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Explain driving and cars.
June 16, 2011 10:42 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about driving and about cars.

We recently purchased our first car. I will say that it is a Ford Fiesta Zetec with 6-speed auto as that may be relevant down the line.

I have been a licensed driver for, I dunno, fifteen or sixteen years but only ever really driven solidly for, I would say, five of those years. It's always been someone else's car for a quick trip or a hire car for the weekend or a few days on a job in a work car. I haven't had any accidents and don't ever intend to, but I'd like to avoid the mindset of "I have a license and therefore I am Good Driver".

In this new car, for example, I tend to stick too close to the center line (Australia, so we drive on the left) and can be pretty sloppy with parking as I am a) not yet confident about the dimensions of the car and b) have only had it for a couple of weeks and am thus very precious about scratching up the wheels or whatever. And there's other stuff I'm worried about. Like, if I'm going up a steep hill, and I put the car in low gear to make it less taxing, can I then get to the top of the hill and just cruise along and pop it into Drive or should I slow down or even stop first? What's with tapping the brake pedal twice? What's a handbrake turn and how does it work? Why should one steer into a slip/skid/slide?

Basically I have a car and a license and I want to know how to take myself from being "a driver" to "actually quite a fairly decent driver, now that I've thought about it for a bit". I don't want to ever run into anything that's alive. So I'd love to hear from experienced drivers about things that non-experienced drivers probably don't really think about, but that might come in useful in a whole host of situations.

Also I have no real idea about cars. Like, cylinders I vaguely get (you explode the fuel and it moves the piston in the cylinder, right?) but what's the deal with a 6 cylinder car but it's got 12 valves? Are valves where the fuel gets squirted in and the spark plug lights it and then you get combustion?

One thing I've found useful, though, that others might, and I use it to illustrate the sort of stuff I want to know about, and I think I read this on Metafilter at some point anyway, is that on most if not all recent-ish (say, I dunno, post-1980?) cars, if you look at the fuel gauge, there's a little icon of a fuel pump, and on one side or the other of that icon there's a little indicator and that shows you the side of the car your fuel cap's on! Handy, right? What other handy things need I know?
posted by tumid dahlia to Travel & Transportation (37 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, even with all them words it's still pretty vague, this question. I guessed summed up it would be:

"Cars and driving. What is the best advice and what are some of the best resources, hints, and tips to make me an overall better driver, and generally more knowledgeable about the inner mysteries of The Car?"
posted by tumid dahlia at 10:48 PM on June 16, 2011

The flap that pops open to reveal the fuel cap, includes a clip to hold the fuel cap while you pump the petrol.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:51 PM on June 16, 2011

I was kind of blown away by the fuel gague/cap tip and was about to email all my friends, but it looks like it may not be true.
posted by jng at 10:53 PM on June 16, 2011

No no it's true, I know the actual pump bit doesn't mean anything, but there's a little indicator arrow, I swear!
posted by tumid dahlia at 10:59 PM on June 16, 2011

As for suggestions, I'd say make sure to check your side and rearview mirrors at least a couple times every minute when you're driving on the highway, especially if the road is congested but moving fast. It always good to know whether there's anyone in either of the lanes to your side if someone suddenly stops short in front of you.

And I don't know how much efficiency you'll save with this one, but my cousin loves shifting the car into neutral when he's going downhill (he drives an automatic). He'll kick it back into drive when he has to accelerate again, but sometimes he can complete a turn or two all while cruising in neutral.
posted by jng at 11:00 PM on June 16, 2011

Like, if I'm going up a steep hill, and I put the car in low gear to make it less taxing, can I then get to the top of the hill and just cruise along and pop it into Drive or should I slow down or even stop first? What's with tapping the brake pedal twice? What's a handbrake turn and how does it work? Why should one steer into a slip/skid/slide?
In an auto, there should be no need for you to change the gears yourself - if the car is labouring up a hill (although it shouldn't), press down a bit on the accelerator and it will kick-down to a lower gear itself and change back up itself. If you do change down manually, you can just slot it back into drive whenever suits you and keep going.

I don't know about tapping the brake pedal twice, but it's a habit I developed when driving crappy cars and not having any real confidence that the brakes would work at any time. There is no need for any such thing in a decent car and it achieves nothing.

'Steering into a slide' is a complicated issue and, while generally sound advice, is not always the best action to take. It's very easy to end up in a worse situation if you don't know what you are doing.

If you are particularly interested in learning how to control a car to a higher standard than the license test prescribes, look into advanced driver courses (not defensive driver courses - although these are good, they aren't the same thing). Something like this (and there are others in SE Qld at Norwell and Lakeside) would give you not only a good grounding on car control, but a lot more confidence. My best tip for driving safely is to be aware of what's going on around you at all times. Make sure your mirrors are adjusted properly and get into the habit of checking them regularly. Watch the road well ahead, not just the car in front.

As far as technical knowledge of the workings of your car goes, unless you are actually interested, I wouldn't bother. A modern car is no different to a household appliance - you don't care how your washing machine works, you just figure out how to use it.
posted by dg at 11:04 PM on June 16, 2011

The best advice I can give, the advice that is most likely to reduce your chances of a crash and the severity of a crash should it occur, is.... slow down.

On public roads, a fast driver is a bad driver. There are no exceptions to that rule.
posted by klanawa at 11:08 PM on June 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ah, thanks tumid, I see the arrow now. Guess I didn't read that article all the way through. But googling car dashboard images doesn't seem to show many fuel gauges with the arrow. I'll definitely check the next time I'm physically in a car. Thanks for pointing it out!
posted by jng at 11:10 PM on June 16, 2011

I'd say, just be careful and don't assume other drivers will do the "right" thing.

When making a left in the US (so a right for you), when I'm out in the intersection and there is cross-traffic, I always wait for the light to go totally red before going. So so many accidents happen because the cross-traffic car slows down at the yellow, you go to make the lturn, and then he changes his mind and goes through the yellow, hitting you. (Bonus: this goes down as your fault!)

This happened to me once when my friend was driving in high school, and ever since then I've observed how many accidents happen this way. You'll never go wrong by just waiting the extra second.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:14 PM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The flap that pops open to reveal the fuel cap, includes a clip to hold the fuel cap while you pump the petrol.

This particular Fiesta has a capless refueling system =p

As to your question about the gears, most automatics have a "D" setting which enables all gears. In addition, there is an "L" and "1" setting below that, which restrict the maximum gear your transmission will use.

The purpose of these gears is not when going uphill - it's for when you are going downhill. As dg above said, if you press the accelerator beyond a certain amount, it will automatically "kick down" to a lower gear to get more power - your car's default setting is to keep your revs running in the 1500-2500 range for maximum fuel efficiency, but for the times you need power, it will switch to one or two gear ratios lower and get the revs up to say 4000 to maximize power. This happens automatically regardless of what setting your transmission is at.

Using "L" and "1" restricts the maximum gear the transmission will use - this means above certain speeds, the gears won't change, and the revs will go higher and higher. The purpose of this is for the engine braking effect - at higher revs (lower gears) the engine drag slows the car - you will use this for extended downhill drives. Say you're going to drive for 10 minutes straight down a steep hill, if you didn't use engine braking, you would have to literally step on the brakes for 10 minutes straight. This is dangerous, as overheated brakes can sometimes cause the hydraulic fluid in the brake lines to boil, dramatically reducing the power of the brakes should you suddenly need it.

The Fiesta is a nice nimble car with lots of safety features: lots of "tricks" which old timers will talk about will be handled by the car's onboard electronics. The ESC system should take care of any skids / slides - it's truly impressive, if you've seen a car run a course with and without it - and the ABS will handle any issues with braking. Generally with a car this modern, you steer the direction you want to go, you brake as hard as you want, and accelerate as hard as you want - the electronic computers do all the compensation for you.
posted by xdvesper at 11:15 PM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Basically I have a car and a license and I want to know how to take myself from being "a driver" to "actually quite a fairly decent driver, now that I've thought about it for a bit".

If you've got a day and a couple of hundred dollars to spare, you may want to look into a defensive driving course. It'll teach you how to better control your vehicle in normal and emergency situations, e.g. emergency breaking on wet roads. Courses run every second weekend at Mt Cotton.
posted by haribilalic at 11:18 PM on June 16, 2011

what's the deal with a 6 cylinder car but it's got 12 valves? Are valves where the fuel gets squirted in and the spark plug lights it and then you get combustion?
Every cylinder in a four-stroke engine has two valves: each cylinder has a valve to let the mixture of fuel and air in, and one to let the burned gas out. The intake valve is connected to the fuel injector or carburettor which mixes fuel and air in a precisely measured combustible mixture, and the exhaust valve is connected to the exhaust system. The cycle goes like this.

- Intake: the intake valve is open, and the piston, descending, draws fuel and air from the fuel injector or carburettor.
- Compression: Both valves close, and the piston, ascending, compresses the mixture.
- Combustion: With both valves closed, the sparkplug fires and the expanding gases drive the piston down.
- Exhaust: Once the combustion has finished the exhaust valve opens and the piston, now ascending again, pushes the burned gases and particulates out into the atmosphere.

I've heard that apprentices memorise it with a dirty joke about "suck, squeeze, bang, blow".
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:21 PM on June 16, 2011

Minor thing that can make a big difference: Check and check again when you open the door, to make sure you don't hit or get hit by a car or a cyclist.
posted by ambient2 at 11:35 PM on June 16, 2011

Re: sliding. First you must know that there are basically two kinds of slides: oversteer and understeer. Before you can understand why there are two kinds, you need to know about the traction circle or circle of forces. Basically, a tire with a given amount of weight pressing down on it can only sustain a certain amount of sideways force against the road before it starts to slip. It doesn't matter the vector direction of this force, just that the magnitude is constant. When you have a driven tire (i.e. the front wheel in a front wheel drive car, the rear wheel in a rear wheel drive car) and you're not coasting, the tire is exerting some amount of force against the road in the forward direction, whereas a nondriven tire exerts no force in the forward direction, it's just coasting. When you're going around a curve, there is a perpendicular component of force on each of the tires as well, which is proportional to the centrifugal force.

Now we're already established that the vector magnitude of force has a maximum value before the tire starts to slip. When we're going along a curve, we want all the traction we can get along the perpendicular (i.e. lateral) direction, as this determines when or if we go into a slide. But since the driven wheel has a component of force in the forward direction this means that the total force will be a vector sum of driving force plus turning force, whereas for the non-driven wheel it will be entirely turning force. Because the magnitude must be the same, this means we can develop less turning force on the driven wheels, which means they are the ones that tend to lose traction and slide first.

When this happens with the rear wheels, that's oversteer and this is generally associated with rear-wheel drive cars. Think 70s cop action movie chase scenes where those RWD Crown Vics fishtail around every corner. Oversteer means that the car rotates more than would be expected for the amount that the wheel is turned. Understeer is the opposite, and is what you get with front wheel drive cars: you are going around a sharp curve when suddenly your front wheels start to slip, and instead of remaining with the curve of the road you start to move in a more straight line, taking you off the outer edge of the road and into a ditch or tree. This is understeer because your car is rotating less (i.e. going straighter) than would be expected given the position of the steering wheel. Generally speaking, oversteer is a lot more scary and dangerous to an unskilled driver, and it's another of the numerous reasons why car companies love FWD, as they have to deal with less liability worries about people who lose control of the car.

If you picture oversteer in your head and you imagine that the driver keeps the wheel constant (i.e. they don't adjust), then because the rear end has whipped around that means that the front wheels are no longer pointing in the direction of the road. After the steer ends and traction is restored, the car is going to want to go where the wheels are pointed, and having them pointed off the road is a bad thing. So the idea behind "steer into the skid" is to always keep the front wheels oriented with the direction of the road, even as the rear end is fishtailing around, because when traction is restored you want the car to stay on the road. Imagine that you just made a hard left turn, and the rear end has whipped around. To compensate for this to keep your front wheels oriented with the road, you need to turn hard right very fast. And because of this as soon as traction is restored your rear end will start to flip around the other way, so you have to be prepared to then steer left again when traction comes back. If you over or undercompensate you will keep oscillating back and forth, which is very bad and can lead to the car flipping over. This takes a lot of skill and practice to get right, and when you see those cop cars do a perfect fishtail in the movies the stunt drivers are doing a lot of work to keep that stable.

Re: handbrake turns. The handbrake generally activates the brakes only on one set of wheels, generally the rear. On a FWD car, pulling the handbrake causes drag to develop on the rear wheels, and the force circle tells us that this means the rear wheels will have less sideways traction available. So a handbrake turn is where you intentionally induce oversteer on a car that normally would not experience it, like a FWD. Other than wanting to do burnouts or donuts or stunt driving, I don't much think that this is a skill you actually need in any daily situation. But it's the same basic concept.

Re: tapping the brakes. Some people use this to disable their cruise control, or to flash their brake lights at the people behind them to try to get them to back off from tailgating. I don't know what the significance of doing it twice would be, unless it's to try extra hard to get the person behind to back the hell off.

Re: valves. An internal combustion engine is essentially an air pump. Performance of the engine is all about how well you can get air into and out of the cylinder. At the very least this means two valves per, one to suck in fresh charge and one to expel hot exhaust. But in higher performance engines you can have three (2 intake, 1 exhaust) or even four (2 intake, 2 exhaust) valves per cylinder. Valves can only be so big, so if you need to get more air through you need to have multiple valves, which allows the engine to breathe more which means more performance.

The thing that actuates the valves is called the cam. The cam can either be placed at the bottom of the engine, where it has push rods that transfer the cam action to the top (head) where the rocker arms transfer it over to the valves; or the cam can be placed at the top of the engine in the head, which is called an overhead cam. The advantage of the pushrod style is that if you have a V-type engine with two heads then you only need one cam to drive the whole thing. An overhead cam on the other hand can work more efficiently because it doesn't have the extra mass and drag of pushrods, but if you have two heads you need two cams, one in each head. And, if you want to double up the valves you need two cams per head. So you might see an engine described as "dual overhead cam" or DOHC. This means there are two cams per head. On an inline 4 or straight 6 this means two cams total, on a v6 or v8 this means four cams.

Cams are driven by either a toothed timing belt or a timing chain, depending on engine design, and this can be a critical component of the engine: if it breaks the engine cannot breathe and therefore cannot function. In some designs a broken timing chain/belt just means you're stranded, in others it means that the piston comes up and smacks into the valves that are no longer moving at the right time, denting them and causing a seriously busted engine. This is called an interference design. If you have an interference engine it is very much in your best interest to keep the this part in good working order, and replaced at the intervals specified in the manual.
posted by Rhomboid at 11:43 PM on June 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is an animated gif of the combustion cycle Rhomboid and I have described, if we've confused you.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 11:48 PM on June 16, 2011

Oh, shoot, I forgot to mention this: if you're in a situation where it feels like you're about to start a slide/skid (like in the rain or on a dirt road), then ease off the accelerator and coast. A driven wheel that is coasting will have more traction available due to the force circle, which can mean the difference between skidding and not skidding. It also reduces your speed which is almost always a good thing. Applying the brakes on the other hand would be a bad thing, because that reduces the available lateral traction, again from the force circle.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:02 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

"…for example, I tend to stick too close to the center line"

My first thought was "you must be in Brisbane". So I looked at your profile. I'd almost bet you're on the Northside, too - that's a habit that's a lot less prevalent on the Southside…

This is my #1 peeve with local drivers, and I've lived here all my life. Sometime in the last 10~15 years, everybody started driving right up on the centre line; if there's no centre line, they'll drive down the middle of the road until the oncoming traffic gets a bit too close for comfort and suddenly swerve back to the left. No kidding, I'd see a dozen or more drive exactly like that in my 5 minute outer suburban trip each night. A predictable driver is a lot less likely to be hit by someone else, but predictably bad != predictable.

Know how wide your car is (good general advice; when I was driving a van / truck, it used to annoy the living shit out of me when people people would stop and wait to ease between a parked car & stopped traffic when the gap was big enough for me to comfortably drive the damned truck through @ 60kph. You'll also magically be able to park in spots other people give up on.). Drive in the centre of the lane, or maybe slightly to the left. Don't be one of those people above.

While all the advice above about what to in a skid/slide is good general advice, I'd also like to mention that it is somewhat car-specific (although almost certainly applicable to your Fiesta). I used to drive an old RWD Corolla coupé that was a killer if the back alone started to slide (next to no unsprung weight = nothing to help regain grip = "hello, I'm suddenly facing the wrong way in the middle of a tight blind corner!"), but fine if the front wheels started to slide - counterintuitively, you just put the power down until the rear started to slide, steered out of the skid slightly, and when the back was in line with the front you suddenly got grip back!
posted by Pinback at 12:29 AM on June 17, 2011

Leave a bigger gap behind the car you're following than you think, if it brakes suddenly you need time to react, brake and stop safely. This will be further than you think and certainly further than the gap most people leave. It will also make your braking and accelerating smoother, saving petrol and your passengers nerves. Only a fool breaks the two second rule. Give it three seconds when it's wet.

Always assume the cars around you are going to do something stupid, particularly in Australia. Just because someone is indicating doesn't mean they're about to turn, just because they're not indicating doesn't mean they're not going to turn or shove themselves into your lane for no reason. Start indicating before you hit the brakes to turn. Take all the speed off then accelerate gently around the corner.

Watch out at zebra crossings as you come to them for anyone about to cross. Always stop for them and let them finish crossing before you drive on.

Watch out for dogs, kids and bikes. Give big lorries a lot of room and basically the right of way. You know how much damage a big rig would suffer if it ran right over you? None whatsoever. Let buses pull out.

Stay in the left hand lane at all times, even though lane discipline doesn't exist in Australia. Check both your internal and wing mirror before you overtake or turn and signal early. Keep checking your mirrors anyway.

If someone lets you in give them the wave to say thank you. Always let people into traffic where you can, leave gaps at junctions when you're stuck in traffic so people can turn. Doing people a good turn makes you feel better and you don't lose any time.

If someone slews their car in front of you to block the road and you realise you're about to get kidnapped then accelerate hard and aim for their rear axle to knock them out of the way. If you hit them head on you'll stop dead and if you hit their engine the weight will mean you're less likely to shift them.

Remember that it's still satisfying to hit the apex of the bend at 40 kph.

Don't use your mobile phone, don't fiddle with the radio, don't turn to look at your kid. Keep looking where you're going and if in trouble look where you WANT to go. You're much less likely to hit a tree that way.

Have a go in a Lotus Elise. It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on. It's even more fun driving it with your clothes off, but that's another story. If anyone asks you who your favourite F1 driver is say Jenson Button for his tactical nous and smooth driving style.
posted by joannemullen at 12:55 AM on June 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I took a night class at CIT on "cars for women". It was awesome. We learned all the parts of a car, hoisted our own up to look at them underneath, took an engine apart, learned to change oil and tyres, etc. It was a small group of 6 women and everyone was really supportive and friendly. If there's something like that near you, I recommend it.
posted by lollusc at 1:04 AM on June 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Check your tire pressure, you will get better mileage, better handling, longer life from your tires. You should find the correct pressure in your car handbook, or on a sticker on the door surrounds or door. Go to a nice petrol station, some will have air stations with a digital display, these are the easiest. Set the correct pressure, attach the hose to your tire, it will fill your tires to the correct pressure and beep when done. Do this every month or so, if you are losing more than a few psi each month, have your tires checked.

Check your oil and water. On newish cars it shouldn't be an issue, but it is good to check every month or so, if you are needing to refill oil or water often, have a mechanic look at the car. To change oil or water, have someone who has done it before show you how, or google it.

Keep jumper leads in your car and learn how to use them.

Buy roadside assistance. It is not expensive and even if just used for flat batteries, keys locked in cars or changing tyres it is worth much more than it costs.

If you are that kind of person, attach your smartphone to your car radio via bluetooth for answering phonecalls/listenig to music. It makes you feel like you are living in the future.

Get your car serviced regularly.

If you notice unusual noises or decreased effectiveness from your brakes, have them checked. They are kind of important. Also if you wear down the brake pads too much then you will need to have more work done than just replacing the pads, which will cost you two to three times as much.
posted by lrobertjones at 1:31 AM on June 17, 2011

There is a trick about following cars that states if you cannot see the tire thread on cars in front of you, you are driving too close... This applies to when you are stopped behind a car at a light or traffic jam.
posted by Jofecopa at 1:36 AM on June 17, 2011

A modern car is no different to a household appliance - you don't care how your washing machine works, you just figure out how to use it.

I totally disagree with this. You own a very expensive machine. Not having at least a basic idea of how it works is ludicrous, and will lead to you posting here in a couple of years asking if your mechanic is ripping you off.

Buy 'Auto Repair For Dummies" and read it. It doesn't matter if you every actually plan to get your hands dirty under the hood, you'll at least have a vague notion of how things works and might know enough to know when a mechanic is trying to take advantage of you.
posted by COD at 5:34 AM on June 17, 2011

Automatic transmission: just keep it in drive. It will figure out what gear to be in. If you are going the right speed, leave the accelerator where it is. If you are going to fast, let up. If you are going too slow, push down more. Especially with the newer cars and drive by wire, that is really all you need to do. You tell it how fast to go, it figures out the rest. The lower settings are for towing and mountain driving. (Some cars have an option where if you are on icy and snowy surfaces, you can put it into "2" and it will start off in second gear. This reduces the torque to the wheel and makes it easier to take off cleanly.)

Center line: ignore the center line. Instead, picture a line down the center of the lane you are in, and center yourself (you, the person, not you, the car) over it. It is much easier for our brains to figure out where our bodies are in relation to the world than it is to figure out where the appendages of some hunk of metal are. In a small car on modern roads, that will be just fine. On tiny roads, or in a large car, you might have to do more figuring to center up. Like for example, a small road with lots of people parked and you need to navigate between those cars and oncoming traffic. What I do in that case is either: pull over and let the other guy figure it out, or watch my outboard mirror. If it isn't hitting the mirrors of the other cars, I'm good.

Another option is to look out the side mirrors and down at the pavement stripes. If it looks like the car is centered between the stripes, you are good. If the car doesn't have them installed already, get a set of those fish-eye convex mirrors. They make driving a pleasure.

Parking: the trick is to think of the track of the rear wheels. Make them go where they need to, and you are 80% done. Go to an empty parking lot and practice all the different maneuvers.

There is a trick about following cars that states if you cannot see the tire thread on cars in front of you, you are driving too close... This applies to when you are stopped behind a car at a light or traffic jam.

This was also taught to me in drivers Ed.
posted by gjc at 6:31 AM on June 17, 2011

The tip about always being aware of your surroundings, checking the mirrors periodically and just generally making a mental map of all the other cars in the road is a great one. I used to get very nervous about changing lanes and generally moving around in the busy city because i felt i couldn't react fast enough with all the checking of the mirrors and worrying about the blind spots. Then i eventually noticed my dad and other experienced drivers barely needed to check the mirrors most of the time when changing lanes and the such, because they knew where all the other cars were.

You should always check the mirrors even if you know where the cars are anyway, but it's much faster to check if your assumptions are correct than building the whole mental map when you need to do something.

Usually just experience and practice give you what you need, it's mostly muscle memory. Just don't be an asshole and follow all the rules.

Incidentally i came across this "rage" comic yesterday, which is kinda true
posted by palbo at 6:56 AM on June 17, 2011

Center line: ignore the center line. Instead, picture a line down the center of the lane you are in, and center yourself (you, the person, not you, the car) over it.

I could not disagree more. In the US at least, you are taught to keep your car as close as is safe to the center line. Driving while centering yourself and not your car on the lane is how cars get sideswiped and encourages unsafe left-hand passing. Also, doing this you will prolong learning the dimensions of your car and will never improve your parking skills.

When you enter a parking space with cars on either side, come at the entrance to the space from the furthest distance you can, laterally. For example, if you are driving on the righthand "lane" of a parking lot, it's much easier to pull straight into a space on your right side, and not your left.

To properly adjust your side mirrors, sit in the driver's seat and lean your head against the window. Adjust the mirror on that side so that you can just barely see the side of your car. Next, lean your head approximately the same distance in the other direction, and adjust the opposite mirror the same way. It'll feel weird (although maybe not to you, since you haven't set in driving habits yet,) but you just eliminated your blind spots (in 95% of vehicles, anyway.) By the time a car is out of your sight in your rear-view mirror, it will be in one of your side-mirrors.

Get "Cars for Dummies" or whatever, but when you finish reading that go the next step and order a Chilton or Haynes manual from Amazon for your model of car. They are fairly technical, but will explain just about every aspect of your vehicle.

Re: tapping the brake pedal twice, I'm wondering if what you mean is what I do. When slowing down, if you keep pressure on the brake pedal increasing until you stop, you'll feel the car jerk a little. Instead, when the car is just about almost stopped and barely moving, I let up a little on the brake, and then apply firm pressure to stop the car fully.
posted by InsanePenguin at 6:58 AM on June 17, 2011

If there is a driver's training school anywhere close by, take a course.

As far as tips go, I can only state my experience as a U.S. driver who's had to drive a lot all my life, and my pet peeves, which can translate into advice as "don't do this":

#1 Don't drive distracted. When you are driving, you're driving. Cell phone somewhere you can hear it ring and push the button on a bluetooth device, or better still (although I know it's unrealistic) ignore it. It's epidemic in the US now. I think the denial about this is about where we were mentally on drunk driving in the '60s and '70s.

#2 Don't act like it can't happen to you. This attitude not only endangers you, it tends to make people take stupid chances that endanger those around them. I swear that as cars get better and safer people seem to intuit (wrongly) what actions are actually going to get them killed, and ride right up to that line.

#3 Don't drink and drive. Should be obvious, but...

#4 Don't drive too fast.

#5 Don't follow too close. If I could be arsed to cut and paste, this should be point #2 at least. Major problem in the U.S., because we're apparently all a bunch of impatient assholes.

#6 Learn to park. Seriously. Spend some time in an empty parking lot. Set up some cones or plastic bottles and learn where the corners of your vehicle are. More vehicles get scraped up in parking lots than anywhere else.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:41 AM on June 17, 2011

When preparing to pass another vehicle, especially a large tractor-trailer, remain clear of (behind) the vehicle you're about to pass until the car ahead of you clears a space large enough for you to clear the vehicle you're about to pass.

That's so badly written. What I mean is, don't ever let yourself get trapped beside the vehicle you're passing. Wait until there's enough room ahead of you to pass *completely*.

Always have an exit strategy in case someone comes into your lane, because at some point, somebody will.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:05 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Use your eyes. Look down the road as far as you can see and trust that your peripheral vision will alert you if something closer in pops up. Studies have shown that inexperienced drivers tend to scan very close to the car (so close that even if a hazard showed up it would be too late) and as people get more competent they start looking farther out.

This is by far the most important rule and the one that will keep you out of 99% of problems. Everything else (smooth steering/brake/throttle inputs, skid control, whatever) is a distant second. Looking down the road keeps you out of trouble, keeps your steering inputs smooth and your car centered in its lane, and helps you filter out distraction.

Accidents happen very quickly, but you can almost always see them starting to form well ahead of time. I was recently broadsided when someone ran a stop sign. It wasn't my fault, but I could have avoid it if I'd been paying closer attention, slowing down at cross streets and looking up them, etc.

While I am a lover of driving really fast on tracks and briskly on the street, I don't think car control is as important as a lot of folks say. By the time a modern car is skidding so badly that your natural response (steer where you want to go, let off the throttle) is wrong and the electronic nannies aren't solving the problem, it's likely too late unless you're very skilled. Getting that skilled takes a lot more tie than one weekend on a skidpad. In 17 years of driving I've never needed to correct a serious skid that I didn't intentionally start. More important is knowing what a car feels like *before* a serious skid, but you can learn that driving around an empty wet or snowy parking lot.

You learn some important things from driving schools, but it's much more important to stay out of trouble in the first place. You stay out of trouble by paying close attention to the road and other cars, and by not driving too fast for conditions (sensing a theme?). Again, look WAY down the road, not at the brake lights of the car you're following.
posted by pjaust at 8:13 AM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

And remember the bit about smooth steering inputs. High speed accidents probably most frequently happen when someone changes lanes without looking and one of the drivers turns the wheel too fast to avoid collision. Nothing upsets a car more than a panicked twist of the steering wheel at >50 mph.
posted by pjaust at 8:16 AM on June 17, 2011

In most cars, the bit of road that appears from the driving position to be lined up with the centre of the bonnet is actually pretty close to being on the track of the passenger-side wheels. Check for yourself how close this is for your car, by deliberately trying to put your passenger-side wheels over the rumble strips or cat-eye reflectors that mark the passenger-side lane boundary whenever you're alone in the only car on an open road.

In cars with two-wheel steering, the back of the car will never go sideways while parking. Sounds obvious, but many people attempt to reverse-park in ways that make it look like they don't believe this.

When you're working out how closely to follow the car in front of you, the best guide is not distance but time. Try to stay, at the very least, two seconds behind the car in front of you. Judge this by counting thousands between the instant they pass a road feature like a post or white line and the instant you do. Five seconds is better still. Closing the gap between you and the car in front is pointless: cruising, you can afford to arrive four or five seconds later than you would by tailgating, and if your proposed overtaking manoevre is going to fail if it takes a few seconds longer, it was never safe anyway.

Allow extra space between you and any car that has (a) heavily tinted windows (b) large rear-window decals (c) a big spoiler (d) doof-doof audio rattling the body panels (e) underglow (f) a big flashy chrome exhaust pipe extension. It is being driven by a clueless teenage hero who does not value his own safety or yours.

Pull over to answer a text.
posted by flabdablet at 8:37 AM on June 17, 2011

Do not swerve to avoid a wombat. Just brake as hard as you can. Trying to do both at once can spin you.
posted by flabdablet at 8:39 AM on June 17, 2011

Always leave yourself plenty of room to get out of trouble. When driving, this means four seconds cushion (at least two is good, but to really be safe requires four, and yes, you will be passed often). When stopped, this means plenty of room in front of you to avoid the guy barreling up behind you. Keep your eyes moving from mirror to window and back again. Focus on driving and only driving while in the car. When talking to passengers, do not turn to look at them. Keep in mind that most accidents happen while backing up, so be extra cautious and alert then (of course, they are usually minor, but will still cost money). Look farther ahead on the road than you think you will need to - this gives you plenty of time to avoid a bad situation.

If you have a local track, take your car there and blow off some steam. It's a lot better than doing it where everyone else does it - next to you on the highway.
posted by Nabubrush at 9:20 AM on June 17, 2011

A good way to learn about the dimensions of the car is playing hit-and-miss with cateyes or other small irregularities on the road. Of course, do this at a safe speed on a straight stretch of road with no one around (I bet you get a lot of it in Australia).

First, just try to hit it with your tire. When you get good, try getting as close as possible without hitting it. When you get really good, try to pass as close as possible without hitting it on the inside — i.e. between the tires. Practice on both sides. Soon you'll gain an intuitive feeling of where your tires are and what's the space between them. Good to know when something pops up unexpectedly in front of you — like debris, a pothole or a small animal.
posted by Tom-B at 10:32 AM on June 17, 2011

Car Talk on how to adjust your mirrors [PDF].

The best policy is to assume that everyone else on the road is an idiot. Keep an eye on all of them. If need be, count cars. Where's that white car that's been acting weird behind you? They might be in your blindspot.

The turning into the skid adage could better be explained as turning the wheel in the direction you were trying to go. Learn to take your foot off the gas immediately after you lose control of the car.

If, God forbid, your hood pops up while you're driving, you have a little gap between the hood and the body that you can use to get yourself off the road.

Do your best to keep both hands on the wheel (at the 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock positions). If for some reason you have a tire blow out on you, it will be much easier to keep the vehicle under control.
posted by Gilbert at 11:26 AM on June 17, 2011

One last tip: Always be aware of your path out of trouble. Make contingency plans in your head so you know what you're going to do if something in front of you goes awry. Try not to let yourself boxed in where you have nowhere to go.
posted by Gilbert at 11:33 AM on June 17, 2011

When in busy traffic, don't stare intently at the car in front of you. Look through their windows to the car in front of them. This will give you more warning when sudden braking will be required. Although the prevalence of huge "SUVs" on the roads these days can make this difficult.

Use your peripheral vision to keep an eye on what's happening on the sides of the road. Kids, dogs, anything that might unexpectedly end up in front of your car.

Keep at least a car's length between you and the car in front. Don't get angry when people cut in. They're arseholes - you're a cool cat, doing your best to keep the traffic flowing smoothly.

Don't worry about "handbrake turns". I've never done one in 20 years of driving, and can't fathom why anyone would want to unless they are "hooning" (yeah, I'm Australian too).

There's no reason to manually gear down going up a hill in a modern automatic. That's the idea of an automatic - the transmission will gear down for you. It might be worth manually gearing down going down a steep decline to reduce wear on the brakes, but I do it rarely. If you do gear down in an automatic, there's no need to slow down at all when you put it back into "Drive".

Steering "into" a slide is an attempt to regain control of the car. You're pointing the wheels in the direction the car is travelling, so then you have a better chance of steering it back on track.

Don't be concerned about the inner workings of the engine if you're not interested.

Don't talk on your phone while driving - even hands-free. It will still distract you.

After a bit of time you will get more used to the dimensions of the car, making parking easier.

Take it for granted that every other driver is an irrational, unpredictable maniac. Then you can be pleasantly surprised when many of them are not.

Respect truck drivers. It takes them a lot longer to slow down their vehicles. Do NOT cut them off, and let them in when they want to get in your lane.

Do an advanced driver training course. You'll learn a lot of good stuff, and they're FUN!
posted by Diag at 7:38 PM on June 17, 2011

Oh, and don't drive in other cars' blind spots (ie - in the lane beside them and slightly back from them). Slow down or speed up a bit to get out of this position so you can be reasonably sure they know you're there.
posted by Diag at 7:39 PM on June 17, 2011

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