Help me be a better driver
November 11, 2012 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Please help me become a better driver. Recently, I rear-ended a car while driving on a local road and it was raining at that time. This is a wake up call for me. I have to pay ~$2000 for car body repair and my insurance premium will go up. We are only lucky that nobody was hurt (my kids were in carseats and not harmed). I need tips on how to be a better driver.

I have been an OK driver, not great. But I have never made big mistakes like this one. I had been listening to music and my mind was not focused on driving when this happened. The rain makes it harder to break. Maybe I am too worried, but do you have tips on not being distracted while driving, do you improve your response to traffic situation somehow? Sometimes I have to talk to my kids while driving, since they fuss a lot after a full day at preschool. Talking to them definitely distract me. My other Big issue is foggy windshield and window that makes visibility low. I know I need to turn on the defog button for windshield and turn air-conditioning on to make it colder inside. I also turn on rear window defrog by pressing the button, then it heats up the window, right? Why? what is the science behind these? What other ways to improve visibility? In the morning, I have to manually clean the two side windows to clear them up. Any other way? Thanks
posted by akomom to Health & Fitness (49 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Leave a big space in front of you. You were probably driving too close to the car you rear-ended. It leaves no margin for error if the car in front does something unexpected. As a bonus, leaving a big space makes it easier for other drivers to change lanes safely.
posted by scose at 10:06 AM on November 11, 2012 [20 favorites]

Driving well is mainly about mindfulness. Mindfulness in driving is mainly about having a routine you constantly follow in terms of checking things: straight ahead, rear view mirror, straight ahead, left mirror, straight ahead, right mirror, speed... whatever you come up with, you do constantly so that what you're actively doing is driving. I add in there a mental inventory of the cars and open spaces around me so that I'm reasonably confident that if I have to swerve, I know where I can go safely.

Passive driving is what causes inattention--that's where you just sit back and let the car go and look around now and then to avoid hitting things. If you're actively driving, you can afford to say something to the kids and go back to your routine of checking.
posted by fatbird at 10:08 AM on November 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

Nothing beats lessons.

Join AAA and take a couple of driving classes.
posted by notyou at 10:10 AM on November 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

Much more space in front of you. Much, much more. 4-5 seconds worth of space. And start braking earlier whenever you stop. If you see brake lights in front of you, you should be braking (slowly), regardless of whether you see the person in front of you slowing down or whether it seems you're getting closer to them. When you know you are going to have to stop (stop sign, red light), take your foot off the gas a long time before you're there, and then brake slowly to the end.

I know I need to turn on the defog button for windshield and turn air-conditioning on to make it colder inside.

This is not right. You need the air conditioning on so that the air will be dry -- that's what the AC does. You can absolutely use warm/hot air, as long as the AC is on so that the air blowing on your windshield is dry.
posted by brainmouse at 10:10 AM on November 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't turn on the radio. Have something in the car to occupy the kids, so you don't have to entertain them--toys, books, something that they only play with in the car. And don't be afraid to lay down the law about not bothering Mom when she's driving--yes, you might have to pull the car over to the side of the road!
posted by Ideefixe at 10:12 AM on November 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

The most important thing is space in front of you -- the rule is 1 car-length for each 10 mph you are driving, and double that in the rain.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:16 AM on November 11, 2012

How much sleep are you getting? Since I had a baby and became sleep deprived I've really struggled to concentrate on driving. I have to really work to focus.
posted by medusa at 10:19 AM on November 11, 2012

You are supposed to leave a car length in front of you to prevent exactly this scenario. You can even get a ticket for driving too close to (tail-gating) other cars.

Many of us who grew up being driven around by our parents have definitely been threatened with pulling the car over if kids are causing distractions/fighting in the back!!

It's a safety issue first and foremost. Take a defensive driving class.
posted by bquarters at 10:24 AM on November 11, 2012

Don't be afraid to get in the right lane and drive 5-10 miles per hour under the speed limit. Don't let other drivers pressure you into being unsafe, even for a second. If you need to pull over, do it. Thirty seconds late is better than dead.

Try listening to talk radio rather than music. Music is patterns and math and (even for faster stuff) lulling you into the rhythm. Talk radio is conversation and cutting people off and sudden changes of subject (especially sports talk radio).
posted by Etrigan at 10:36 AM on November 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Almost everybody has one at-fault accident, and then they realize they need to pay attention. Mine was in 1976 and I never had another one since then. (It was a rear-ender, too.) So, my suggestions:
-- At least for a while, drive without music, and practice paying attention to everything around you.
-- Develop the habit of checking your rear-view mirror often. Know what's behind you as well as in front. Assume that everyone else on the road is an idiot.
-- As noted above, keep a good distance behind the vehicle in front of you. The faster you are going, the more distance you want. In bad weather, leave twice the distance you otherwise would. Or more.
-- Let the kids fuss. Ignore them if at all possible. If they need attention, pull over and deal with them.
-- Realize that it's about getting there safely, not getting there fast.
-- At stop signs, look both ways twice before proceeding. Ditto when turning right on red.
-- When the light turns orange, stop. Don't try to make it through. But don't jump on your brake either, so you don't get rear-ended yourself.
-- No jackrabbit starts.
-- If you're approaching a red light, take your foot off the gas and coast — you'll save gas and come to a safer stop.
-- Both hands on the wheel, all the time. No cell phone, no smoking, no eating, no drinking, no hand dealing with kids, no radio, no combing your hair. Both hands on the wheel. If you need to do anything else, pull over.
-- Ask your mechanic about windows fogging. You should not have to manually clear your side windows. But if you do, pull over to do it.
-- Observe all the speed limits. Never mind if somebody is right behind you, just drive the speed limit.
-- Get a good night's sleep. Don't drive drowsy.
-- Wear your seat belts and have your kids properly in car seats or seat belted as appropriate.
-- If you have any kind of road rage (getting irritated at other drivers for whatever reason), lose it. Cultivate patience. You'll get there when you get there.
-- Maintain your vehicle — keep brakes, window wipers etc. in good shape. Follow your mechanic's suggestions. Keep tires properly inflated.

On preview:
bquarters: You are supposed to leave a car length in front of you
If that's all you are leaving, you're one of those NASCAR wannabees tailgating the rest of us, and you are going to rear-end somebody because you will have virtually no time to react if the car in front of you brakes hard. Leave lots of room — 3, 4 or 5 seconds of travel distance. At 35 MPH, 5 seconds is 250 feet — about 14 car lengths. Even if you are in a hurry, leaving that distance will make you arrive just 5 seconds later. So do it. (If you leave one car length — 18 feet — at 35 MPH, you are traveling that distance in one-third of a second, so you better have fantastic reflexes.)
posted by beagle at 10:37 AM on November 11, 2012 [23 favorites]

You are supposed to leave a car length in front of you to prevent exactly this scenario.

That is nowhere near enough space.

On a dry road, there should be a two-second delay between you and the car in front of you. You can do this by finding a fixed object and count how long it takes you to pass it after the car in front of your does, i.e. "one-one-thousand", "two-one-thousand". It is recommended that 2 seconds go by before you pass the object, and some experts recommend 3 seconds to play it safe.

On wet roads, there should be a four-second delay between you and the car in front of you.

On icy roads, there should be a ten-second delay between you and the car in front of you.
posted by anderjen at 10:37 AM on November 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

Leave a lot of space between you and the car in front, and in rain or snow or other less-than-ideal conditions, leave more. And drive a bit slower. Some people will get pissed at you - whatever, let them go around. If you see the person in front of you OR the person in front of them braking, you brake too.

In the morning if your side windows are fogged/iced over and you don't have time to wait for them to clear, drive with them open till they do clear. And wipe your side mirror. You might have to do that a few times. But don't just guess when you're merging.

And always assume everyone else is a moron.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:41 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Recently, I rear-ended a car while driving on a local road and it was raining at that time.

Your main issue is being too close. Far too close if you couldn't stop. There is no issue being too far from the car in front, plenty of issues with being too close. There will always be distractions and the main element of driving is allowing for everything that affects you - the more there is going on, the more space you need to leave. Part of your issue will be minimising distractions but that's not always possible, so you need to allow for those distractions by moderating your speed and distance from cars around you while the distractions are occurring.

A key part of this will be knowing when the distractions are too much, and if the kids need attention, you stop the car. A lot of issues with distractions (hence the recent legislation on it everywhere) is that people tend to assume that the correct response is always to manage the distraction, rather than let it replace driving for a while. Knowing how much you (personally) can cope with and still drive effectively is absolutely essential. If you are too distracted, you stop the car when safe, deal with it and move on. If it takes you longer to get where you need to be? Tough. If you haven't time to stop, then prevent the distraction from affecting you - turn off the radio, train/teach the kids that there are times you need to ignore them, ignore your phone or all of the above.

Sometimes I have to talk to my kids while driving, since they fuss a lot after a full day at preschool.

You know that you don't HAVE to though, right? Like, no-one strapped safely into a car seat will die if you ignore them for 3 minutes? Whereas if you get distracted for 10 seconds from the road in front that you could all die? I know that is totally over stating the issue in a dramatic manner, but it is actually true. Understanding and respecting what the genuinely most important aspect of driving is and reminding yourself of it will be better for you. Give the negative aspects of the distractions more respect.

Defensive driving courses are worth considering.

My other Big issue is foggy windshield and window that makes visibility low. I know I need to turn on the defog button for windshield and turn air-conditioning on to make it colder inside.

Your understanding on this is flawed. You need air flow first of all, and warm or dry air defogs the car, not cold. It is essential that you make sure all your windows and completely clear before you drive and that includes side windows. More air flow is key - if you have to open the windows until they clear, do so. After your windows are shut, keep your air flow through the car ventilation system up enough to keep it clear - if the windows keep fogging, turn the fan up. Use warm air or the air-con, not cold air.
posted by Brockles at 10:42 AM on November 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

Nthing a defensive driving course if you can carve out the time. I don't know your location, but in Texas, on top of everything else, you can get an insurance discount for taking one voluntarily.
posted by immlass at 10:45 AM on November 11, 2012

It's great that you want to be a better, safer driver!

Most of the advice above is excellent. Driving safely is not that easy; many people forget that they're in charge of a very heavy object moving very fast, one which can easily kill any human it makes contact with. Ensuring you don't kill anyone (including yourself and your passengers) requires focus. This may sound obvious, but I've been driven by people who were only vaguely aware of their surroundings and treated driving as a wholly reactive activity.

I occasionally dip into the in-car dashcam videos on the CarCrash reddit (warning - some links there contain gory scenes) and the vast majority of accidents are entirely avoidable. From watching dozens of these videos, I'd say that, in order, the top three causes of accidents are:
  • Driving too fast (above the speed limit in the dry, not slowing down in the wet)
  • Driving too close (see the suggestions above for the number of seconds of gap to leave)
  • Not reading the road and traffic ahead (drivers start braking a second or two or five after the first signs of trouble)

posted by Busy Old Fool at 10:56 AM on November 11, 2012

Lots of good advice to consider, but to help pull things into focus two words: Defensive driving

Drive as if bad things can and will happen, and plan accordingly. A lot of the things you do keep your options open in case something goes wrong. Some of them start before you even get in the car, like making sure your tires have enough tread.

Others might start before you pull out of your driveway, like: making sure your windows are defogged.

Or: start training your kids to be quieter passengers. You need to talk to them when you pick them up at pre-school? Before you even take them, anticipate that you will need to talk to them. Prepare them for how it will go when you pick them up. When you do pick them up, cover anything that absolutely needs to be said before taking the car out of park/neutral.

And again, lots of other tactics to consider in this thread, but the bottom line strategy is to be defensive, to give yourself options and ample safety margins by planning ahead.
posted by Good Brain at 10:56 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My rule of thumb is one car-length for every 10mph. In other words, 55 mph means five car lengths. Have been driving for 14 years, no at-fault accidents.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:57 AM on November 11, 2012

Best answer: Everyone else has made really good suggestions so far. The one thing that I wish more drivers did was being able to realize that there's always a Plan B. So many cars seem to suddenly realize they're in the wrong lane or already at their exit and cut across lanes of traffic at full speed. I have seen more accidents happen from that than anything else. If you wind up in the wrong lane or you miss a turn, just go forward and find a SAFE place to u-turn, or circle the block until you're back where you need to be. You may have wasted a few seconds, but you (and all the other drivers on the road) will be much safer and you'll feel much calmer than trying to cut through speeding cars.
posted by JannaK at 11:02 AM on November 11, 2012 [13 favorites]

Best answer: Driving, done properly, is a form of mindfulness meditation. Taking a course in mindfulness will train you to better control your mind so that your attention won't wander catastrophically from the task at hand.
posted by Corvid at 11:04 AM on November 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Nthing leave lots of space, but the followup to that is when someone inevitably changes lanes into your space, don't get annoyed, just slow to re-establish your space again.
posted by xiw at 11:09 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My rule of thumb is one car-length for every 10mph. In other words, 55 mph means five car lengths. Have been driving for 14 years, no at-fault accidents.

Stopping distance increases with the square of the speed, not linearly. You need to leave much more space when driving faster.
posted by pharm at 11:10 AM on November 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I find it helpful not only to know what the car in front of me is doing, but what the car in front of the car in front of me is doing. That way even if the car in front of me is an erratic driver, I've got two cars' worth of forewarning.
posted by vegartanipla at 11:18 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Agree with trying to be aware of what two cars in front of you are doing, as well as what all cars around you are doing at most times - continuous checking of mirrors. It becomes an unconscious habit. This is very important so that you notice the car in front of you braking, but also so if an accident happened in front of you, you would instantly know if there is space to your right or left into which you could move to keep you and your passengers safe (if there is not enough time to brake fully).

When you see brake lights ahead, become hyper vigilant - don't reflexively slam on the brakes, because you could surprise the driver behind you, and some people (usually bad drivers) tend to hit the brakes a little bit frequently, even on the highway. You NEED to judge extremely quickly when you see the brake lights whether and how much you need to brake based on what you see other cars doing and how fast you seem to now be approaching the braking car. You need to have enough time/following distance to be able to judge this. Brake lights ahead (or any other sudden potential obstacle in the road) should be a warning to you that the stakes are high and your full attention is demanded by the road.

With the windshield fogging - yes, there are several ways you can work this - how you should do it depends on the weather. If you feel like the windshield is getting dangerously foggy fast and it is cold outside, you can open all the windows in the car and let cold air in to equilibrate the temperature, or blast cool air from the vents onto the windshield. The reason the windshield is fogging is because of the difference in temperature between the inside of the car and outside of the car - in winter, the fog forms on the inside of the car because it is warmer/more humid inside the car with all those humans in there breathing and giving off heat. If you have time to work with the defogging process, you will want to blow warm air onto the windshield from the inside and evaporate the humidity, which takes longer but will eventually work. In the summertime, it is hot and humid outside, and cool inside the car, and so the fog forms on the outside of the windshield. You can put on your windshield wipers to clear it off, but to get it to stop forming, you have to equilibrate the temperature somehow, so again, blowing warm air at it from the vents or turning off the cool A/C should do it.

Final tip I have for you to avoid accidents: NOTHING is more important than the road when you are driving. Even if your kid starts dying in the car for some reason - let's say choking on something and turning blue, that is NOT more important than the road, because if you crash, you're all going to die/get hurt, not just one of you, and you can hurt or kill other people too. If something extremely serious is happening in the car, you need to stop driving immediately, even if it means pulling into the breakdown lane on the highway, or you need to ignore it for a few seconds while you get to a place where it is safe for you to stop driving. Anything else happening in the car needs to be far secondary to your attention to the road, and anything else happening outside of the car is the same way. I encourage you to think of this every time you see something distracting inside or outside the car. Let's say you see a fly or mosquito inside the car, or you see the kid knocking over a hot coffee or soda onto your leg or the floor - your first thought needs to be "regardless of what happens with this Distracting Thing, I have to pay attention to the road!" Try to get this so ingrained that even if a bee is stinging you in the car or something else surprising, painful, etc. happens to you, your first thought is to pay attention to driving. The most common things outside the car that distract people are police lights, construction/maintenance vehicles/crews or work, and especially accidents. Other possibilities are animals, people, parades, fireworks, scenery. Forget all that. When you see police lights, when you see an accident on the side of the road, when an amazing vista of scenery suddenly appears on the road, you need to be able to ignore that and pay attention to what you and the car in front of you are doing, no rubbernecking! Rubbernecking is a very dangerous phenomenon. When I see an upcoming accident on the side of the road, no matter how crazy or interesting it looks, I try to get as far away from it as possible to avoid the rubberneckers, i.e. if it's off to the right side of the road, get into the furthest left lane. Again, accidents, police cars, fireworks/flashing lights, whatever Distracting Thing you see - think of all that as stuff that means you need to focus on the road right now, because you are in a danger zone for your own accident.

That was a really long answer, but this is a really important question. Good luck!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:58 AM on November 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I have to talk to my kids while driving, since they fuss a lot after a full day at preschool.

I find my kids talking while I'm driving to be incredibly distracting, even when they're just talking to each other. The radio doesn't bother me at all. But I ask (and sometimes yell at) my kids to be quiet when I'm in a complicated driving situation (crowded parking lots, negotiating a turn, etc.). It helps when they're not talking---I can't tune them out like I can the radio, and my husband knows to not talk when it's a complicated driving situation (mostly he drives).
posted by leahwrenn at 12:01 PM on November 11, 2012

Leave a big space in front of you. You were probably driving too close to the car you rear-ended. It leaves no margin for error if the car in front does something unexpected.

It also leaves no margin of error in case you get rear-ended and don't want to get pushed into the car in front of you. Having this buffer probably saved my life when I was rear-ended, so keep this in mind whether you are stopped at a traffic light or on the freeway.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:15 PM on November 11, 2012

Best answer: When I went from living in a desert area to a rainy area, I was not used to driving in wet and cold conditions. Making sure your wiper blades are still good helps. I used two products called RainX and FogX that helped me. The FogX helps with your windows fogging up. The RainX makes it so the raindrops slide off of your windshield and side mirrors. The car I had was older and the defrost and heat didn't work. I kept a squeegee, like you'd use in a shower, in the car for cold mornings.

Also, it is worth checking to see if your brakes and tires are in good shape. If your tire tread is low or your tires are under inflated, it can cause problems.

You didn't say you were speeding, but worth mentioning that speeding doesn't help you at all. If you are running late, just run late because you will only save a minute or two by speeding.

I make a habit of paying attention to what cars in front, to the sides and behind me are doing. Mentally, I keep a little plan of what I would do if there was an accident near me based off of my observations.

Good luck and stay safe!
posted by dottiechang at 12:46 PM on November 11, 2012

Another tip for keeping the car fog-free: look into getting a remote starter. The cold-weather fog is obviously worst in the morning, when it takes your engine a while to heat things up. Don't just drive off and figure that you'll be fine in a minute or two--that's plenty of time to have an accident from poor visibility.

But who likes to go out and sit in the cold car for five minutes while the windows de-fog and the hot air gets hot? Nobody. Get a remote starter, set your climate control to maximum defoggery, and boom! You are off like lightning in the morning with maximum safety!

Replace your wipers at least twice a year, and clean your front & rear windshields off when you are at the gas station. You don't have to buy super-fancy wipers, just replace them regularly!

Having good, reliable visibility will allow your brain to focus on what's going on around you, so don't discount its necessity.

From someone who lives in a place where it seems like many drivers aren't even aware they're in a car, thank you for trying to be more conscientious and safe.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 12:50 PM on November 11, 2012

Lots of good suggestions here. I agree with taking a driving course. A refresher never hurts. A more adventurous approach would be to take a short race driving course (something like this) which will teach you vehicle-handling skills you can't really learn any other way.

But my main suggestion is a little less obvious, and might not work for you for any number of reasons, but I'll throw it out there anyway.

I was a motorist all through high school and college, but when I went to grad school I didn't have a car, and I lived close enough to school that I just went everywhere on bike. A few months later I got a job as a bike messenger and was on my bicycle in all kinds of traffic and weather for 40 hours a week.

There's nothing like riding a bicycle in traffic to give you a very visceral and immediate understanding of what constitutes a risky situation and how to anticipate and avoid them. When your skin is literally at risk, your brain shuts up and focuses. I feel very different behind the wheel now than I did pre-cyclist-era, and I think my time as a serious bike commuter made me a much safer driver.

So if it's at all practical for you, I'd suggest finding an easy local group bike ride to go on (any bike shop can help you find one) and doing a few of those to get comfortable on the road. Then try riding to the grocery store once every couple of weeks and see what you wind up paying attention to. It will change the way you look at motor traffic, I promise you that.
posted by Sokka shot first at 12:50 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

1) I drive a manual transmission (stick shift) for exactly this reason: it makes me pay attention to driving. If you don't know how, it can be a bit tricky to learn at first -- which will make you pay attention even more. Really, it works for me. Before I started doing this, when I had a car with an automatic transmission, I actually drove off the side of the freeway once while musing at clouds. With a passenger.

2) Don't just tell the kids to be quiet when you're in the car with them. Even if they're young, talk to them about it in a considered way several times outside the car, and right before you start driving. Explain that it's important, and why it's important. Role play (there's a classic improv game with four chairs where people pretend to be in a car -- it could be fun; use your imagination!). Maybe the older one could help come up with silent, fun games to play with the younger one -- hand signal relays or something, car bingo, etc. (note: if it's too fun, they might start laughing and/or fighting).
posted by amtho at 12:52 PM on November 11, 2012

My rule of thumb is about three seconds (minimum) distance between me & the car in front of me when moving (i.e., I pass a landmark 3 seconds after the car), and to see the tires of the car in front of me when stopped. This leaves enough room that if I get rear-ended & move forward, I won't rear-end the car in front of me. At least in theory.

It means that people frequently merge in front of me, because there is a big space in front of me. Oh well; I just make another big space in front of me - I remind myself that it's worth it to me to be safe.

I drive really slowly in the rain - I'm often going around 40 mph on the freeway in the slow lane on a rainy day, while the faster lanes are going by at 60 or 70. It doesn't bother me to go slower than other cars (but please, make sure you're in the right hand land if you're going to drive slower than the speed limit, or at the speed limit).

I try to leave myself plenty of time - a lot of bad driving happens when someone is in a hurry.
posted by insectosaurus at 1:10 PM on November 11, 2012

I started learning to drive when my daughter was a baby, so her only experience of being in a car with me involves: Mummy needs to concentrate while she is driving -- hush. We live in a rural area and our drives are long but amazingly quiet. She's not forbidden to make a peep but has always been very co-operative about not making much noise and understanding that I rarely want to have a serious or extended conversation in the car. Talking to an older person in the passenger seat is not comparable to one's kid in the back seat; one's tot IS distracting.

I would not have reservations about using the accident as a starting point for a new rule about what sort of noise level is acceptable in the car. I imagine it would take a lot of patience and reminders, but having a quietish-car rule is a terrific thing. My daughter is only kindergarten age; still we were recently able to do a partially tricky six-hour drive in, remarkably, six hours. Full disclosure: my car's a horrible mess, back seat awash in a sea of toys and books and pencil crayons and crumbs. But, I am not driving distractedly. Are they hungry when you're driving them? Bored? Address that sort of thing, pull over if you need to.
posted by kmennie at 1:20 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Read the book Drive to Survive.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:38 PM on November 11, 2012

In general, the one thing I've learned that's helped me become a better driver is: be predictable. For me, becoming a better driver has been about cultivating patience in the service of that principle.
posted by shivohum at 1:57 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I pick my kids up from school I usually give them a little snack to tide them over in the car... even a little box of raisins or some baby carrots helps occupy them and take the edge off their noisiness if they're crabby at the end of their day.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:52 PM on November 11, 2012

All good suggestions, but I'm going to go with the recommend to take a defensive driving course. Too many women are timid drivers, and often having an accident makes them even more 'flinchy' or indecisive. A defensive driving course can teach you great things about what to do when. Talk to folks who have taken one--I'm sure at least a couple will tell you it's saved their life.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:11 PM on November 11, 2012

There was recently a MeFi thread about how your brain will sometimes just blank out and you find you've somehow interpreted a red light as green or just run straight through a red light without realizing it. It's something that happens to all of us and since reading that thread, I've become super vigilant when my red light turns to green, about checking to make sure that the other drivers are actually stopped before I proceed--that I'm not putting blind faith in the change of light but actually looking to see what the other drivers are doing.

I also try to make note of which way I would swerve in the event of a car crossing into my lane. A big cliff or lake on one side of the road can mean it might be better to swerve into the other lane rather than off the road.

The hardest thing for me is driving in areas with lots of deer. It's so hard to remain vigilant for deer, especially on a long drive, without zoning out. I find it really helps to keep my eyes moving from one side of the road to the other, scanning back and forth.

Also, our highway department has been having some nicely worded exhortations on reader boards lately, and I find them popping into my head when I start to lose attention on long drives. My two favorites are these:

Eyes on road
Hands on wheel
Mind on driving


Are you mindful of the other driver?
posted by HotToddy at 5:20 PM on November 11, 2012

What may help is to read up on motorcycle riding strategies. OK, you're not looking to hop on a motorcycle. But think about what kind of room for error a motorcyclist has. Almost none. I've been riding for nine years now, and the safety tips I have learned for surviving in traffic have made me an immensely better driver. Here's some examples - following distance increases with speed. You should be watching not just what's right ahead, but also 12-15 seconds ahead as well. Use your brakes well ahead of time. Intersections should be approached a few mph slower and you need to be ready to stop - the driver with the red may not stop.

Above all, I've learned this - you don't avoid accidents at the last second. You avoid them by being proactive and taking action long before you get in a situation that can cause one.
posted by azpenguin at 5:31 PM on November 11, 2012

I have just one thing to relay, taught to me by my driving instructor when I was 17 :

On the highways, cars tend to group themselves into what he referred to as "wolf packs" - a ton of cars, travelling really closely together, then a long break with only a couple of cars, and then another wolf pack. He said that if you avoid the wolf packs, you avoid trouble. And damn if that hasn't been true - because like you, I sometimes zone out, and having a LOT of space between me and the group of cars in front of me is a lifesaver. Also, people in the wolf packs sometimes make their own driving mistakes, and having a lot of time to react to those mistakes - golden. (Ask me about when about 5 cars in a pack ahead of me hit black ice. Whew.) I don't mean that you should drive way under the speed limit - just adjust so that you're in that open space as much as possible.

As an aside to this, he also said that if you tap your brakes on the highway, you're following too close. Letting your foot off the gas should be enough to slow your progress and keep distance between you and the next car.

YMMV. (Ha!)
posted by HopperFan at 6:02 PM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I assume that all other drivers on the road are drunk and/or texting. Young Drivers offers a fantastic defensive driving course.
posted by whalebreath at 6:51 PM on November 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

This won't help you avoid rear-ending someone, and I think all the advice upthread has you covered, but to be a better driver in general:


So many people change lanes, back up, and so on, without checking their freaking blindspots! Someone nearly merges into my car at least once a week on the freeway, the front of my car is banged up from some idiot reversing in a parking lot without checking her blindspots, and stupid shit happens because . . . people don't check their blindspots!
posted by ablazingsaddle at 8:36 PM on November 11, 2012

I am often shocked by how bad most drivers are.

They tailgate, as if that's going to get them anywhere even one minute sooner. It's dangerous. DON'T DO IT.

They speed, as if getting somewhere just a tiny bit quicker is worth the risk to people's lives. It's dumb. DON'T DO IT.

They stupidly assume they're in control, which is dead wrong. At best, you have 33% control while driving. The other cars have 33% control, and the remaining 34% is the environment. A kid rolls a ball onto the road. A tree limb falls. Honestly, it could be anything. The way to stay safe? Slow the eff down. Always drive responsibly. A perfect example of this is the idiot driver who speeds along country roads because he or she thinks "I know this road like the back of my hand." WRONG. The road changes the moment anything happens, even if that something is as simple as a car coming in the opposite direction driven by another idiot dumb enough to think he or she knows the road like the back of their hands.

Driving becomes so much safer when drivers switch their mindsets from offensive ("I'M IN A RUSH!!!") to defensive.

Focus on safety while behind the wheel and you'll be a much better driver.

...but how do you remind yourself to change your habits when you get behind the wheel? You've been driving for years, right? The trick is to change something major inside your car to serve as a reminder so that the moment you sit down, you're reminded to be safer. It could be as simple as a sticky note somewhere that catches your eye, or maybe something on your seat that immediately gets your attention when you get in the car.

Last but not least, I'll echo the comments above about taking a class - ESPECIALLY IF YOU THINK YOU DON'T NEED ONE. If it does turn out to be a waste of time, eh, so what? But if it turns out to be helpful, that's AWESOME.

Good luck!
posted by 2oh1 at 8:39 PM on November 11, 2012

A thought: people with ADD often have trouble with safe driving. If you have attention issues outside of the car you might want to look into it.
posted by murfed13 at 9:00 PM on November 11, 2012

My sainted mother's advice: treat every other driver as a homicidal maniac, and every pedestrian as a suicidal one. Works for me.
posted by flabdablet at 12:41 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also: there are old drivers, and bold drivers, but there are no old, bold drivers.
posted by flabdablet at 12:43 AM on November 12, 2012

You can drive or you can deal with kids, but you can't do both at once. Your responsibility to your kids, yourself, and all the others parents and children on the road is to pay attention to the road. Strap your kids in safely and then ignore them. If the kids become impossible to ignore, pull over, put it in park, and deal with the kids firmly before continuing.
posted by pracowity at 1:23 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some good advice up there, however...

If you can't see out of the windows, you need to not be moving. As simple as that. Observation is far and away the most important thing when driving, and if you can't see, or your vision is impaired, you are eventually going to crash, perhaps injuring or even killing people.

If you are starting your car from cold, and the windows start fogging, you're going to have to wait a couple of minutes for the engine to heat up. Do not move the car. Even if you're late.

Your car's controls will vary, but the icons are the same. Turn the heat dial to full heat (the dial on the left - to red). Turn the middle control to all the way to the right (the window icon with the 3 wavy lines on this picture). Then turn the fan control to its highest setting (the dial on the right - set it to 4). Then just wait, and the windows will de-mist. You can knock the fan speed down to 1 or 2 once the windows are clear.

Should the windows start fogging when you are already moving, you need to work quick, and do the same as above. It needs to be an automatic response, without much more than a quick glance at the controls. If things get bad, or you're getting flustered, you need to find a safe place to pull over whilst you deal with it.

It can reiterate it enough. When you're driving, you need to have 100% concentration on the road and what's around you. Nothing else matters. And turn your music off! Next time you find yourself getting distracted, just think of the guilt you'd feel should you kill someone. Train yourself to think like that.

source: 15+ years of accident free driving.
posted by derbs at 1:44 AM on November 12, 2012

If I could give just one tip to improve drivers it would be this:

Always. Think. Ahead.

Time and again I see drivers getting themselves into scrapes minor and major because something happens that they could have avoided if they had simply been watching what was happening ahead and adjusting in advance. The person who fails to move out of the lane when someone is clearly indicating ahead that they are going to turn at the junction ends up stuck behind them when the lights change. It didn't have to be that way if they had just paid attention to that indicator and acted immediately. Same for road signs. They are telling you something about how driving conditions are about to change. Why not act on that as soon as possible rather than letting the change hit you at the last minute? Rain? You can skid. You can aquaplane. Increase your distance, reduce your speed. Think ahead, not in the moment. Look at that cyclist up ahead. What's he doing? Is he going to move out in front of you at the last minute? Looks a bit wobbly, doesn't he? Slow down. Give him extra room if you pass. That kid up there, several blocks ahead. She's over-excitedly running around on the pavement with her friends. Maybe she's not paying attention to you. Watch it. Oh, and what's going on behind? Check that mirror. Uh-oh, here comes a wanker in a BMW; must be doing 95 at least. Not such a good time to pull out and overtake, perhaps.

And so on. Look beyond your immediate concerns. Think, and plan, and act, in advance. Never, ever take chances or play the odds.

I passed my test at seventeen, I am now 53. I have never had even a minor car accident. This is why.
posted by Decani at 3:31 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The rain makes it harder to break.

You're following to closely. It's probably the single biggest thing that contributes to accidents, and almost everyone does it.
posted by spaltavian at 6:10 AM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Apologies if someone did mention this already but re:windows fogging; make sure your HVAC controls aren't set to recirc mode if your windows are fogging. Usually it is a enabled via a control labelled with a pictograph of a car outline with a circular arrow within. Some cars you press a button, others you slide a lever between recirc and fresh air intake.
posted by Mitheral at 8:39 PM on May 5, 2013

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