you’re driving 65 mph, and text for five seconds, you’ve just traveled the length of a football field,” Scott told me.

I thought I had the right of way...It's better to drive smarter before the accident. (Chad Davis, Flickr)

Don’t Drive Impaired. It doesn’t matter if your poison is a highball or a speedball, drugs and drinking don’t mix with driving. How bad is the impairment? In 2012, drunk driving killed more than 10,000 people in the U.S., only a marginal improvement from 2009. It’s a factor in a third of fatal crashes.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, every two minutes an American is injured in a drunk-driving crash. It doesn’t help that 50 to 75 percent of the time, convicted drunks continue to drive on their suspended licenses. And contrary to popular belief, drinking strong coffee won’t sober you up—only time can do that. (Is this a good place to mention that you won’t fix a black eye by putting a steak on it?)

In fatal crashes, eight percent tested positive for drugs, 12 percent for alcohol—they’re equal opportunity killers. Driving on drugs is just as bad as driving drunk, reports DrugTreatment.com. The states with the highest number of drug-related fatal crashes are North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

Drive Smarter. Driving is just like anything else—you get better with practice, and you have to be prepared for anything. So here are a few common-sense tips. Don’t be the aggressive driver who has to pass everyone else, or be the first one out of an intersection. Stay right unless passing. Use your turn signals. Adjust your mirrors properly. Don’t try to “beat” lights. Drive with two hands and position them properly—they used to say 10 and 2, now they say lower down—9 and 3 or 8 and 4. Drive defensively, as Askmen.com tells us: “Never assume other drivers know what they’re doing. Always expect the worst. In blunt terms, assume that all other drivers are idiots. You will drive more defensively and, therefore, become a better driver if you think that way.”

Go ahead, tell me I’m a nagging representative of the nanny state. Don’t bother wearing your helmet. Risk a ticket by not clicking it. Flaunt the rules because, “It’s about freedom, man!” See how free you feel when you’re in traction at the hospital.

Here are some more driving tips, with visual aids!


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