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There are some simple rules of safety that make the difference between good and bad driving. For some, far too many bad habits overtake the solid good habits learnt during the first few weeks or months nestled in the driving seat of an instructor's car. As time goes on age and infirmity can present an obstacle to good driving, but far sooner bad habits arise that seem to have become very nearly a norm for our society. Please note that much of this discussion is strongly UK-centric.
The two essential means to safe driving are part of every decent driving course there is. Most should recall the classic phrase - 'Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre'1 - and this is the root of those two pathways to safety - being aware of other drivers (Mirror) and ensuring that everyone else is aware of you (Signal).
Every car, van, lorry, tractor and most other vehicles have a couple of mirrors scattered around somewhere. As a car driver in the UK (in vehicles constructed after mid-1978), you are legally obliged to have at least a driver-side mirror and one other internal or external mirror offering an adequate rear view. This is to allow you to get an optimal idea of what is going on around you beyond your comfortable field of vision. The rear view mirror, clearly, is intended to allow you to see what is happening on the road directly behind you, to save engaging in some radical surgery to have eyes transplanted into the back of your head. The wing mirrors give you some idea of what is happening at 90 degrees on your left and right (assuming you have a passenger side mirror too).
This system is not infallible. Wing mirrors, no matter how you angle them or what extension mirrors you fit2, will never give a true vision of what occupies the space within 360 degrees around your car. This necessitates some activity from the driver through a quick turn of the head to get a second assessment of possible hazards and other road users. It is recommended that you check your rear view mirrors every 10 to 15 seconds to get a good idea of what's happening behind you. Solid attention should be paid to your wing mirrors when turning, switching lanes or completing other actions that involve deviating from a straight line. In addition, you should restrict glances into the mirror to just that - a glance. Gazing into the mirror for too long will hamper your ability to keep your full attention on the road ahead.
In the process of familiarising yourself with a new vehicle, ensure that all mirrors are altered to give you the best possible field of vision all the way around you. If you share a vehicle with someone, you should also take the time to ensure that mirrors are adjusted back to fit your requirements if their position has been altered.
The obverse activity of watching out for other people is making it easier for people to notice you and judge what you're going to do. Too many people treat the sticks and switches around their steering wheel as somewhere convenient to hang sandwich bags or rest tired fingers. The indicators, headlights and tail lights are your communications points to other drivers and not using any or all of them is like silently leaping out at them, Ninja-style, from behind a bush. No one likes surprises... people just end up getting hurt.
Left/right indicators should be used to clearly indicate all instances of going left and right. It's that simple. The worst place to decide not to bother is at a British roundabout, a traffic monstrosity that has most tourists quaking in their boots. On a roundabout you should indicate left only if you are taking an immediate left. If you do not indicate left or right, drivers will assume that you are going to take another left exit in the first 180 degrees of the roundabout. If you are planning on going further than 180 degrees - ie, anything other than left or straight ahead - you should indicate right and drive close to the island at the centre of the roundabout. Once you have passed the last exit before the one you plan to leave on you should indicate left to show that you plan to get off at the next exit. Tourists confused by the whole process may just want to indicate right and steer hard around the central island until they get their bearings on the third or fourth trip around.
There are exceptions to this use of the indicators on the roundabout, largely because of unusual roundabout shapes. You should judge the shape of the roundabout by the road signs that precede it. If your exit is indicated anywhere on the left of the route leading straight ahead, assume you should follow the 'left' procedure. If indicated right of straight ahead, use the 'right' procedure. Some roundabouts will also have multiple lanes, in which case you should try to judge the correct lane to be in from road signs prior to the roundabout and markings on the road. In the UK it is helpful to know:
What the official letter and the number of the road you are after is - eg, A34, B5036
What the most likely abbreviation is for the town you are going to - eg, Stkp for Stockport, G'hd for Gateshead
When using indicators to indicate your intention to switch lane, you should indicate long enough before making the manoeuvre to ensure that everyone knows what you're going to do. This does not mean that you should allow the indicator to flash once or indicate while you are completing the manoeuvre - or, worse still, after you've started. Indicators are there to make your intentions clear, not as a means to fanfare your skills during the event!
Apart from the obvious illumination of darkness, headlights are intended to make other drivers aware of your presence. They signal the presence of your car at night or in the midst of adverse road conditions, such as snow, fog or heavy rain. Headlights should normally be employed between an hour before sunset until an hour after sunrise, when lighting conditions are less than ideal. Situations that simulate such low light conditions would also warrant the use of headlights - such as while going through a tunnel.
When activating your headlights at night it is always good practice to ensure that you do not have them set to high, or full, beam before you switch them on. Having a brilliant flare of light flash in your eyes or rear view mirror is nightmarish for other drivers as it represents a considerable and sudden distraction, especially in pitch black conditions. Dipped headlights should be the norm unless you're driving along lonely country roads or tracks in the middle of nowhere - otherwise you'll distract yourself by switching the high beam lights on and off continuously.
Beyond this primary purpose, headlights should also be used to signal the presence of your vehicle where you are uncertain that other vehicles are aware of you. For example, if you were approaching a junction where a driver was pulling out on to the main road and, due to their lack of attention, it was clear that your presence had not been taken account of, you should flash your lights to alert them. Alas, in recent years flashed lights has come to often mean a willingness to allow someone to do something before you - letting vehicles enter the lane in front of you or signalling for pedestrians to cross the road. As a driver you have no authority to make this allowance as other drivers may not be paying attention to the interaction between you and the other individual or vehicle.
For the purposes of personal safety it is better to forget the desire to show courtesy and continue with your journey. Because of the change in understanding as to what flashed headlights mean, it may be better to use your horn instead to bring other drivers attention to your presence. When using the horn you should restrict yourself to a couple of short blasts, as a lengthy wail on the horn may be seen as aggressive.
'Tail lights' refers to the cluster of various lights at the rear of the vehicle, including rear indicators, fog lights and those used to indicate reversing. The most important thing to remember is that any signal should be long enough to be noticed, but not so long as to be confusing. If you are braking to park or take a turn, it is better to press the brake a couple of times to slow your travels than brake in one continuous press at the last moment - that way drivers behind you are guaranteed to have seen your brake light and be aware that something is going to happen - and you won't leave it until the last moment to find that your brakes aren't working!
If you hit fog, don't hesitate to turn your fog lights on, but also ensure that you turn them off again. The piercing light of a fog lamp is extremely distracting to other drivers behind you and is an offence that will rapidly gather the attention of local police vehicles if you're not careful. Fog lights should only be used where visibility has dropped to less than 33 metres (100 feet).
From the moment we receive our rightful permission to drive alone and unsupervised, waving a little Driving Licence card in the face of society, we start accumulating bad habits. There is something disturbing about seeing a parent driving 15 kilometres above the speed limit on the motorway talking on a mobile phone with a three-year-old child loosely secured in the back seat. There are some fairly obvious bad habits, like driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but there are also some less obvious activities that people don't take full account of once they're nestled in behind the steering wheel.
The authorities estimate that a substantial percentage of the motor vehicle accidents in the UK are caused by excessive speed. Through countless media campaigns that have gone from the benign to the grisly it has been repeatedly highlighted what a difference even a reduction of 8km/h (about 5mph) can make on urban roads. People need to slow down. By this the intention is not that we do 80kph on a motorway. That would be almost as dangerous as doing double the speed. No, here the intention is to keep moving at the speed limit and a bit. That, for some people, would be slowing down considerably.
Pressurised lives and schedules are a core issue with breaking the speed limit, where getting from A to B will always be so much shorter if you push the pedal to the metal and flash full beam headlights at anyone in front. However, few drivers actually take the time to consider the actual speed they are moving at and the physical damage that this can cause when introducing the metal nose of a vehicle to the soft, fleshy mass of a human's legs or rib cage.
Speeding cuts down the distance in which a driver is able to respond to the world and drivers around them. At a theme park you might consider the difference between a sedate ride on the lake and a white-knuckle trip on a rollercoaster - and that just about conveys the difference between 20 and 120 miles per hour. While speed cameras cut down speeding related accidents considerably, the only real means to cut speeding is common sense and the realisation that cutting the travel time from A to B by ten minutes isn't worth your life or anybody else's.
Vehicles can often become something akin to a mobile home - filled with cassettes, CDs, books, food, drink, toys and more besides. Individuals will usually become incredibly protective of their vehicles and will associate the concept of personal space with them. Just as you will often find people becoming very uncomfortable in queues when people stand too close, the same will become apparent with vehicles when barrelling down the motorway.
The opposite issue with space is the invasion of other peoples' space. This will usually be accompanied by the sense that the road is your personal zone and everyone else is abusing your free access to it. This leads to unpleasant behaviour like tail-gating, where vehicles travel within inches of those in front of them, and headlight flashing, where vehicles will hammer along in the fast lane at full speed flashing lights, winking indicators and blaring horns to tell traffic ahead to get the heck out of the way.
For obvious reasons this sense of space, or lack of, is dangerous and distracting. Demanding too much space or too much freedom leads to a dangerous lack of respect for other road users.
Braking Instead of Handbraking
When bringing a vehicle to a temporary halt, at a traffic light for example, it is good practice to apply the handbrake and put the car into neutral. This not only reduces strain on your brakes, your clutch and your poor foot, but also reduces the risk of being pushed into oncoming traffic should someone decide to hit your from behind. For some reason many drivers seem to think the handbrake is a device for sending signals to Jupiter or for releasing the anchor in cases of flash flooding. In fact the handbrake serves as an essential braking system that once applied needs no application of attention to maintain. The habit of many drivers to simply sit on their brake is a dangerous one as the surprise of being hit by another vehicle will usually be more than sufficient to take your mind off doing anything for several moments - like holding your foot still on the brake. The handbrake, however, cannot be a subject of surprise. It may take slightly longer to get going again, but the signal changes of a traffic light are designed to allow a pause to prepare yourself to get going again during the amber phase of the light.
The invention of the mobile phone, as well as providing greater freedom in communication, seems to have increased our collective ability to get ourselves killed on busy roads. Highway rules require that you maintain proper control of your vehicle at all times. Mobile phone use means that you are not in proper control of your vehicle and can lead to careless, inconsiderate and ultimately dangerous driving. Use of a handheld mobile phone means that you are restricting yourself to a single hand to control your vehicle. How many times have you seen people take corners without indicating, drive at high speed with a single hand perched at the top of the wheel or shift gear with the hand that should be holding the wheel? Even a hands-free phone means that your attention is partially engaged in conversation rather than fully on the road - this means that you are not fully and properly in control of the vehicle and, therefore, open to prosecution as a potential menace to other road users. Unlike talking with a passenger, your attention is divided and there is no one else around to compensate for you. Mobile phones should be switched off or diverted to a voice mail service. If emergency calls are likely then use of the phone should be limited to taking a name and explaining that you'll return the call at the next convenient stop. If you don't know their number, ask them to call you back - jotting a number down while driving is just as bad as talking on a mobile phone!
Maps and Music Collections
There is a category of objects that do not belong in cars. In an ideal world any activity that takes more than about a second is a dangerous one in a car going any faster than about 10kph. This is precisely why all the controls for a car are clustered ergonomically around the driver seat. A glance at a switch, gauge or mirror is all that you should indulge in, because more than a second is a considerable distance in real terms - when travelling on a motorway at 110kph (about 70mph) you travel at slightly over 30 metres in a second.
Sorting through cassettes or compact discs, trying to find a place on a map, reading a book, watching television, poking a telephone number into a mobile phone - these are all activities that need more than one second of your attention to complete effectively, so you have no business doing them at 110kph on a motorway, or at any speed or location, for that matter. In the time it takes you to stab in a telephone number with your thumb or locate a minor road on a map, you will have covered a hundred metres or more paying little attention, if any, to what's happening on the road ahead.
If you need to follow directions, jot them onto a sticky note and put them next to the steering wheel. Better still, bring along a competent and helpful navigator. If you need to listen to music, find a good radio station and stick to it, or invest in a CD changer that will hold enough music to last the length of your journey. Mobile phones... well, they should have already been banned from the car while driving following the last section.
People are always looking to push the limits of their endurance. In a world where tomorrow is never good enough, people from salesmen to drivers of heavy goods vehicles are always looking to keep going for that extra hour. Fatigue and sleeplessness rapidly deteriorate a driver's ability to stay aware of the car, the road and all the people driving around them. A sleep-deprived driver may be fully aware for as little as 10 minutes in every hour of driving, spending the rest of the time somewhere between a zombified haze and actual, closed-eye sleep.
Late at night, cars swerving haphazardly on the inside lane can be a disturbing and troubling sight - there really isn't much you can do about it except hope that the driver will come to his senses and find somewhere to pull over and rest for a while. Sales of coffee and stimulant drinks increase in road side stops, but good honest rest is the only real answer to the issue as chemical stimulants become less and less effective as the body, effectively, starts to shut down for the night.
Research has shown that sleepy drivers are less likely to be aware of their advanced state of fatigue than more alert drivers - so it's important to set your limits in advance and be honest about how far you should go before making a journey. If you're feeling tired and know that there is a long journey ahead, it is better to resign yourself to a two-day trip than to risk a road accident.
Companions and Partners
While having someone else in the car can both assist with selecting CDs and enhancing your failing perceptions of the road when tired, you should take care about whom you choose to occupy the passenger seat on your journey. While it may not always be practical to pick and choose, it is definitely preferable - where the option exists - to select someone who you get along with and have no current bone of contention with. This may seem obvious, but most of the bad habits are and yet they continue to elude many drivers.
The situation can be further exasperated if your passenger is your live-in partner or spouse. In this instance, it doesn't matter what you do - the air is most likely going to be filled with tutting and a cloud of emotional tension. The smallest error or unexpected detour will always be the other person's fault and will rapidly explode into a full-blown argument. It seems to be some kind of natural law, no matter how high your spirits might have been before you started the journey.
Whoever your driving companion is, you should treat arguments in the same way as a mobile phone - they distract you from continued safe driving. Avoid arguing and attempt to diffuse the situation with a minimum of fuss - even if that means conceding defeat without a fight. No point of view is worth a drop in your control over the vehicle and possible injury or loss of life.
While there are times when it is unavoidable, children in the car can pose a risk because they require attention that results in reduced control of the vehicle. Attention seeking, stress, emotional restraint, boredom, hyperactivity and hunger all run on a much shorter duration in children than adults - though sometimes the difference may be minimal! The moment that any of these triggers fire off, children will become more demanding - making noises, moving about and generally causing a fuss. At this point, even with another adult passenger, the condition inside the vehicle becomes such that proper control is reduced as attention sways towards the activities of the child or children.
For this reason, journeys with children should be short or broken up into multiple chunks of travel on long journeys, ideally of less than an hour - which is likely to be stretching the limit. Toys, books, talking stories on cassette or CD or some other form of attention grabber should be employed to keep children as quiet and pre-occupied as possible. Better still, if practical, travelling at night is ideal as most children will simply sleep through the journey once they have settled down.
Small Child Onboard
When travelling with small children appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that they are secure and safe. Standard seat-belts and being held in an adults arms are not suitable safety measures. An abrupt stop will surprise everyone, so a child held in the arms will have no protection and, most likely, will be released unintentionally. At that point there is very little between the child, an impact with the back of someone's skull or a windscreen. A loose seat-belt will either provide no protection or become a makeshift means to strangulation. Young children should be carefully and conscientiously secured in an appropriate booster seat or harness. Older children should be watched to ensure that they are securely belted and do not slip down in their seats so that the seat-belt potentially becomes dangerous.
Most importantly, all safety checks should be completed while the car is motionless - checking the safety of a child while the car is travelling at high speed down a road is only increasing the danger to all parties involved.
The Highway Code
Without reservation, the sole source of good driving rules will come from your local Highway Code or driving regulations. Comments here are just that - comments - and should not be considered anything close to absolute legal rules.
You can refer to The UK Highway Code online.