What are your proven ways to stay safe on the roads these days?
July 1, 2014 11:53 AM   Subscribe

How do you stay safe while barrelling down the highway in a tin can?

Ever since I got into a minor accident, I've never felt safe driving on the highways. The more people I see doing things they shouldn't be doing behind the wheel, the more nervous I get with driving.

I'm moving to the city and unfortunately my drive to work is going to double from what I'm used to.

What tips, tricks and habits do you use to stay safe behind the wheel?

Bonus points for scientifically proven ways - like maybe driving in the right lane (I've seen a lot of accidents in the left lane somehow).
posted by rippersid to Travel & Transportation (40 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Take a defensive driving course. They can be very helpful in making you more aware of what's going on around you, and the best ways to react.

But for me, the simplest way to feel safe is lots of space between me and any car around me: huge distance in front of me, being careful to not be next to any other cars or (especically) in their blindspots, not changing lanes if it means I will put myself right next to a car on the other side, etc.

And avoiding merges as much as possible. This means not doing any sudden moves: get in the lane you need to be in a mile or two early and stay there. If you realize too late and will need to do something crazy to make your turn, don't make it, just go down farther and turn around. Never cruise in the left/passing lane: if you're on a 2-lane (in each direction) road, keep right except to pass. If you're on a 3+ lane road, stay in the middle lanes most of the time so that you're avoiding the merges at every entrance and exit (which you would have to deal with in the right lane), and also staying out of the passing lane.
posted by brainmouse at 12:01 PM on July 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

We all know not to drive drunk (or "tipsy" or "buzzed"). But we sometimes forget not to drive drowsy. After all, "Cognitive impairment after approximately 18 hours awake is similar to that of someone with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. After about 24 hours awake, impairment is equivalent to a BAC of 0.10%, higher than the legal limit in all states."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:01 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, also just basic car safety stuff: Drive a car with a good safety rating and working airbags and seatbelts. Wear your seatbelt correctly, always. Adjust your headrest correctly and put your head on it. Don't sit too close to the wheel. Keep your hands at 9 & 3, and keep both hands on the wheel at all times. Don't do other things while you're driving: texting, obviously, or talking on the phone (with or without a hands-free device, it's way more dangerous than talking to someone in the car), or eating, or more than very occasional eyes-free heating/cooling/radio/etc. adjustments. If you're in stop-and-go traffic, never move forward without looking forward. Not even for a half second.
posted by brainmouse at 12:07 PM on July 1, 2014

I don't know if this is best practice -- if not I'm sure I'll be corrected.
If I'm in a sudden slowdown on the highway and the car behind me seems to be barreling towards me at a crazy rate of speed, I don't assume they see me and are about to brake or change lanes at the last minute. These days I assume they're on Facebook and are about to rear end me. So I watch my rearview mirror a lot more than I used to, and I lightly tap my horn for the traffic behind me, not just ahead of or to the sides of me, to warn of my existence.
posted by third rail at 12:08 PM on July 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Prep: Get plenty of rest the night before. Complete your morning tasks (eating, drinking, phone calls, e-mails) so you won't be tempted. Use sunglasses (UV rated) when the sun is low in the sky. Ensure mirrors are adjusted properly, tire treads are deep enough and inflated properly, and windshields are clear.

Be predictable yourself: use signals, brake evenly and slowly, accelerate evenly.
Look for others: look close, middle, and far. Check your mirrors at regular intervals. Look through turns, for possible intersections and obstructions.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:11 PM on July 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

The shitty thing about driving is that, while we have the illusion we're in control, we're not. Anything can happen and the driver is often powerless to stop it.

In my opinion it is possible to go to far with the "Hands at 9-and-3, never drive if you had a sip of beer" stuff. At a certain point, the paranoia and uptightness you end up feeling overrides the negligible safety benefits. At some point you have to relax and feel comfortable and confident in your own abilities.

All that said, there is one situation that I've seen cause a ton of accidents and near-misses, including an accident I was involved in as a passenger.

If you're turning left and the light turns yellow, and someone is coming the other way, WAIT UNTIL THE LIGHT TURNS RED, then make the left. No one is going to ram you in that split second, but I can't count the number of times I've seen people get hit because the oncoming driver appeared to slow down, then floored it to get through the yellow and T-boned the guy turning left. (And you, as the left-turner, will be held at fault. always.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:27 PM on July 1, 2014 [14 favorites]

to add to what third rail said: lightly tap your brakes, if you're actually stopped, at intervals of varying speed (but not of course so as to affect the trajectory of your car). Get one of those super-wide rear-view mirrors from AutoZone. Know thyself, and whether/how you are easily startled.
posted by mmiddle at 12:28 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Never do anything that doesn't feel comfortable to you--be reasonable (don't drive slower than the speed limit) but know your own limits.

Driving in heavy rain is a big one for me. If I've got passengers in the car when a downpour starts, especially if we're on the highway, I calmly pull off at the next exit and (so far) nobody gives me a hard time.

Never force yourself to drive in conditions where you don't feel safe, even if every car around you seems fine with it. It's okay to pull off at the next exit (not onto the shoulder, if you can help it) and wait it out.
posted by magdalemon at 12:32 PM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't get hypnotized by the bumper in front of you.

Keep your eyes moving, and make sure you look as far down the road as you can. That way, if trouble happens up ahead, you'll see it faster and have more time to react.
posted by Sauce Trough at 12:50 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Consumer Reports strongly recommends buying only vehicles with electronic stability control because of its proven effectiveness at reducing accidents and saving lives. Their car buying guides specifically highlight which model years for each vehicle have ESC as a standard feature.
posted by mbrubeck at 12:56 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Use your mirrors, use your signals, use your horn and watch the front wheel of the cars just in front of you.
posted by 724A at 12:58 PM on July 1, 2014

ONC driver here. We have all sorts of driving styles coming together here from all over the world, and it leads to, basically, total unpredictability. It also means that speeding is a fact of life on the interstates, so your mileage may literally vary if your highways are more sedate.

Knock on wood, I've been driving 16 years with no accidents, following one simple heuristic:

Assume every car you can see is about to do the dumbest thing imaginable.

Some of this comes from the experience of seeing someone do something you had previously thought unimaginably dumb. But in terms of things you can actually dodge, the most frequent dumb things I see are:

1. Failure to check blind spot before changing lanes. So don't cruise adjacent to other cars, and don't change lanes into a blind spot. Two cars abreast should never, ever be going the same speed.
2. Texting. You, the alert driver, can spot these people and get away from them. Treat them like you would a driver you knew to be drunk.
3. Bad merging. Once you know your route, get one lane left of the merge lane ~100 yards before it happens.

I respectfully disagree with brainmouse in re the middle lane. Lots of hoons driving in the left lane will swerve to the middle to get around a slowpoke in the left. Likewise, hoons in the right lane will more likely swerve middle into a car than rear-end someone in the right whom they want to overtake. Again, you, the alert driver, can predict this and avoid it. Finally, in the left or right lanes, you can swerve to the shoulder if some dingbat is about to rear-end you.

4. Sudden braking. Easy: follow the two-second rule.

Counterintuitively: Sometimes, it's more dangerous to drive the speed limit than to exceed it. This is always true of the left lane. If you are being tailgated in the left lane, get out of the way. Corollary: you have the right to go the speed limit in the far-right lane. If someone is tailgating you there, let go of the gas and coast until they pass you.

+1 to Sauce Trough. Brake when the car two ahead of you brakes, not when the car in front of you does.

Finally, anxiety will make you a worse driver. Have you considered CBT or something akin, targeted at your worries about driving? Stupid people do stupid stuff while driving, and while there's only so much you can do to avoid being injured that, you can control your personal reactions that do not contribute to your avoidance of injury.
posted by radicalawyer at 1:04 PM on July 1, 2014 [13 favorites]

Drjimmy's suggestion about waiting for the light to turn red made me think of a similar tip: if you're about to pull onto a road and someone is approaching with their turn signal on, NEVER pull out in front of them with the assumption that they really will turn. Wait for them to turn before making your move, so you don't get hit by the driver who's forgotten his turn signal is on, the one who's signaling for a turn past where you are, or the one who's about to change his mind and go straight.

Similarly, if someone coming the opposite way stops to let you turn left in front of them, do NOT move until you've made sure there's nobody in the lane next to them (and there's no way for the guy behind them to try to pull around). Even if the stopped driver is flashing her lights or waving you on, still wait until you're sure. I've seen someone get t-boned pretty hard because of this one.
posted by DingoMutt at 1:05 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Akin to the suggestion about not being hypnotized by the bumper in front of you, get in the habit of looking a quarter to half mile ahead of you and anticipating traffic.
posted by werkzeuger at 1:10 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Certain music can help you focus more on the road. Here's some that was specially composed along with a neurologist for that purpose.
posted by three_red_balloons at 1:22 PM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have a look at my reply to this question....and the other replies as well (hmm, I see I replied three times in that thread...see all). It's for new drivers, but it pertains.

The essential part of defensive driving will come easily to a highly critical person. If a driver does something even the least bit dicey (even just a mild tiny drift toward the lane divider, soon corrected), I will leap to the conclusion that they are terror on wheels and take precautions....not get too close, keep my eye out, etc. You don't assume the best. You don't forgive. Anyone doing anything the least bit non-standard or clueless ratchets up to Defcon 1.

Years of driving bear out the conclusion that people doing something stupid, inexplicable, non-standard, or annoying WILL do more stupid, inexplicable, non-standard, or annoying stuff.

Other than that, just remember that everyone is actively trying to kill you. You need to drive well, yourself, plus navigate treacherous roads full of idiots. While remaining jet fighter calm, rather than exasperated at the idiots. As anyone who does something dangerous or important for a living will tell you, emotion's a luxury you can't afford.
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:22 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Eventually you are going to be the person who almost changes lanes into someone in your blind spot. The problem with thinking of this as "stupid" is, we all think, I am not a stupid person, so, I wouldn't do that. But it's a lapse of attention, not being stupid, and that can happen to anyone who has been driving for hours. EVERYONE thinks they are a good driver. The only remedy is to assume there is ALWAYS something in your blind spot and don't do a thing until you have really verified that there is not.
posted by thelonius at 1:27 PM on July 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Another suggestion: don't worry what other people think of you when you're driving (assuming you're trying to drive safely). This includes passengers: if you're more comfortable with everyone in your car buckled up, speak up - personally I won't move the car until I see everyone buckled. If you need people to stop assing around in the back seat because they're distracting you, say so. The car's not a place to let things like that slide just to be nice - your passengers may think you're just being a sour old biddy, but so long as they're doing what you need them to do to help keep everybody safe, that's okay.

Similarly, try not to let other drivers rattle you. I've found that Pittsburghers, for instance, really love to make it known that their cars are equipped with horns - just the other day I was honkily informed that the guy behind me did not think driving the speed limit in a one-lane construction zone was an acceptable practice (seriously - he leaned on his horn for what had to be a full minute at least). It was annoying but CERTAINLY didn't cause me to speed up - actually I slowed down just a tad, because he was on my ass so hard that I didn't feel safe. Part of me wanted to tap my breaks, aggressively slow down to a ridiculous degree, or even stay on that road longer than necessary just to teach that guy a lesson, but instead I took the first chance I had to turn off and get away from the dude. Don't let your ego take over when other drivers are being jackasses - there's nothing you can win in such a situation. Just focus on what you need to do to be safe.
posted by DingoMutt at 1:30 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

As another heuristic in the vein of 'avoid people who are texting' and 'avoid people who are tipsy', avoid zipcar / carshare drivers.

I'm sure there are many zipcar / carshare users who are excellent drivers, or at least, no worse than average. However, other users will be people who never (seldom) drive, driving cars they've never driven. They don't know the roads or the car -- they're sightreading, you're playing a rehearsed piece; they are going to be more prone to mistakes and unpredictable behavior.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:31 PM on July 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Situational awareness is everything: Evaluate individual drivers and overall flow. Don't try to outperform the flow (but do try to keep up).

Become familiar with the traffic patterns along your route and you'll anticipate almost every stupid move the other drivers make.

Conversely, don't surprise the other drivers. Try to never have to use the brakes in traffic. At high speeds, look far far ahead and slow yourself down at the first sign of brake lights. Anticipate your lane changes and be where you need to be well ahead of time (where possible).

Stay out of blind spots and keep your blind spots clear. Give yourself lots of space: Space equals response time and bailout options.

If someone wants to merge, let 'em in. Even if they're cheating. (Especially if they're cheating because their ass is probably hanging out in a moving lane.)

Stay out of the left lane except to turn and pass.
posted by whuppy at 1:56 PM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's some science for you: your eye cannot focus very well on large objects that are near to you, like -- a car. Instead, your brain directs your eye to focus on small areas, about the size of your thumb when you hold it an arms' length away (this is the visual projection of your fovea on your retina, where photoreceptors are most dense). When you try to focus on a large object, like a car, your eye actually skips around to various smaller points on the car, and asks your brain to put those points together and make sense of them, which takes time.

Therefore, to determine whether a car is moving, towards you, away from you, turning, whatever: focus on its nearest wheel. Physics says the car attached to it will follow that wheel. But neuroscience says your eye will do a much better job of tracking just the wheel, not the whole car.

--- other random thoughts:

In my experience, professional drivers (semis, UPS/FedEx) tend to be very, very good and reliable drivers.

On the other hand, akin to what batter_my_heart said, watch out for Uhaul and other rental trucks, who are handling a very unwieldy vehicle for the first time. Avoid like the plague.

In highway stop & go traffic, seek out the calmest person -- the person who is braking and accelerating the least -- and get behind or in front of them.

Try to follow sedans in general, because SUVs are like moving visual roadblocks. Keep an eye on who's behind you, too, and how close they're following you. Choose who's around you carefully - don't just be a member of the pack. Know that no matter how fast or slow you're going, someone will be going faster, or slower -- so be able to pass, then leave room for other people to pass you.
posted by Dashy at 1:57 PM on July 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

If you are married or regularly drive with someone, resolve with that person that you won't have arguments in a car. You may have a short disagreement, but a heated argument in a car is dangerous. To the extent that it is possible, kids should learn to tone it down a bit, but I'll confess that I've never figured out how to get my kids to behave well in a car.

Which leads to... assume every minivan is operated by a parent with 3 screaming kids in tow and in spite of all best intentions, they are not operating with their full mental faculties. Drive defensively around them.
posted by dgran at 1:57 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

There is no hurry.

Driving fast due to poor planning is stupid at best. Whether on a long trip or just a jaunt to the grocery store, there is no hurry. Do the math -- you're on this side of town, you're running late, you decide to drive like a fool because you're late; the most you're going to "save" is five minutes. That's it.

On long trips, I find that 70mph is just fine. Oh, wait -- the speed limit is 80mph. So what? That's the limit, the highest that is legal. 70 or 75 is sweet, so long as it's a good highway.

Though if someone gets on my tail, wanting to drive faster, I'll absolutely get out of their way, whether that means temporarily speeding up or shifting to a different lane or both.

A friend who has been on motorcycles his entire life is unequivocal about this -- you've got to drive looking out for the other person, and not just as though the other person was careless, or foolish, or dumb. What he assumes is that everyone is actively doing their best to kill him.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:59 PM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Check intersections prior to, and during, entering them by turning your head (briefly) left and right EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

My husband does this when he gets a green light, and also whenever he passes an intersection. I've started doing it, too.

(Lots of people run red lights in my area and it scares the shit out of me.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 2:35 PM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speed directly correlates with injury if you do get into an accident, so don't speed. Check your tires, and make sure your car is in good repair. Read the owner's manual; it's actually quite useful. Make sure the wipers are in great shape. Keep the windows clean and clear of obstruction. Clean the headlights - I live in Maine and roadsalt can diminish the light. Don't text. Drive sober and awake, and wear your seatbelt. I use my phone in states that allow it, and only when there's very little to no traffic. If you drive with kids, they should know the rules about no distracting the driver, staying buckled up If you drive with a dog, the dog should be in a safe spot. (My Jack Russell has his own 'carseat.') Rain, fog, ice, snow can make a huge difference; slow down, and use extra caution. No matter what your brother-in-law or whoever says, drive the way the experts recommend. Googling "how to drive safely" gets a lot of links that look pretty good. Traffic injuries and fatalities are going down, even though driving is up, because cars are better built to better standards. Thanks to more regulation.
posted by theora55 at 2:54 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I want to reiterate the link that the man of twists and turns provided about how to properly adjust your mirrors to avoid having a blind spot in the first place, because the new advice is counter to common practice and what many of us were taught when we were learning. You should adjust each side mirror so it is centered on the lane on next to you, not so you can see the side of your own vehicle. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET INTO A COLLISION WITH YOUR OWN VEHICLE!
posted by drlith at 3:00 PM on July 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Lots of great advice on what to do when you're behind the wheel here, but one other thing you can do is to minimize the amount of driving you do whenever possible. Commutes are the worst since they're so rote our brains don't want to pay attention and it's easier to get drowsy or to entirely forget everything between getting into the car and arriving at the destination, so anything you can do to shorten the drive or use transit options is helpful. (There's nothing like arriving at work after a snowstorm refreshed and ready to start the day because you took the bus, when everyone else is showing up an hour late, jittery and freaked out by all their near-misses while driving.)

Bicycling whenever possible's also great for this, and while I'm at no less risk of injury than I am in an automobile, I'm unlikely to hurt anyone else and it's probably impossible for me to fall asleep at the wheel. Plus by getting some exercise I'm reducing my risk of other future health problems. For reference on both bicycling safely yourself and knowing where to look to avoid injuring others: How to Not Get Hit by Cars. A lot of the info in there is just as applicable to driving a car safely as it is to riding a bike.

People don't take driving seriously enough, and it shows in all the senseless collisions and other mishaps we see on the roads. It's a major responsibility, and good on you for looking for help in doing it better.
posted by asperity at 3:07 PM on July 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I teach blind people how to travel independently, so I observe with horror all of the stupid and unsafe things drivers do.

Keep a careful eye on pedestrians crossing. Just like drivers, they too are walking distractedly and rushing across streets during a break in traffic. Never, ever zoom past the car that unexpectedly stopped in front of you. Go slow and make sure that they haven't stopped to let a pedestrian cross the street.
posted by Sal and Richard at 3:28 PM on July 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

When you're exiting the freeway via a right side exit lane, watch the lane next to you carefully and try to never be in someone's blind spot. Many times these people will swerve suddenly into your lane to exit at the last second.

And as Dashy said, avoid being anywhere near Uhauls. Also, avoid cars that have body damage. Seems like whenever I see someone make a stupid move in traffic, their car has some kind of dent in it already.
posted by oxisos at 6:33 PM on July 1, 2014

I don't think I saw this on preview:

When encountering a sudden slowdown in traffic ahead of you, put on your hazards/blinkers/flashers to warn potentially zoned-out drivers behind you.
posted by mahorn at 7:22 PM on July 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

My advice for long road trips (having fallen asleep and flown a Pinto 90 feet once) is when you feel drowsy, rhythmically flex your buttocks and put on music you like to sing along to.
posted by Catblack at 8:53 PM on July 1, 2014

The more people I see doing things they shouldn't be doing behind the wheel, the more nervous I get with driving
I avoid the crazies by just slowing down. Some kid is zipping around through traffic (the way I did once upon a time)? Just let off the gas, and let the crazy people go on ahead of you.

When I commuted in moderate-ish-heavy-ish traffic for 40 miles each way, I'd try to stay about 2~3 miles slower than the traffic around me, and just let everything go on past. That, and leaving plenty of following distance and you're doing great.

I also try to stay in the habit of not looking at any one view for more than 2 seconds at a go. Scan the road ahead, check a mirror, scan the road, check the other mirror, scan the road, check the rear view, scan the road, check the speedometer, etc..

There was a suggestion above to use your blinkers when approaching slow traffic. I do a light, easy pumping of the brakes - the car behind gets the flashing lights, and I slow down very gently.

One sciencey proven thing you can do (though I don't have a cite for it) is to always have your headlights on. Not just auto mode, but full on, all the time, while you're driving. You're more visible to other cars, even in bright sunlight.
posted by colin_l at 8:58 PM on July 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

To quell your anxiety, I would suggest driving your new route a few times during quiet off-hours before your first day of actual commuting. Maybe a Sunday morning? The goal here is to get you acclimated to the unchanging elements of the drive so your brain and reflexes can focus instead on the variable elements -- your fellow drivers and pedestrians. You can reduce your cognitive load by developing some "muscle memory" for the fixed infrastructure of the route, thereby freeing up your senses for everything else.

It's a good idea to get in the habit of being extra-attentive when you are within a few blocks of your destination, both coming and going. This is the time when we too easily slip into auto-pilot mode ("I'm almost there, my work here is done"), and carelessly end up in a fender-bender (or worse).

I'm a confident, happy driver. What contributes to this is my commitment to drive as smoothly and gracefully and graciously as possible. It's a dance. When I start to get overly aggressive or anxious, I use a silly mantra to re-center myself: "Don't drive with your face." I actively work to keep a placid expression -- no scrunching or wincing or sputtering in rage. Weird, but it works to keep me poised and focused.

All electronic beeping-booping-buzzing devices are turned OFF for the drive. No exceptions. It can wait.
posted by nacho fries at 10:40 PM on July 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thought about it a bit more, remembered an instructor in a def driving course (I used to always take them to knock down my insurance some; they really are helpful, tons of thoughtful safety tips), this instructor said that if someone is on your tail, and you can't move to a different lane or maybe it's just one lane each way, he recommended turning on the flashers, not the turn signals but the hazard lights. It's not an aggressive move, it's more an informative move, whenever I've remembered to do it, the person backed off

... always have your headlights on. ...
posted by colin_l

Good call, colin_l -- I drive with my headlights on all the time. I want to be seen. I want to be noticed. (I want you to look at my pickup, too, because it's the prettiest pickup in Austin, and you'll be glad you saw it plus envious of me, too, because I get to drive it and you don't.) Anyways. Headlights. It doesn't hurt anything, I personally believe it's a small edge if someone notices you.

When I'm on my bicycle I'm lit up like a christmas tree, red flashers in back, bright LED headlights, reflectors, etc. I want to be seen. I'm going to put a mirror on the bike again; every time I've put one on before I have a good wreck and break them off, very annoying. But without a mirror I tend to crank my neck around to look behind me which pushes me into a drift toward the curb, and that can get interesting real fast.
posted by dancestoblue at 1:29 AM on July 2, 2014

Minimize distractions. No drinks. Put your phone away and don't use it while driving. Don't play with the radio.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:39 AM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

avoid zipcar / carshare drivers

This is not necessarily good advice. When I used Zipcar, I usually rented one of two models of vehicle (and very frequently the same car). Another service, Car2Go, only has one kind of car. And generally, people driving them will be fairly close to home, on roads that are more likely to be familiar to them. If I'm renting a car from a car-rental agency, there is no outward sign that it's a rental, and you have no idea if I'm driving on these roads for the first time or if the rental company gave me a car that's way bigger than what I asked for.

Avoid U-Hauls and the like, though, especially in inclement weather.

And about the middle lane: it depends on the city, but sometimes you have to use the middle lane in places like Toronto where a third of the drivers have no clue how to merge properly when entering limited-access highways.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 7:47 AM on July 2, 2014

There's a lot of very good advice here -- perhaps so much as to be overwhelming, and some of it contradictory -- such as the "always follow the speed limit" advice versus "keep up with traffic" advice. Whilst you should never do anything that you are uncomfortable with while driving, since you're interested in a scientific point of view, much of the thought about this that's not driven by MADD-style "we need to get back to 55MPH everywhere" hysterics says that absolute speed is less of a hazard then speed differential for cause of accidents. (Of course, physics says that more speed causes more damage if you do get in to an accident, so it's a balancing act). The best advice there, if you're looking for a rational approach, is to always go with traffic -- regardless of the speed limit -- unless in your personal judgement the prevailing speed is unsafe for current conditions. In that case, get as far right as possible and be aware of people who might be coming up behind you at a faster speed.

I think the other things people have said boil down to a few things:

Keep your car in good shape. This is the most important, as safety starts with your own environment. Take care of routine inspections. Make sure your tires have good tread, are properly inflated, and are not cracked or otherwise damaged. Keep your brakes in proper operating order. Check all your lights on occasion to make sure they are all functional and replace any broken bulbs. One thing that many people don't bother with: keep all your windows clear, especially your windshield. Windows can just get a film of dirt and oil on them from normal road use that will make keeping them clear when it rains difficult; get in to the habit of taking a squeegee to at least your windshield every time you stop for gas. Similarly, always make sure your wiper blades are in good shape, and that you have a full reservoir of wiper fluid: you cannot drive safely if you cannot see.

Always wear your seatbelt. Always always always. I have been in at least one accident which likely would have killed me, or at least caused severe injury from an ejection, if I hadn't been wearing my belt. My wife is an ICU nurse and can tell you that having "MVE" (motor vehicle ejection) on your chart means you're likely to be having a bad day. This applies to your passengers, too -- as a driver it is your responsibility to keep them safe. My car does not move until everyone is wearing a seatbelt. Ever.

After that, situational awareness is key. Take a page from airplane pilots and always keep a visual scan going. Never fixate on one thing, but consciously always keep your eyes moving, both inside and outside the car. When I'm driving I make it a habit to regularly take my eyes off the windshield and scan my instrument cluster, then rearview mirror, then side mirrors, and then go back to the windhsield. Repeat at regular intervals, and be alert for movement in your peripheral vision (which is attuned to such things) that may indicate a need for increased attention.

What I like to do, whilst doing my scan, is to keep a constant mental track of the cars around me, and categorize them into "threat levels". Any car in my lane, or an adjacent lane, within two seconds of me, is threat level 1. I stay alert for their actions and prepare myself to react to anything they may do immediately, especially if they're driving erratically. Cars the next rung out are threat level 2. They are watched for movement into threat level 1, especially erratic behavior, or upcoming moves on their part that could otherwise make them a hazard. Everything else is threat level 3 -- doesn't need high attention, but good to be aware of. I like to test myself every now and then on longer drivers to make sure I have a good mental picture of all the cars in my immediate vicinity, their location, and some idea of what they look like (sedan, coupe, SUV, not necessarily any more detailed). If I can't answer that, I know I'm not paying enough attention. I find it helps fight "highway hypnosis".

Beyond those basic ideas, it all comes down to individual tips and tricks, some of which are highlighted here. In addition to watching the front wheels of cars, it can be helpful to examine the drivers and where they're looking. We tend to natrually follow where our gaze is, so if someone's looking left, you know they may be preparing for a turn or a lane change and be ready for it even if they don't signal. Another useful one not mentioned here: if you're driving in an unpopulated area at night and the light of an oncoming car blinds you, keep your eyes on the nearest line on the road until they pass; it will help keep you moving straight.

If you're a nervous driver, I'd suggest taking at least a defensive driving class as mentioned above. They can teach you a lot of these little tricks, and help get you into the habit of safe driving in general. Another thing you might consider after that is taking a car handling course. Many people have never felt their car at the limit of control, and you don't want to be learning how to safely perform an emergency stop, sudden lane change, or skid control manuever when your immediate safety is on the line. Learning this in a safe, controlled environment so that it's muscle memory when you need it can be very helpful, as long as you don't take it as a license to do more silly stuff on the road.

Driving can be fun if you don't let it psyche you out. Get used to your car, get some practice in safe situations, and just relax whilst being alert and observant, and the rest will come with time and practice.
posted by jammer at 8:04 AM on July 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

I admit I mostly skimmed the many very excellent responses to your question, so I apologize if this is repeated.

Use your four way flashers/hazard lights. Not all the time, obviously, but I use mine when someone is tailgating me or driving too close in bad weather, etc. 2 years ago I had to make an hour long drive on the highway during a snowstorm with whiteout conditions. I was taking my time and being safe, and some crazy person in a sedan kept tailgating me and behaving extremely dangerously, especially considering the weather. Everytime he got too close I put on my four ways and let me tell you he backed the hell off. Every time. People respect the four way flashers, there are a sort of automotive "No, seriously, I'm not kidding". I read about this trick years ago here on the green and while I don't use it often it has definitely been a hugely valuable thing to know.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:30 AM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also, use tricks! For example, in traffic where I cannot see through the vehicles in front of me, I look at the reflections on the sides of vehicles in the other lanes, and I look under vehicles for the shadows of other vehicles, and I look through windshields.

Keep a window slightly cracked so you can hear any ambulance sirens approaching from behind you. I am always amazed that so few people seem to be listening for fire trucks, state troopers, etc., and who wait out in traffic while the rest of us are heading for the shoulders.

Drive like a boring, paranoid person. Leave a big gap, use your goddamn blinkers, brake gradually, and all the other stuff.

Keep your car in decent running order.

I like to listen to a long podcast on an interesting topic -- or humor -- because it keeps my mind alert. Some days I decompress with loud music, but I have to be extra aware when the noise is turned up.

Good luck!
posted by wenestvedt at 10:59 AM on July 2, 2014

The defensive driving tips are all good, but to touch on this:

The more people I see doing things they shouldn't be doing behind the wheel, the more nervous I get with driving.

One thing I find useful in maintaining my safety on the road is to deliberately try not to get angry or flustered at other drivers or myself.

It's easy to flash into anger if somebody else makes a dangerous maneuver near you; it's easy to flash into self-recrimination if you make a dangerous mistake yourself. But both of these take your attention away from your driving.

So: deep breath, roll your eyes, swear under your breath if you need to -- and then put it behind you and get on with driving safely.

(And then maybe at the end of the journey, think back to the incident and consider what you could have done differently/better. Could you have anticipated it better? Could you have reacted to it better or more safely? Did you have room to react to it better, and if not, why not? Was it a fault in your concentration or observation? Was it a bad habit you can work on correcting? These are thoughts that it's useful to have -- once you're out of the car.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 8:50 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

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