What are your best habits and techniques for safe, defensive driving?
November 1, 2004 6:36 PM   Subscribe

What are your best habits and techniques for safe, defensive driving?

And if that's too limiting, add in your tips for things like parking, filling, maintenance, etcetera.

My first tip is that when driving along parked cars, always look under for signs of feet. Makes it much less likely that you'll end up running over a kid.

My other tip is that driving fast very rarely results in any sort of real time savings. The difference between 50kmh and 65kmh is bugger-all when you're just tooling around the city. The difference between 100kmh and 120kmh is also pretty inconsequential when traveling between cities.
posted by five fresh fish to Travel & Transportation (46 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and here's how to set your side mirrors:

With your seat positioned for driving, place your head against the window and adjust the left mirror so that you do not (but barely) see any of your vehicle; repeat for the right mirror with your head positioned over the centre console.

When set this way you will not see your vehicle in the mirrors. That can be quite unnerving at first but rest assured: your car is still there even when you can't see it.

More importantly, this basically eliminates blind spots. A car that is behind you will be seen in the rear-view mirror. When it pulls over to pass, it will immediately show up in a side mirror. When it is drawing parallel with you, the very back end of it will likely still be visible in the side mirror; and the very front of it will likely be coming into your peripheral vision. If there are blind spots they are very small, and readily covered by a slight turn of your head.

Adjusting your mirrors like this is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Give yourself a couple weeks to get used to not seeing your own vehicle in the mirrors and you'll never, ever go back.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:44 PM on November 1, 2004 [36 favorites]

But the difference between 55mph and 85mph adds up quick. FFF is right, if you're going to speed, do it right.

Also, get a bluetooth headset for your cell phone, or a built-in bluetooth speakerphone. They make it much easier to answer calls without slowing down for even a moment.

Beyond that... this is the best radar detector money can buy. Buy one.

If they're not legal in a state you drive through regularly, you can do a custom install, the remote display can be tucked away fairly neatly. It'll cost less and work better than the solution offered by Escort.

Go to a racing school, and then take your car to the track. Not the drag strip, but a real road course track. Learn where your cars limits are because when you're going down the freeway at 95mph, you better know how to keep your car stable as you brake hard and cross three lanes of traffic. If you don't, you could hurt somebody else, or worse yet, yourself.

That's about it for me!
posted by mosch at 6:53 PM on November 1, 2004

...because when you're going down the freeway at 95mph, you better know how to keep your car stable as you brake hard and cross three lanes of traffic

Techniques for safe driving, huh? Well, it's a three-step process.

Step 1. Find this assnapkin.
Step 2. Take his keys and throw them in the ocean.
Step 3. You and all other drivers are now safer.
posted by rajbot at 7:05 PM on November 1, 2004 [2 favorites]

If you don't, you could hurt somebody else, or worse yet, yourself.

Or worst of all, me.
posted by Ryvar at 7:05 PM on November 1, 2004

The difference between 100kmh and 120kmh is also pretty inconsequential when traveling between cities.

I've done South Dakota, and I can sum it up quick: the faster the better.

But if you're driving between cities where there may be traffic, speeding up and slowing down, then yes, there's no point in speeding if you're just going to end up slowing down again in a minute or two.
posted by gimonca at 7:10 PM on November 1, 2004

Request for safe defensive driving techniques != radar detector recommendations :D

Racing school can be good for you, especially if you have to drive in poor weather. You will learn a lot about handling a car in extreme conditions. If you live in San Diego, you won't benefit from it as much, as the only time you should have to execute extreme maneuvers is to dodge things coming at you. That will happen sometimes, I guess.

My main lesson from 3 years of a bad commute is: just be way ahead of the danger. Don't wait for it to come your way. Get out of the right lane when an onramp is coming up. Merge early. Watch for brakelights up ahead. Drive conservatively. It's easy. Go slow. Don't be a jerk.

2 tips:

If you suddenly come upon backed up traffic on the freeway, don't just brake: pump your brakes. Your flashing brake lights will get the attention of the people behind you much more quickly. This really works.

Let dangerous-looking drivers go on by you. I used to think I should speed up and leave swerving, dangerous-looking cars behind, but this makes no sense. You want them in front of you, moving away from you, not behind you, moving toward you.
posted by scarabic at 7:11 PM on November 1, 2004 [2 favorites]

Always signal lane changes, even if you think nobody's around.

"If the other guy's too fast, let 'em pass.
If the other guy's too slow, let 'em know."
posted by gimonca at 7:14 PM on November 1, 2004

Train yourself away from the habit of braking as a first response to any unexpected situation. As a panic response, it's not a terrible thing to brake, but at speed it may be more effective to accelerate or evade than to brake. This rule goes double for anyone riding a motorcycle: if you're going to have a panic response at all -- and you shouldn't -- it should be to apply gas and get the fuck away from whatever's attacking.
posted by majick at 7:17 PM on November 1, 2004

Anticipate the worst. Don't assume everyone around you is going to follow the rules of the road. All drivers are usually acting in their own self-interest, which is just human nature. Better to just accept it.

Ignore rude gestures or anything else that might anger you or make you behave irrationally. Don't bait tailgaters by slamming on your brakes. Passive aggressive behavior and road rage are slippery slopes.

Don't try to make up lost time in the car. If you didn't give yourself enough time to get there, accept that you're going to be late and ponder any damage control you might need to do along the way.
posted by whatnot at 7:23 PM on November 1, 2004

Pay attention to the speed limit! My daily commute is on a long stretch of highway with several speed changes. Most near-wrecks occur when some daydreamer missed the 55 mph change and tries to cruise into the left lane going 40, not noticing the semi screaming toward their bumper.

Also, make sure you know where you are going! It sounds simple, but most drivers seem like they have no idea where they need to turn.
posted by dual_action at 7:23 PM on November 1, 2004

- always assume the other drivers are idiots about to do something stupid, and that pedestrians might jump in front of you
- leave yourself plenty of room behind the car in front of you (I don't just mean "don't tailgate")
- always have an escape route
- remember to check your mirrors often (and adjust them properly as fff described above), most people don't check anywhere near often enough
- in winter, don't do anything suddenly if you can possibly avoid it
- go to skid school
- for the love of dog, DO NOT pull right before you turn left, or pull left before you turn right, learn your car's turning radius for crying out loud!
posted by biscotti at 7:24 PM on November 1, 2004

mosch, the question regarded defensive driving. Just thought I'd mention that.
posted by anathema at 7:26 PM on November 1, 2004

A friend of mine went to racing school and one of the cool things she described was getting to drive a car that had some kind of training wheel set on all four tires. Apparently, they could jack up two of the tires about half an inch to simulate a loss of friction in those tires. Then, you'd just get in the car, drive it around, and learn how to control a car that's lost friction in those two tires. Stop. Change the tire configuration, rinse, repeat. Pretty neat.
posted by scarabic at 7:27 PM on November 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

And here are my tips that apply more towards freeway driving:

If you aren't going to be driving longer than an hour, don't bother exceeding the speed limit by more than it takes to keep up with the flow of traffic. The difference between 75 and 95 is only significant over distance.

Assume maliciousness on the part of all trucks. The driver may well be a nice guy and a well-trained driver, but there's no reason to take chances with 20-ton objects.

Change lanes only if it's either navigationally useful -- such as at a junction, split, or interchange -- or the guy in front of you is dangerously slow or unsteady. Otherwise pick a lane and stick to it.

Always, always assume inattention and lack of skill on the part of all other drivers. Assume they don't know how to merge. Assume they will change lanes randomly and without signal. Assume they will brake randomly. Treat every other vehicle as though it were driven by a suicidal idiot, and you won't be far from the mark.

Slow down in rain.

Leave room in front of your vehicle to react to the brake-stomping moron ahead of you.

Keep brakes and tires well maintained. Buy excellent tires, because cheap tires will try to kill you.
posted by majick at 7:33 PM on November 1, 2004

how about taking the bus? (not being flippant - i presume it's safer, but i've just been googling for evidence and can't find any...)
posted by andrew cooke at 7:37 PM on November 1, 2004

ok, a comment here related to fig 4-1 implies that the large trucks and bus stats are similar (more than halving your risk relative to cars and small vans) (and that's normalised by miles travelled).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:44 PM on November 1, 2004

turn on your lights, even during the day, especially if the color of your car is similar to the color of the road.
posted by MzB at 7:44 PM on November 1, 2004

- Put the damned phone down. If you must make a call, pull over. If someone calls you, let it ring and answer once you have pulled over.

- Do not read a map whilst driving - pull over.

- Do not put makeup on or shave whilst driving - pull over or do it at home.

- Do not eat whilst driving. Even drinking is a stretch. (Although I must admit, I do both.)

- Do not drink alcoholic beverages and drive.

Simply put: pay attention to what's going on around you. All of the above are distractions and can cause accidents.
posted by deborah at 7:56 PM on November 1, 2004

Avoid driving bumper to bumper. If somebodies on your ass then you're going too slow for the lane you're in. Speed up or change lanes. If you're on somebody elses bumper then you're going to fast for the lane you're in. Change lanes or slow down. (Which brings up something that really pisses me off about cops. On holiday weekends they spend a great deal of time slowing down traffic and in the process make it more dangerous. Somewhat fast but well spaced traffic ends up turning into a bumper to bumper clot travelling down the highway at the speed limit)

Watch the car in front of you but also watch the cars ahead of him as well. Don't rely on the reaction time, which may be non-existant, of the guy ahead of you.

When merging speed up to the same rate as the traffic you're merging into. If you can reliably do this merging becomes much less hairy. If you're in the lane being merged into if possible switch lanes.
posted by substrate at 8:07 PM on November 1, 2004

You can pick up a stopped car's movement faster by looking at their tires. A small roll of the car is a big movement of the rim.
posted by smackfu at 8:12 PM on November 1, 2004

Assume maliciousness on the part of all trucks. The driver may well be a nice guy and a well-trained driver, but there's no reason to take chances with 20-ton objects.

While this might be safely conservative, I don't find it to be true. Truck drivers are professionals, at least, and I find that they drive more consistently overall than the average motorist. They're less maneuverable and less speedy, too, which makes them more predictible.

They're just big. So naturally, if they do something we don't like, our reaction is amplified by 100x because the mass of a truck is very formidable.
posted by scarabic at 8:25 PM on November 1, 2004

Give rented trucks (U-Hauls and such) a lot of room. Assume that the driver has never driven a vehicle that big before, and has no idea how big it is and how slow it brakes, or where its blind spots are.
posted by xil at 8:41 PM on November 1, 2004

I find I look through the car in front of me to anticipate conditions, because when I get behind a car with tinted windows I feel like I've got an eye patch over one eye.

Where there's one child there's likely to be another. So just because the kid you see riding his bike made it to the other side of the street doesn't mean there isn't another child about to ride/run/etc. into the street.

Rain after a long dry spell means the roads will be extra slick with oil and crud that hasn't been washed away for a while.

Watch out for taxis.

Watch out at freeway exit only lanes and required turn lanes on surface streets. There's always someone not paying attention until the last moment who swerves out of the lane so they don't have to exit or turn.

Pump your brakes to flash your brakes lights if traffic suddenly slows. The doofus behind you is more likely to see the red lights than to notice your car is slowing.
posted by lobakgo at 9:06 PM on November 1, 2004

Truck drivers are professionals

In my experience, long-haul truckers are often highly professional and generally courteous drivers, if a bit prone to tailgating. But local truckers... eww.

Trucks can stop a *lot* faster than you think. They got lots of wheels with lots of brakes, and M-O-O-N that spells stopping.

Where there's a dog, there's likely a kid.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:34 PM on November 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

Don't take the big space in front of a semi truck as an invitation to merge in front of him.

Avoid being stuck behind any vehicle you can't see through/over/past.
posted by kindall at 9:38 PM on November 1, 2004

Pumping your brakes (as scarabic and lobakgo suggested) when stopping suddenly so that your brake lights flash to warn drivers behind you may, unfortunately, disable the anti-lock mechanism of your anti-lock bracks (ABS). So if you have ABS you may be doing yourself more harm than good. I think a better design would have the brake lights would flash automatically when the ABS engages.
posted by TimeFactor at 9:38 PM on November 1, 2004

Bicylist related:

Don't hassle them. They're allowed on the road too, and are at least faster than @$!$!! tractors.

Don't crowd them. They are tippy and fearful of your bulk. Hitting a biker will ruin your day.

Hang back and follow them at their pace. The passing zone will soon come, and it's only going to cost you a couple of minutes. When you pass them, give them room; you're in a passing zone, right? And it's safe to pass, right? Then get the hell over to the other lane like you would to pass a car.

At an intersection, clear your right side before you turn right. A bike may have appeared there.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:42 PM on November 1, 2004

oh... defensive driving.. my bad.

In that case, I still recommend racing school. Knowing the limits of your car at all speeds is useful not only while driving like an asshole, but also when you need to perform emergency maneuvers to avoid a child/deer/asshole/etc.

Don't talk on your cell, but if you do, use a handset.

Don't eat, drink or smoke. Especially don't do all three at once.

If you're getting tailgated unavoidably, leave lots of space so you can brake gently.

Buy good tires. Seriously, this is really, really vital. A lot of tires have as much grip as the front tire of a Big Wheel, they are not safe and should be illegal.

Keep your speedy driving for the track, where it's safe for both you and others.

Don't drive like mosch.
posted by mosch at 10:16 PM on November 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

go on a defensive driving course, they are really, really worth it.

i got to test my car in all different conditions on a course, and the main things i learned were:

a) about braking - slamming your foot on the brake is often the worst thing you can do, because the car skids, so we had to re-learn the reaction "fear of crashing = foot hard on brake". leaving the brake a bit higher basically meant that there was less likelihood of skidding, and so we had greater control over the car. it's different for each car though, that's why it's important to go on a course with your own car.

b) getting over the fear of crashing, so that you can work out *where to crash* so there's minimal damage. we were put in situations where we were driving at regular road speeds, then had to brake to avoid cars/walls/pedestrians/etc, and we practiced this enough times to get over our immediate fear response, and to make a decision like: crashing into that metal barrier and scraping along it, to a stop, is better than crashing into that car, or that person.

these courses aren't too expensive, and here (in australia) some car insurers will reduce your premium if you provide proof that you've successfully passed such a course.
posted by kv at 10:23 PM on November 1, 2004

Pumping brakes: Just pointing out I suggested that concerning slowing, not stopping. If I need to stop suddenly, I mash those ABS for all I'm worth.

I also am careful about people hauling loads of stuff--furniture, yard waste, logging trucks, oil field equipment. That stuff falls out/rolls off/breaks loose to often for my comfort.

When someone is stopped on the shoulder, I always get over in the other lane to drive past them if at all possible.
posted by lobakgo at 10:24 PM on November 1, 2004

You should position the mirrors as fff suggests, but don't do it yet. First, do this:

Sit in the driver's seat. Adjust the height so that you have good sight lines out of all windows. If you drive stick, depress the clutch; if not, just put your left foot on the firewall. Adjust the seat fore or aft until your left leg has just a *little* bit of extension left. Leave it there. Now rest your hands on the steering wheel. You should be able to rest your wrists on top of the wheel without pulling your shoulders too far forwards. if you can't, your seat is reclined too far back. Adjust it more upright.

Most people tend to sit too far from the pedals, and recline too far back, so you'll feel a bit cramped, more than likely. Once you get used to it, it's not so bad, and it makes sure that, muscularly, you have the optimal leverage on, and control over, the wheel and pedals.

Now position the mirrors so that you can't see your own car in them. Congratulations; you have a good, safe driving position.

As for being actually on the road, the biggest defensive driving skill you can pick up is constant situational awareness. Scan your mirrors constantly. Assess all nearby vehicles, line of sight obstructions, and other possible hazards. Keep a constantly updated mental map of the situation. You should, at all times, be able to -- without looking -- describe at least the location and basic type of every vehicle around you. If you can't, you're not paying enough attention.

I like to broadly break down the things around me into three threat levels. The first vehicles directly infront of, and behind, me, as well as any vehicle within roughly two seconds travel in any adjacent lane, is a category 1 threat. You should be aware of their locations and movements at all times, and be ready to react to anything they do. Vehicles in my lane, but not the first infront of or behind me, and vehicles in adjacent lanes up to, say 10 seconds out, are category 2. I try to keep a fairly close eye on them, mostly to be able to immediately identify when they've come closer and become category 1. Everything else on the road is category 3. Pay attention to them when you can, but not as much as 1 and 2.

Breaking down the vehicles around you like this helps you be alot more aware of what's around you.

Always have an escape route. Whenever a car enters or leaves your category 1 area, assess the space around you and make sure that if any of the category 1 cars become a threat to you you can safely avoid them. If not, make room somewhere. In heavy traffic, this is not always possible, but do what you can.

And I second, third, and fourth the comments about getting some real drivers training. You don't have to go to a multi-thousand dollar racing school. Talk to the SCCA and find a local autocross club; there are thousands of them across the nation, full of people who will be glad to help you learn to handle your car in a safe situation. What you learned in drivers ed is not enough, and you do not want to wait to learn how to get out of a loss of control until you're on the highway endangering your life and those around you.

If you do nothing else, find a nice empty stretch of highway, get up to 70 or so, and brake hard. Don't rely on the ABS. Try to find the threshold yourself, and hold it. Repeat until you can reliably brake from a stop without either skidding or having the ABS kick in, if you have it. Panic braking is probably the single biggest hazard to the untrained driver.
posted by jammer at 11:57 PM on November 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

I really think that first and foremost, defensive driving is, natch, a state of mind. Most people drive assuming that everything's going to be okay and most everyone knows where everyone else is and what's happening. Stop making that assumption. Assume that most people aren't paying much attention and don't know where you or other vehicles are or what you're doing.

In relatively static situations, there's only a relatively few things to be aware of and a relatively few ways that things can go wrong. You should be aware of those things pretty much completely without any conscious thought. (Such as other people's blidnspots, road conditions, etc.) But in dynamic situations, such as approaching a light that has just changed or is changing, you should actively be cautious and try to consider the most likely ways that something could go wrong.

Individual defensive driving techniques are good, but I really have a strong sense that unless you truly adopt the defensive driving state-of-mind, they're not going to do you much good.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:32 AM on November 2, 2004

One of the things that's hard to remember not to do out here is not to outdrive your headlights at night. When the road is pitch black you can get going so fast that by the time you see something in the road, you can't stop. We almost hit a bear a week ago when we were driving on a windy road at night and were saved by a combination of swerving and braking that only worked because we were wearing our seatbelts, there wasn't someone tailgating us, and because the bear kept moving in the direction he was originally going [many animals don't].
posted by jessamyn at 6:05 AM on November 2, 2004

1) Shoulder check. Stop being lazy and do the damn shoulder check.

2) Bone up on the definitions of Yield and Merge. Apply those definitions when driving.

3) Sometimes you don't need to use your brakes, just take your foot off the gas pedal to slow down. Braking unnecessarily just causes the traffic behind you to bunch up.

4) Leave extra distance between you and the car in front of you. And if somebody enters the space between you and the other car, then add extra space between the new car.

5) Always signal. No, I mean it: Always signal

6) Plan your route in your head. You shouldn't be crossing 3 lanes of traffic because your exit is 100 meters ahead.

7) This one's harder (both to explain and to implement) but when driving you should be focussed on the horizon (i.e. following the road ahead of you). Don't focus on the car in front of you as you won't see anything going on ahead. Scan ahead. If the road is curving to the left, start looking towards the left. Identify possible hazards ahead of time (pedestrians, blocked lanes, parked cars etc...). Trust me this works. Your peripheral vision will pick up the closer items.

8) Perform your "scan" regularly: for me it's: driver's side mirror, rear view mirror, passenger side mirror, instrument cluster.

9) Be aware of your surroundings. My driving instructor (may he rot in hell!) used to jam the brakes on as I was entering an intersection, put a clipboard in front of my eyes and tell me to describe what's around me. Now I can picture the traffic around me, confirm it with the scan and not be surprised when a car emerges from my blind spot.

I've been driving for 20 years now, and have only had 1 minor fender bender in all that time.
posted by smcniven at 6:23 AM on November 2, 2004

BTW, does anybody remember a link in the blue about some guys theory on traffic flow? It had animations on how bottlenecks could occur hours after the initial problem. It also showed how hanging back from the car in front would lessen the "wave" of stop and go.

I use his method all the time, only using my brake pedal when absolutely necessary (on the highway of course)
posted by smcniven at 6:27 AM on November 2, 2004

Drive on the right, pass on the left. (In the US)
posted by sohcahtoa at 6:30 AM on November 2, 2004

Lots of responses, but a few things that I didn't see mentioned:

- Look left and right before you go through every intersection. This is a particularly good idea if the traffic light just turned green. If your view is blocked in one direction, slow down and be ready for whatever might be there.

- Develop an awareness of what's in the mirrors. If something moves in one of your mirrors, you can notice it even if you're not looking directly at that mirror.

- Know how your car handles in a skid. Racing school is a fine idea, but if you're not quite that dedicated, just practice a bit in an empty parking lot.

- Leave some space ahead of you when you stop at a red light. So if someone comes up behind at high speed and is obviously going to hit you, for example, you have some space to possibly get out of the way.

- Don't look at the car ahead of you, look *through* it.

- Know how to operate your radio, etc, without looking at it.

- When passing other vehicles, do it quickly and decisively.

- If someone wants to tailgate you, and there isn't so much traffic that that's inevitable, lose them somehow. Encouraging them to pass you is usually effective.

- Be aware that no matter how good your mirrors, you'll probably still have some blind spots. Know exactly where they are.

- When coming over the top of a hill, slow down a bit and stay as far as is convenient to the right of the road.

- When there's a potential hazard that you might or might not have to react to, keep both hands on the wheel and your foot poised over the break.

- When you're passing bicycles, leave at least three feet between them and your car.

- Be aware of the signals you send out to other drivers. You can touch your brakes to signal to the people behind without actually braking.

- Get a car stereo that can play mp3s. It's worth it.
posted by sfenders at 7:35 AM on November 2, 2004

If you're at a four-way stop in the middle of the night, the real serious hazard is another car running the stop sign. So just because there's no one else in the intersection doesn't mean you should roll through without stopping.
posted by smackfu at 7:48 AM on November 2, 2004

Even with all the mirror adjusting, always turn your head to look before changing lanes. And looking through the car ahead was the most valuable trick for many years but over the last 15 the ability to do that has completely gone away because of all the SUVs and trucks. At least for those of us that drive normal cars.
posted by mss at 7:57 AM on November 2, 2004

What works for me:

1) Be paranoid. Assume others will do the wrong thing.

2) You only have the right of way if the other driver(s) give it to you.

3) Slow down going through intersections, even when you have the green light and/or right of way.

4) Use your turn signals when you turn and when you change lanes.

5) Give the car in front of you room. A good rule of thumb is one second per 10 mph, so at 65 mph, there should be 6.5 seconds of time between you and them.

5a) If someone pulls into that space, and they will, slow down to recreate the space with the new car.

6) When passing someone on a multi-lane highway, don't pull in front of them until you can see their headlights in your rear view mirror, NOT just in your side view mirror. This gives you enough room (see 5 above) and doesn't crowd them.

7) At unprotected (no gates) railroad crossings, roll down your windows, turn down the stereo, then look and listen prior to crossing. This probably isn't a bad idea for any crossing, especially where salt is used in winter, since sensors can corrode and fail.
posted by tommasz at 8:30 AM on November 2, 2004

Drive on the right, pass on the left. (In the US)

Corollary: When approaching merge points where cars will be entering from the right, move to the left whenever possible. When approaching merge points where cars will be entering from the left, move to the right whenever possible. Riding the "entrance" lane unnecessarily is neither courteous nor defensive.
posted by Dreama at 8:38 AM on November 2, 2004

Response by poster: There are many excellent suggestions, and I'm glad to see that I already practice most of them (my biggest flaw is in signalling).

Drive with the flow of traffic. Treat speed limit signs as advisory: go the speed of the surrounding traffic, minimizing the amount of passing/being passed; the exception, of course, is when you judge it to be hazardous to go fast.

Practice prediction. If you treat it as a game, you can entertain yourself by predicting what others are going to do, and then judging what clues/cues led you to the correct or incorrect guesstimate. The better you get, the easier it is to drive in traffic.

Get off my ass. I swear to god, if handguns were ever made legal, I'd have to KILL tailgaters, and I wouldn't feel the least bit of guilt about it. Tailgating is dangerous, it is aggressive, it is dangerous, it is illegal, and it is dangerous. Don't. Fucking. Tailgate.

Relax. Yeah, ironic, after that little rant. But relax: if you've screwed up your planning and are about to miss your turn, it's okay. You can always turn at the next corner and make your way back. No need to go squirrely, cutting across traffic or slamming on the brakes. And if you're running late, relax: no matter how much you speed, no matter how many cars you pass, you're still going to be late.

I'll second the "look at the wheels" technique. If they're moving or angled, you know that the driver is going to do something that you otherwise might not have noticed from observing the car body.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:37 AM on November 2, 2004

A buddy of mine who learned to drive in India passed on this tip from his instructor: Assume the other drivers are blind.
posted by codger at 9:58 AM on November 2, 2004

More miscellaneous bits of data:

If someone going the opposite direction flashes their headlights, it usually means something dangerous on the road ahead. Could be a speed trap, or it could be something more serious. (Unless it's a truck signalling to someone who just passed him, of course.) That's the custom in parts of Canada, anyway.

If you're right at the rear end of a line of cars that's moving really slowly, and if people coming up behind might have a hard time seeing it, then use the hazard lights.

Watch out for black ice. If you're not sure about the road surface you're on, test it out with the brakes to see how much traction you've got.

Sometimes it is better to hit the squirrel, if avoiding it would involve a good chance of hitting something larger. (Not that I've ever had to do that, so far...)

If you're inclined to do a little stop light mini drag race against a police car, let him win.

It's usually better to back in to a parking space, instead of backing out of it.

Watch out for Honda Civics. Particularly those with lots of stickers on the rear spoiler.

Learning how to do a quick 180-degree turn by spinning the rear wheels is fun, and it's easy when there's snow on the ground, but it's not particularly useful. And when the snow is deep, it's a good way to spend the next hour digging out.

If someone wants to pass you, try to make it easy for them.

Take the back roads. Might take longer, but it's usually worth it.

If you're going to stop at the side of the highway, try to find someplace where traffic from both directions can see you from a long way off.

Carry a shovel, a first-aid kit, warm clothing, emergency food, gas can, flashlight, jumper cables, socket wrenches, spare alternator, etc., to taste.

If you get sleepy, the first time you think you should maybe take a break soon is the right time to do it.

If your headlights or other lights are covered in slush, mud, or whatever, clean them off.

At night, you usually see animals only because of their eyes. Look for that little spot of reflected light near the side of the road.

If you're stuck in a big line of traffic, try to arrange it so that the guy behind you is a good driver.

If you accidentally hit the unpaved shoulder, don't react too suddenly; it's often better to let it go a little further onto the shoulder first, staying in control.

Try to speed up to match the flow of traffic before you merge with it. Learn to time it right.

Driving with a yellow dog, I-95
He's got a smile on his face and big shiny eyes
Up at a decent hour, I never ate yet
Got a little Johnny Cash in the old tape deck
Nothing in the trunk but some base ball gloves
a pair of jumper cables and a set of golf clubs
blanket on the back seat we're in rough shape
sunroof held on with a bit of duck tape
Looking for a gas station, better make a lift
Fill it up with regular, I need to take a piss
sexy girl air freshener, snacks and a pinwheel
top up the fluids, clean the bugs off the windshield
not a care in the world, not a how, and a why
no destination, not a cloud in the sky
back on the road not a moment too soon
dish ran away with some other spoon
posted by sfenders at 10:01 AM on November 2, 2004

The difference between 50kmh and 65kmh is bugger-all when you're just tooling around the city.

No, it isn't. That's a 30% difference in speed and in distance travelled during your reaction time, this is a *lot*. You should simply travel with traffic, ignoring the speed limits unless you happen to be on a relatively desolated road. Then the speed limits come in handy to keep you from getting speeding tickets.

Nothing is more dangerous to you and others on the road than refusing to drive with the flow. If you're going too slow then everyone is trying to pass you, your bumper is being ridden, and everyone behind you is pissed off. That is *not* a good situation. It's just as bad if you're trying to go too fast -- you're tailgating, weaving, and stressing other drivers out.

Unfortunately, laws in most countries require you to drive dangerously, since speed limits are usually set low enough for police to make some good $$$ from tickets. Graduated licensing simply aggravates the problem, forcing new drivers to drive dangerously slowly (below the speed limit -- in my city this can be a 30 km/h or more differential) and making their lane changes, etc extraordinarialy dangerous (imagine someone doing 30 km/h less than you changing to your lane in front of you). But, again, graduated licensing makes tonnes of $$$ for the MTO on testing drivers, so that won't go anywhere either.

Number one rule for safe driving: Look as far ahead on the road as is possible.

A few other ideas: When you turn corners, watch carefully for moron drivers. I avoided a SERIOUS (probably fatal to the other driver) T-Bone collision with a driver making a right turn into the left-most lane (illegal) because of this.

In countries where you drive on the right side of the road, when changing lanes to the left you MUST (well, should, if you aren't speeding up and properly merging the road is officially "sick") speed up. If you are changing lanes to the right, you should let off the gas (avoid using the brakes).

Learn how to parallel park. I never did and I dread having to do it. I wish I did learn how to do it well, though.

When at a stop sign with two cars approaching at the same time, the driver to your right has right of way. If four drivers approach at the same time, or you and another driver are facing one another, drivers are to indicate to each other who is to have right of way.

Oh, a big one: MERGE ON TO THE HIGHWAY AT SPEED. I cannot stress this enough. You are EXTREMELY dangerous to the other traffic on the highway when you decide to merge at a speed less than what they are doing. When exiting, you should continue your full speed until either it is unsafe to do so, or traffic from the highway can no longer merge.

Make it easy for truckers to merge and change langes. It's already enough of a pain in the ass for them to drive you don't need to make it more tough. They truckers will even flash their 4-ways at you as a sign of thanks. :-)

In Canada, passing on the right or left is considered legal, and, to a certain degree, can be safe. It is far preferrable to pass on the left, however, there's often enough dangerous drivers that you are forced to pass on the right to avoid them. Oh well.

2 - 3 seconds of space. Try to maintain that distance between you and the car infront.

When slowing for an intersection which requires you to stop, lightly apply the brakes immediately to show your intentions to drivers behind. Also, don't hurtle at the intersection and stop at the last minute (mom, are you listening?).

Don't rush yellows! Slow down when you see them so that if they change to red you can easily stop.

Remember that it can often be safer to speed around a danger that is about to happen then try to brake in front of it. Also, from an insurance standpoint, it's better to total your car into the side of a building (maybe even running over occupants) than even put some paint on someone's bumper. Dumb, unsafe, and stupid, but true.

Of course, I've had two minor accidents, so maybe you don't want to follow my suggestions. Both times I wasn't following my own advice, though (#1 drving too fast for conditions and faster than the traffic flow, #2 spent too much time watching my mirrors instead of the road). Then again, after that, you might call me "experienced".
posted by shepd at 11:05 AM on November 2, 2004

Turn on your headlights. AND DON'T TURN THEM OFF. EVER.

You are far, far, far more visible in any weather or lighting conditions with your headlights on. Please just drive with them always on. You will avoid a lot of dangerous situations when another driver doesn't see you in daytime because you're not visible enough.
posted by azazello at 10:19 AM on November 4, 2004

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