Last fall, a multivehicle pileup on I-5 north of Los Angeles claimed the lives of six people. Sadly enough, this type of tragic accident isn’t at all unique. In 2006, 42,642 people died on United States highways and byways, and nearly 2.6 million were injured. These numbers get even more disturbing on a global scale: According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1.2 million people die in auto accidents each year, and the number of injured could be as high as 50 million. Driver error accounts for more than 75 percent of these mishaps. “Regardless of road conditions, the driver is the only one to blame for losing control of his or her vehicle," says Mike McGovern, chief driving instructor at the Bob Bondurant School of high-performance driving in Phoenix, Ariz. Here, then, are expert skills you should master to improve your driving and your chances of avoiding a deadly crash.
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.
Last weekend, I was driving a friend's car back to his house after he had some fresh tires installed. We weren't on daylight savings time quite yet, so it was well past sundown when we picked up his ride. It was one of those moonless, rainy nights—plus this guy lives out in the sticks, so it was about as dark outside as a tax collector's heart ... almost. As we travelled further out into the country, I could hardly see the road around me—the pavement ahead was like a black hole. I began to wonder if one of my buddy's headlights had burned out, but I toggled the high beams and even that didn't help much.
Then I figured it out: His instrument panel lights were turned all the way up, as bright as they could go. So I found the dimmer and dialed them way down, which made my night vision far better and helped me make it back to his place without collecting any spare curbs or trees. But driving me home after the drop-off, my friend fastened his seatbelt and, before I could even mention the business about the lights, twisted the dimmer rheostat all the way to bright again—grr. Now I know how it got that way during my turn behind the wheel.
A lot of people make the same mistake, immediately cranking up the interior gauge lighting—almost by habit—so their odometer and speedometer show up as bright as possible on the road. But few realize that you don't need these gauges glowing like vial of plutonium to see them at night. Here's how to adjust the instrument panel lights properly: Drive along a little bit after dark until you get comfortable. Then turn off the instrument lighting completely so the panel is dark, or at least as dark as it goes. Drive on for 5 minutes or so, then gradually turn up the lights until you can see the speedometer properly. This will let you read the instruments without overpowering the exterior lighting. Trust me: Your night vision will improve, and you'll be able to see road signs, potholes and the occasional deer that much sooner.
On a related note, one of my pet peeves about car interiors is when manufacturers don't engineer the rheostat to dim down far enough. Now I'm sure there are plenty of focus groups that tell automakers they want the inside of modern cars lit up as bright as the surface of the sun. Not me. I prefer instrument panels with a faint glow. Still, according to the Lighting Research Center, car engineers usually take a lot of questions into consideration: Which colors and contrast levels are most visible? What types of displays are most readable and comfortable? How large does the type need to be?
But Saab has got my all-time favorite interior lighting feature: the “night panel” button that turns off all the lights except the speedometer (pictured above). Hit that switch and the dash gets nice and dark. I use this amazingly simple and useful feature every time I'm driving a Saab test car at night. Best of all, it's really easy to flip back to the conventional display.
So if you don't already drive with your lights low, give it a shot. Turn them down, and let me know if your night vision improves. I'd bet it does.