Introduction: Drive - and Stay Alive!

It seems that Driver's Ed isn't what it used to be, or else more drivers simply didn't pay attention then and don't pay attention on the road now. There are many things a driver needs to know to be a good driver, some of which are not taught in Driver's Ed. These can be divided into:

  • Safe driving practices
  • Legal driving practices (Which are usually there for safety purposes). I won't cover most legal issues here, other than the common-sense things, because they vary. That's what your MVD manual is for. Read it.
  • Correct use of the car (Which can improve safety and/or economy)
  • Proper maintenance of the car (Which will also improve safety and/or economy)

Let's get started.

Step 1: Drive. The. Car!

In 1972, An L-1011 airliner crashed into the Florida everglades, killing 101 people, because the entire cockpit crew was troubleshooting a burned out light bulb... And nobody was flying the airplane.

Recently, a pickup truck driver in Houston collided with a bus, killing 13 people. The driver admitted that he'd been texting at the time of the collision.

Anything that distracts from controlling the car can be deadly. You are (allegedly!) in control of a hurtling piece of machinery with over 150 times the kinetic energy of a rifle bullet! None of the things that distract you from your only responsibility behind the wheel - controlling the car - are worth your life, or worse, the lives of innocent people around you.

That text, phone call, or email can wait - Even if it's the Mayo Clinic calling to tell you they've found you a new heart, it won't do you much good if you're dead or in jail. Anything that comes in on your Electronic Enslavement Device can wait the few minutes for you to either pull over and stop, or get where you're going. It's probably just your significant other asking you to pick up milk on the way home, which may affect dinner, but is not life-altering.

Shaving, reading maps, reading the owner's manual, reading novels (It's been done!), taking selfies, eating, smoking, drinking (non-alcoholic beverages), listening to the radio, having the kids fighting in the back seat, all can be fatal distractions. I won't say never eat, drink, or smoke in your car, but if you drop a french fry - or a cigarette - while you're in motion, wait till you're stopped before looking for it. Also, if you don't make a habit of these things, your car won't look like a garbage dump!

It's even more important to avoid distractions when driving conditions are less than optimum. Rain, snow, fog, construction zones and congested areas demand more attention than normal sunny-day driving. Turn off the radio. Put down the Big Mac. Pay attention.

Just. Drive. The. Car. Everything else can wait.

Step 2: Situational Awareness

I once spent 3 days in the hospital - and avoided permanent disability by the grace of God - because someone pulled out in front of me. I was on a motorcycle, and he didn't see me. Even with lights on them, motorcycles, pedestrians, and bicycles - in fact even fluorescent orange cars - can be very hard to see. One of the reasons why is our eye/brain interface isn't really designed for driving.

An RAF fighter pilot explained this very clearly. The short version is that:

  1. You can't see things clearly when your eyes are moving rapidly. Your eyes actually move in a series of jumps, and it is only between the jumps that you can actually see.
  2. You can see motion, but not clear images, in your peripheral vision. This is why flashing headlights are such a good idea for motorcycles.
  3. You can only see things clearly when they are very close to vision center.
  4. Things that are only changing in size - like things coming straight at you - are harder to see. This is probably why the fellow pulled out in front of me.

You can download his entire article here.

This means that a quick glance right and left is not nearly enough. Looking right and left at least twice, and moving your head as well as your eyes - which changes your perspective so that nearer objects are easier to see - will give you a much greater chance of seeing other vehicles and avoiding a collision. Moving your head also gives you a chance to see things near the window pillars, which your brain tends to ignore.

Situational awareness also means anticipating trouble far ahead of when it might happen. Do you see emergency vehicle lights a block ahead? Are they in your lane? On the shoulder? Now is a good time to change lanes or otherwise decide to stay well clear. I was once heading to work and came upon an airplane stuck in the middle of the road! You've gotta be ready for anything.

A string of brake lights a half mile ahead on the freeway? Maybe that gives you a chance to bail out onto a surface street, or at least prepare to slow down. I once saw somebody rear-end someone in the left lane because he was rubbernecking at the guy who'd rear-ended someone in the right lane. Other people's accidents are none of your business, other than to give them a wide berth.

Passing a city park? Could you react in time if a soccer ball rolled into the street, with a child in hot pursuit? That's why speed limits are low around parks and residential areas.

In an intersection when the light turns red? Clear Out immediately! Amazingly, I've seen drivers, more than once, just stop in the middle of an intersection when the light changed, and stay there, blocking traffic, until the light turned green again! That's why there is always a small delay between the red light and the cross-traffic's green light, to give tardy drivers time to get clear. Never spend more time in an intersection than you need to!

Don't stare straight ahead like a zombie; Keep your eyes and head moving. Check your mirrors frequently. Do you have an out if someone wanders into your lane? Check your instruments, too. Are you speeding? Is your fuel low? Did you leave a blinker on? If you don't know any of these things, you're not paying attention.

Step 3: Three Seconds or Two Fingers

The MVD driver's manual usually has something to say about tailgating. Often it's the "2-or-3 second" rule: You need to stay back at least 2 or 3 seconds from the car ahead, to give yourself enough time to react when something unexpected happens. This is also part of situational awareness. The idea is, you watch the car ahead pass an object, then count seconds. You should not pass the same object for those 2 or 3 seconds.

There is another way, at least at highway speeds, where you need a lot of separation. If you hold your arm straight out in front, with 2 fingers pointing down, your fingers should cover the car ahead. This works because no matter the size of your body, the ratio of finger size to arm length is fairly constant. It won't take long before you just Know, and don't have to use the fingers anymore.

If you are too close, you won't have the .75 seconds to assess the danger, plus the 1/2 to 1 second it takes to actually act upon it. You can tailgate for years and nothing will happen, but NASA launched dozens of Space Shuttle flights before a problem they had known about for years killed seven astronauts (Twice - Bureaucracies are slow learners.). Eventually, a known danger, if ignored, will bite you. It will be a Predictable Surprise.

Bonus: That finger trick is also good for estimating time to sunset (held horizontally this time). Each finger between the sun and the horizon equals about 10 minutes.

Step 4: Gas. Brake. Gas. Brake. Gas. Brake...

I've seen - and ridden with - many people that don't seem to know how to drive smoothly. Their control is jerky, imprecise, and wasteful. They treat their two pedals as if they were on/off switches, romping on the gas until they notice they're going too fast, then they stomp on the brake. Then they get on the gas again, and the cycle repeats.

Pilots learn very quickly the value of smoothness. If a pilot started jerking around on the stick, his flights and especially his landings would make all his passengers sick (or worse), and he wouldn't last long as a pilot. That's why I think pilots might make better drivers.

Learn fine control of the gas pedal. Much of the time, the only thing necessary to slow down is to take your foot off the gas for a moment. Now sometimes, if you're in heavy traffic, it might be a good idea to tap the brake pedal even if you don't need to, to alert the driver behind you - who might not be paying attention - that you're slowing down.

A related - and worse - sin is driving with the right foot on the gas and left foot on the brake. This two-foot driving is a horrible idea. Not only does it kill your fuel efficiency, it wears out your brakes rapidly, and, even worse, the driver behind you can't tell when you're slowing down, because the brake lights are always on!

Speaking of brakes, the best thing my driving school teacher taught me was the concept of "covering the brake." This is another situational awareness thing. If you see a possible bad situation developing, take your foot off the gas and hover it over the brake pedal. You might not need to use the brake, but if you do, your foot is already over the pedal, so your reaction time is much faster.

Step 5: Gear Up! or Down.

Driving an automatic transmission takes some of the work - and a lot of the fun - out of driving. There is a risk that you'll become nothing more than a passenger behind the wheel. While it's true that you don't have to shift under normal driving conditions, you may have noticed an "L" and/or a "3", "2" or "1" below the "D." Don't know what those are for? Didn't read the owner's manual?

The most common use of the low gears is on hills, particularly going downhill. Why downhill, you say? If you're going down a long, steep hill in Drive, you'll be using your brakes a lot. What's wrong with that? Well, aside from subjecting your brakes to needless wear and tear, brakes used constantly for more than a couple of minutes will "fade." As the brakes heat up (Whenever you use brakes, you're converting the motion of the car into heat - Lots of heat!), they will start to lose their effectiveness. Using low gear will help prevent this, and give you greater control of the car, because you are using "engine braking." Going up a steep hill, shifting into low might be helpful too.

Low gear is also useful when towing a heavy load, because it gives you greater power, at a low speed of course. Your owner's manual will tell you what the maximum allowed speed is for low gear. On wet or slippery roads, low gear can be useful; wet brakes are less effective, especially the drum brakes found mostly on older cars.

An automatic transmission can be shifted into low gear when moving, provided the speed is low enough.

If you drive a manual transmission (stick shift), see the next step.

Step 6: Only for Stick-Shift Drivers

If you are one of the three people left in America who drive a manual transmission, congratulations! But are you using it to it's best benefit?

There are some neat things that can be done with manuals that are difficult, different, or impossible with automatics:

  • A car with a manual can - usually - be push-started in a dead-battery emergency. The correct way to do this is to turn on the ignition, shift into Second gear, hold in the clutch, and when your exhausted, griping, pushing crew gets the car up to a few miles per hour, let the clutch out abruptly. If the engine is in good shape, it should start. Sometimes this takes a few tries, and it will be hard on the clutch and transmission (and the people you've coerced into pushing), so do this only in major emergencies! Automatics generally forbid push-starting.
  • If you are coasting in gear, such as approaching a stop light, you can often slip into neutral without using the clutch at all, saving wear on that component. Do not do this on hills! In many places, doing this on a hill is illegal, for good reason.
  • Speaking of stop lights, you should always be in Neutral when stopped at a light, with your foot on the brake. If you sit at a light in gear, with the clutch depressed, and your foot slips off the clutch, one of two bad things will happen: You'll either stall the engine, which is annoying, or you will lurch forward into whatever's ahead, which is dangerous and expensive! You'll also save wear on the clutch throwout bearing, which is an inexpensive part but requires hundreds of $$ in labor to replace.
  • Just as with an automatic, there are times when you need to downshift: On hills, when slowing down from high speeds, and when towing. If you try to drive in too high a gear, you will be "lugging" the engine and getting very little power (It's also bad for the engine). Generally, your engine only produces significant power above 2,000 rpm, so when under high load at low speed, downshift to keep the RPMs up. "Blipping" the gas pedal (A quick stab to raise the RPM) as you let the clutch out will give a smoother downshift.
  • You will only be using fifth gear - or sixth on cars that have it - on the highway. This is a "cruise" gear and not meant for any hard acceleration.
  • With a stick-shift, you don't have a "Park" position. The solution to this is always park the car in gear - either First or Reverse, depending on which direction you expect to go when you pull out.
  • Your manual transmission will usually last longer than an automatic, because it is less complicated. If you want to keep a car for the long haul, get a manual. I've owned manual transmission cars with over 300,000 miles, still with their original transmissions.
  • Some folks claim that stick-shift drivers have fewer accidents per mile. I won't debate this, but a stick-shift driver must be more engaged with the task of driving than an automatic driver, so he may be a better driver simply because he has to pay more attention. He also has both hands full more often, which means less temptation to fool with non-driving-related things, like phones.
  • There have been stories of car thieves trying - without success - to steal a stick-shift car. Everybody, even someone with a room-temperature IQ, knows how to drive an automatic. Not so with manuals. Your odds of having your car stolen with a manual should be lower, unless you attract the attention of a professional thief.

Step 7: Freeway, Turnpike, Parkway, Autobahn

The U.S. Interstate Highway System is one of the great American accomplishments of our time. Begun in 1956, it was not declared complete until 1992. About one-quarter of all miles driven in the US are on Interstate Highways, yet my observations support the claim that many people don't know how to use the freeway (or turnpike, or any other limited-access highway) correctly.

  • Entering the freeway: Those long ramps leading up to the freeway are there for a reason. The idea is to be traveling at the same speed as the traffic on the freeway by the time you merge. This means a minimum of 55 MPH on most stretches, and as much as 85 MPH in some states. Don't be timid here. It's Okay to Go Fast on the on-ramp; the traffic flows smoothly if everyone is at the correct speed when they attempt to merge. Sometimes it's good to be going a little faster than the speed limit, because it's quicker to slow down than it is to speed up.
  • The traffic on the freeway has the right-of-way. It is the job of the driver merging to adjust speed for a smooth transition. The people on the freeway should not have to slow down to let you in!
  • Always turn on your left blinker long before you are actually merging. The flashing light will make you more visible. Use your signal whenever you change lanes and exit, too. And don't forget to turn it off when it's done it's job.
  • Exiting: The exit ramps are also long so that you do not have to slow down until you are off the freeway. You can take the ramp at highway speed unless there is a caution sign, as in a cloverleaf. Even then, there is a deceleration lane you should use.
  • If there are only two lanes, as between cities, stay in the right lane the majority of the time. You should only be changing lanes to pass, or to let people in that are coming up an on-ramp.
  • If there are 3 or more lanes, stay out of the far-right and far-left lanes as much as possible - at least if you're driving at the speed limit. The right lane will be congested by slow drivers and by cars entering and exiting, and the left lane will have the tailgating speed demons that are racing to the scene of an accident (Their own!).
  • If you are within one or two miles of your exit, shift into your exit lane now. Last-minute lane changes are dangerous. That's why the exit signs start a couple of miles from the actual exit.

Step 8: Stormy Weather

Every year, in California and other states, you hear on the news about 50-car plus pileups on the highways during fog, dust storms, or other low-visibility situations. Why do these things happen? It's because drivers are not adjusting their driving to the prevailing conditions.

Speed limit signs assume ideal driving conditions. When it's raining, snowing, foggy, or dusty, your risk has just increased tremendously. The pileups happen because people:

  1. Drive too fast, and
  2. Tailgate.

It's as simple as that. When the visibility is low, you need to slow down. The law says, "assured clear distance." This means that if you're driving so fast that you can't stop if something happens in front of you (like the car ahead stopping), you are Driving Too Fast.

If the visibility gets so low that you can't see the car ahead, you need to pull off the road, turn off your lights, and wait it out. Too many people succumb to "Get-There-Itis," and keep going no matter what. Unless you're driving someone to the hospital with a life-threatening illness, you shouldn't be on the road in such conditions. Patience pays off in saved lives in these situations.

In rain or snow, visibility may be adequate, but the road will be slippery - maybe very slippery, particularly in the first rain after a long dry spell. Again, the first step is slow down. Your stopping distance will be greatly increased, and your traction will be low. Slow down by downshifting and taking your foot off the gas; aggressively using the brakes can cause you to lose control. Do all your maneuvers gently and slowly, leave lots of distance to the vehicle ahead, and you'll probably be OK - unless some other fool hits you.

When there is a lot of stuff in the air - rain, snow, fog, or dust - turn on your lights so others can see you better, but leave your headlights on low beam. High beams will reflect back at you and make things worse.

Step 9: If You're on a Motorcycle

  • Try not to ride in the center of the lane. The center is where all the grease, oil, and other detritus from the cars accumulates, making the area more slippery. Ride slightly off-center, not too close to the lines. You can usually see where the crud is.
  • Assume you're invisible. Most of the time, you are. Act as if Nobody can see you, until you actually have eye contact with another driver and they acknowledge your existence (and your desire to continue existing!).
  • On a related note, bright-colored clothing, and especially a bright-colored helmet (you do wear one, don't you?) will help others see you. The best high-visibility color is greenish-yellow. White is OK. Red is not as good as you think.
  • All the stick-shift tips apply here also, unless you have one of the few automatic-transmission motorcycles.
  • Be Very Alert. The good news is, you have far more maneuverability than any four-wheeled vehicle. You can go places they can't, which is handy in an emergency. The bad news: You'll probably have lots more opportunities to use that maneuverability. You may need to bail onto a sidewalk to avoid an accident.
  • Learn to feel the amount of traction you have, especially braking traction. Locking up either wheel on a bike will usually lead to disaster. I once locked brakes and laid the bike down in the middle of a busy four-lane road, during rush-hour. Spoiler: I lived, and I didn't get hurt. You may not be so fortunate.
  • Practicing hard braking is a very good idea, but wear lots of protective clothing in case you lay it down. Lots of protective clothing is a good idea, anyway.
  • Pay close attention to the road surface. A pothole that's an inconvenience to a car can wreck you if you don't see it coming.A slick spot in a curve can easily dump you. Sand on pavement can be very slick! The sand acts like tiny ball bearings.
  • Hitting animals: I live in a rural area and have had many encounters with the local wildlife, big and small. My rule of thumb: If it's house-cat size or smaller, don't try to dodge. Dodging has it's own dangers. Just hit the beast. The small animals won't cause (much) damage as long as you maintain control. Sorry, SPCA, but humans are more valuable than animals.
  • Proper maintenance of the machine is even more important than it is for a car. Pay particular attention to tire condition and pressure. A flat tire on the road is way more excitement than you could ever want.
  • Don't forget what you've learned when you get in a car. Be good to your fellow cyclists.

Step 10: Take Care of Your Car (And It'll Take Care of You)

Many, many of those broken-down cars you pass on the road could have been prevented by spending only a few minutes per week checking basic stuff. You've spent a lot of money on your car, you probably wash and wax it often, but that's mostly just about appearance. How often do you assure that your car is working correctly? Have you ever really gotten to know your car?

Do you change the oil at the recommended intervals? Check fluid levels? Tires? If all you've ever done to your car is put gas in it, in my humble opinion you shouldn't be driving that car! Your mechanic can take care of oil changes and other maintenance, but checking tires and fluids is your responsibility, and will save you repair money, and maybe even your life!

Once, on a road trip, I came across a lady with a broken-down car. She told me, "It just died, and I have gas in it!" I pulled out the dipstick, and there wasn't a drop of oil in the engine. She had just bought herself several thousand dollars in engine repairs, simply because she had never taken a few seconds to check her oil.

Every couple of weeks, and before any long trips, check tire pressure in all 5 (including the spare, if you have one) tires. Read your owner's manual for the correct pressure. Look at the treads; make sure they have sufficient tread and are not wearing unevenly. There are "wear bars" on all modern tires. If the bars are across the treads, it's time for new tires. Uneven tire wear is a symptom of something else worn or out of adjustment. If you have a spare tire, know how to change it. Again, read the manual. If you don't have a manual for your car, ask your dealer, or you can probably download one for free from the manufacturer's website.

While you're checking your tires, also check all the vital fluids in your car: Engine oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid, and engine coolant. All these things are under the hood. The complete tires and fluids check takes only a few minutes. The manual tells you how.

Take a quick look around as long as you're under the hood. Look for anything unusual, like fluid stains that indicate a leak. Many things can be spotted and dealt with this way, before they strand you. I jump-started a lady's car once whose battery was dead only because it had fallen over on it's side and all the fluid had leaked out. Looking around under the hood occasionally will help avoid such embarrassments. (By the way, I'm not down on women drivers - I am one. But just because you're a woman is no excuse to not take care of your car. You can do it without ruining your manicure.)

All the car's fluids need to be changed regularly, even the ones, like transmission fluid, that the manufacturer says have "lifetime fill" (Which translates to "It will only fail after the warranty expires!"). Sure, it'll last the life of the transmission - which will be much shorter than if you had actually changed fluid. I change transmission fluid every 60,000 miles or so. Brake fluid, rear end lubricant, and engine coolant can also benefit from changes every couple of years or 50,000 miles. Of course, this only applies if you keep your car a long time.

If you do these things, you might never need AAA. You also have a much smaller chance of being stranded at night in a bad neighborhood or a blizzard, being ran over while changing a tire, or having a fatal blowout on the highway.

Carry some basic tools, highway flares (or other warning lights), a good flashlight, jumper cables (You may never need them if you're taking care of your car, but you may get a chance to help someone else), extra water (for you and/or your radiator), and a small first-aid kit. A small fire extinguisher isn't a bad idea either. I've rescued myself from a breakdown at least twice with only a pocketknife.

There you have it. My rant, based on 35-ish years of watching drivers do stupid things, doing a few myself - and sometimes living to tell about them. Try to do better. If you do make a mistake, and live, learn from it!

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