1. Don’t get boxed in.
It’s essential to actively create space around your vehicle. We’ve all heard of the 2-second rule: The car in front of you passes an object, and it should take 2 seconds before you pass the same object. If not, you’re following too close. “I like 3 seconds," says McGovern, who has 25 years experience teaching people how to be better drivers. “The more distance between you and the driver in front of you, the more time you have to get your vehicle slowed down or to look for a way out if something goes horribly wrong. That extra second could mean the difference between getting to your destination alive, or not at all." Also, adjust your position in traffic as necessary to avoid driving in another motorist’s blind spot. In other words, try not to drive in the left or right rear corner of the vehicle to the side of you. “If the guy to your left or right can’t see you, he could hit you," McGovern says. And never allow yourself to be tailgated—change lanes and/or slow down to let the offending driver pass you.
2. Be aware of your surroundings.
Too many drivers focus on the road only 5 to 8 seconds ahead. You should be looking about 15 to 20 seconds ahead of your vehicle, on both sides of the roadway and to the rear as well. “Most people get fixated on the vehicle in front of them," McGovern says. By focusing your attention farther down the road, you can recognize and avoid most potential hazards, such as construction areas, erratic drivers, fender benders, heavy traffic, etc., before it’s too late to stop or execute an evasive maneuver to avoid an incident. This will also allow you to avoid hazards such as cars about to pull out from parallel parking; pedestrians hidden between vehicles; runaway trucks bearing down on you from behind; and others.
3. Avoid distractions.
Virtually all collisions involve inattention on the part of one or both drivers. “Most people multitask while they drive—talking on the phone, having a conversation, dealing with disruptive kids, whatever," McGovern says. Focus on the job at hand: maintaining control of your motor vehicle.
4. Always communicate your intentions.
Many drivers don’t signal for turns or changing lanes. Don’t be one of them. Also, use your headlights and horn when necessary to let others know you are there or that they are coming too close to your car. Trust no one to know what you are thinking.
5. Slow down in rain and snow.
Roads are most slippery when the wet stuff first starts to fall. Why? There is an invisible film of oil that accumulates on dry roadways. When it gets wet, that slick substance rises to the surface and can turn the pavement into an asphalt slip and slide. It takes about 30 minutes of steady rain to wash the road clean. Too much water can also be a problem. When the tire’s tread channels cannot conduct all the water from between the rubber and the road, your car will tend to surf on top of the water instead of plow through it. This is called hydroplaning. Control rests where the rubber meets the road. If rainwater builds up between the tire and the asphalt, breaking that connection, slow down.
6. Learn how to maneuver out of a skid.
No matter what the road’s surface condition is, the two common types of skids are caused by driver error. Understeer, or plowing (A), happens when you turn too sharply, exceeding the adhesion limits of the front tires. “When you lose traction up front, steering has no effect," explains McGovern. “The only way to recover is to slow down by gently reducing throttle. The tires will eventually grip and pull you in the direction you want to go." Oversteer, or fishtailing (B), occurs when your rear wheels exceed the limit of their lateral traction before the front tires do, causing the rear of the vehicle to head toward the outside corner or front of the car. In this situation, you need to apply CPR—Correction, Pause and Recovery. For both types of skids, look where you want the vehicle to go. “If your car is sliding through a turn and you’re looking at the parked car on the corner, you’re going to direct your car into it. Always look for the way out." Click here for a complete explanation of how to steer out of a skid.
7. Drive smoothly.
Erratic movement upsets a vehicle’s balance, balance that is essential to maintaining control. All driving inputs—accelerating, braking, shifting, turning—should be slow but sure. For example, don’t suddenly wrench the steering wheel one way and then the other to avoid an obstacle. This will only aggravate the situation. Turn one way, then recover in one fluid motion. Again, this keeps your tires firmly on the ground and you in control.
8. Brake defensively.
Make sure you don’t surprise the guy behind you. Initial braking input should be smooth, and then progressively get more aggressive as you need it. Plus, get to know how your car’s ABS works. “It’s a great tool to use in panic situation because you can mash the brakes and still be able steer the car," explains McGovern. Unfortunately, most people never experiment with it. “Find yourself a safe place, like a large empty parking lot, get your car close to 60 mph and then try to get the car stopped as fast as you can," explains McGovern. “Then duplicate that experiment, but imagine that you’re trying to drive around a vehicle in your path at the same time. This will help you to understand the capabilities and limitations of ABS, so you won’t be suprised when real life factors into the equation."
9. Give trucks plenty of respect.
Cutting off an 18 wheeler is a serious mistake. A big rig develops massive amounts of energy as it moves down the road, and it doesn’t maneuver or stop very well. When you pass them, always do so on the left and make sure you can see the entire front end of the truck in your rearview mirror before returning right. Also, don’t follow too closely behind—if you’re in tight behind the trailer, the trucker can’t see you in his side mirrors and you definitely can’t see the road in front of him or her. Leave yourself at least a 3-to-4-second following distance, so you have more time to react and have a better view of the road ahead. Watch for his signals. Many collisions occur when a trucker swings left to make a wide right turn and an unaware driver trailing him or her tries to pass on the right. When that truck starts to swing right again, that motorist is in serious peril. Finally, use your lights to communicate with truckers. Let them know when the rig is safely past your car or that you are going to pass by switching your headlights on/off. Do not flash your brights (this has a blinding effect).
10. Maintain average traffic speed on freeways.
A vehicle going slower or faster than other traffic sets up too many opportunities for collisions on our highways. “Most people these days are going way too fast," McGovern says. “The posted speed limit is 55 or 65 mph, but some people are going 80, 90 or higher."