2:14 am by digitalmbul in Defensive Driving
“I never saw him!” is the most common excuse heard after a collision. Was the other vehicle invisible? Virtually all collisions involve inattention on the part of one or both drivers. Inattention can involve many things, some of which are daydreaming, distractions, sleepiness, fatigue, “highway hypnosis,” talking, etc.
A moving vehicle develops thousands of foot-pounds of energy. YOU as a driver have the responsibility not to use that energy to injure or kill others, or damage their property. Paying attention makes it possible for you to see, recognize and avoid the hazards lurking on the road; these are the three basic elements of defensive driving. The primary attribute necessary for a safe driver is alertness, and paying attention is the most important driving task because it helps create the time you need to recognize hazards and avoid a collision.
One statistic often quoted is that most collisions happen within a short distance from home. Why is this true? Since we mostly drive in our own neighborhoods, the odds are we’ll have most of our mishaps there. Close to home we get more comfortable and perhaps let our guard down (and the other guy does the same thing); you’ve heard that “familiarity breeds contempt?” Better yet, familiarity breeds inattention. We don’t often consider that serious or fatal injuries can occur in low speed collisions.
I have a challenge for you. While it is important for you to be alert and aware, it isn’t an easy task. The next time you drive, try concentrating solely on the driving task. Think of nothing else. Then see how far you get before your mind wanders. Many drivers won’t even get out of the parking lot! Seasoned drivers don’t HAVE to think about driving much. It’s something we do automatically, and our minds are free to wander. And our minds WANT to wander. Have you ever driven somewhere and been so lost in thought that you couldn’t remember anything about the trip itself? Is this a problem?
Is this a curable problem? Paying attention can become a habit, but you have to work at it. Make conscious, persistent choices NOT to eat while driving, or whatever you do that takes your attention off where your moving vehicle is pointed. Connect your mind to your eyes and work at consciously analyzing what you see while you drive. We call this “situational awareness.” Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us ever do. It deserves your full attention. Mastery of this one habit can almost make you bullet-proof. Not quite, but almost.
Rule 2: Don’t Trust Nobody!
We have met the enemy and he is us. You can never rely on what the other driver will do. Think back to all the mistakes you’ve made while driving over the years. Think ahead to the ones you know you will make in the future. All the other drivers are just like us! Don’t trust them! While you are driving, keep a wary eye on the other guy and leave yourself plenty of room. Anticipate the mistakes he might make and be ready for them. Eventually, he will! Because he’s just like us! When you are driving on “autopilot,” you have turned control of your vehicle over to those other drivers – you are at their mercy. Their fate is your fate.
If you are too trusting, you are relying on that other driver for your safety. Is he worthy of that trust? Every few seconds, some drivers in this country find out this is a poor bet. Maybe some of those other drivers are returning from a beer festival! Maybe they just lost a job, or worse, a loved one. The other driver might be an 11-year-old who found Dad’s keys. Approach driving with the idea that every other driver is an unpredictable menace and out to get you. Most collisions occur when the “other guy” does something we don’t expect, or when we do something they don’t expect.
If you accept that everyone makes driving errors, the next step is to drive with a wary attitude. Be careful of approaching red lights, because you know a light by itself never stopped anyone. Watch out for folks getting ready to pull out from parking beside the road. Look for gaps in lines of traffic which might be the result of someone pausing to let another vehicle cross in front of them. (I’ve personally witnessed three or four collisions in the past ten years that happened just this way). There are others: failure to signal a lane change or turn, or tailgating someone when they are poking along because they need to make a turn—a turn they suddenly WILL make when they see it at the last second. You can think of dozens of others. Be alert to the possibilities and have a strategy in mind for dealing with them.
Rule 3: Yield Anyway!
“Nobody ever yielded their way into a collision.” Think about it. If you are in doubt about who has the right of way, give it away. The other guy may be wrong, but you can end up hurt or dead. We often say no one HAS the right-of-way until it is yielded to them. (Keep in mind I’m talking defensive driving practices, not traffic law.) Right of way rules are often misunderstood, and there are situations where the rules may not be clear to everyone. If there is uncertainty about which vehicle should have the right of way, give the other guy the road. When it comes to driving safely, it’s not the principle, but the outcome, that counts.
Rule 4: Don’t speed!
Driving at a higher than reasonable speed increases your risk in two ways: it cuts your reaction time and results in more “stored” energy (that must be dissipated in any collision). You should consider if the risks are worth the gain.
This is the science of math and physics—you cannot bend these rules. Each incremental increase in speed reduces your ability to react in time to hazards, because you may be covering distance in less time than it takes to react. Normal reaction time is between .75 second and 1.5 seconds, on average. Average reaction time distance at 50 mph would be approximately 83 feet. At 70 mph, it is over 115 feet (over 7 modern car lengths). These numbers do not include braking distance, just reaction time. The average difference in reaction-time distance from 50 mph to 70 mph is about 32 feet. If you were relying solely on braking, any hazard you encounter within the reaction distance is already a problem; you can’t react quickly enough to miss it. This is particularly important at night, when darkness restricts your visibility. Do you know at what distance your headlights will illuminate a hazard? How is your night vision these days? When headlights finally light up a road hazard, it is often too late to avoid it. Many experts would tell you that even 50 mph is too fast for conditions at night, on any dark roadway.
If you could choose the speed at which to hit a brick wall, assuming that it was a sure thing you were going to hit one, would you choose to hit the wall at 10 mph or at 100 mph? Not hard to decide, is it? Higher speeds also bring additional accumulated, or stored, energy. More stored energy means increased crash forces if you hit something. Here’s a real-world example; a loaded semi traveling at 60 mph develops about 6.5 MILLION foot-pounds of force. Or, your body, unrestrained in the vehicle, could hit the windshield with about 16,000 foot-pounds of force, should your vehicle hit some immoveable object – like a tree.
A defensive driver chooses a speed matching traffic as closely as possible without exceeding speed limits. If traffic is moving at higher speed than you should go, keep to the right and out of the way. This is often a legal requirement as well, if you are traveling at a speed less than the flow of traffic. Also, don’t neglect to maintain the correct following distance.
Consider that speeding often doesn’t save much time. How many times have you reached a red light, only to find a “jackrabbit” waiting there that passed you a half mile back like you were standing still? Ever wonder why? Around most urban areas, signals limit overall speeds to what the system can handle (in terms of numbers of vehicles). In Phoenix, for example, that’s approximately 40 to 45 mph. Drive faster than that and you’ll simply spend more time waiting at red lights, wasting fuel, wearing down brake pads, and accumulating just a little more stress in your life for no good reason or gain. Even on the highway, you don’t often gain much. Frequently, once you pass someone, you find them on your back bumper as you slow down to enter the next town. So you gained what, exactly? On an Interstate, where you truly can save some time by speeding (provided you don’t get pulled over), the difference between 65 mph and 80 mph over 50 miles is only 8.7 minutes. Big deal.
Rule 5: Don’t Drive Impaired.
First, let’s define “impairment.” Webster’s New World Dictionary defines impairment as “making something worse, less, weaker, or damaged.” Applied to driving, impairment means there is a factor present that decreases your ability to operate your vehicle safely.
The first thing that comes to most folks’ minds is impairment through alcohol or other drugs. There are others as well: impairment through fatigue, or as a result of disabling injuries or illness. There was a case a few years ago where a man attempted to drive with some broken limbs. He used a stick to operate the gas pedal, and ended up losing control, overran a sidewalk, and killed a person who was using a pay phone.
Alcohol is a prime cause of impairment. Since it acts as a depressant, it begins to diminish a person’s abilities with the first sip. Many people do not realize that even at very low blood alcohol levels, way before reaching any “legal limit,” impairment of physical and mental abilities is occurring. In the USA, all states now have a .08% presumptive level — the alcohol concentration at which a driver is presumed to be impaired, with no other evidence required. But impairment often begins at AC levels as low as .04%—less than half the “legal limit.” What’s worse, it acts on the very skills and abilities you need most as a driver: judgment, vision, and the ability to do several things at once. Since alcohol slows your mind and your motor skills, it has a dramatic effect on your reaction time and distance. If impairment causes your reaction time to double, for example, at 70 mph that can result in an additional 103 feet traveled. Obviously, this could mean the difference between a miss and a collision. Driving with other impairments could have similar results.
One of my common themes in teaching this topic is personal responsibility. We all have the obligation to make sure we are able to drive safely whenever we operate our vehicle. Ask yourself, “Am I safe to drive? Am I rested? Am I ill? Have I taken medications that might affect my abilities? Are my limbs available for use? Has it been long enough since I had that drink for the alcohol to have worked its way through my system?” (Generally, the body can eliminate one drink per hour, and, contrary to popular beliefs, nothing can speed up that process.) Do I have my glasses on, if needed?” Only if you can answer yes to all these questions should you exercise your privilege to drive.
I am convinced that if everyone would (1) not speed; (2) pay attention; (3) not drive impaired; and (4), wear seat belts (and use other safety systems such as air bags and ABS brakes), no one would ever get killed in a traffic collision. Just these four things, practiced habitually, would eliminate most serious collisions and save 50,000 lives each year. In the real world, though, we’re human, and because we are, there will always be mistakes that lead to collisions. Since we do subject ourselves to hostile environments and physical forces that are incompatible with life, we should do everything possible to minimize the risks, yes? So, again, practice paying 100% attention to your driving, drive at a reasonable speed, never drive impaired, and buy and learn how to use safety systems correctly. These ideas are the foundation of any defensive driving “system.” Keep the shiny side up!
Rule 6: Wear your seat belt!
Without a doubt, seat belts are the most significant safety device ever invented. Seat belts do several things for you. They provide impact protection, they absorb crash forces, and they keep you from being thrown out of the vehicle. Modern vehicles are built with “crumple zones,” and seat belts are an integral part of the system. The belts hold you in place while the vehicle collapses around your “safe” zone. Belts help keep you in your place, in control, and better able to avoid a crash. Yet for all these benefits, folks have lots of “reasons” why they don’t wear them.
1. “They wrinkle my clothes.” Absolutely, they do.
2. “They’re uncomfortable.” Maybe so, but you can adjust them so they fit better. If you need to have your belts adjusted to fit, see your dealer.
3. “I want to be thrown clear of the vehicle in a crash.” Oh yes, PLEASE, on my head! By the way, that’s the number one cause of death in vehicle crashes.
4. “I don’t want to be trapped if there’s a collision, or my vehicle ends up in the water, or on fire.” Wearing belts increases the likelihood you will be conscious after impact, less injured, and more able to get out. Seat belt failure or jamming isn’t common.
5. “The government can’t tell ME what to do! It’s a free country!” Yes, it is. But what about other people’s rights? When you don’t wear belts and get injured, what happens when your insurance runs out? The public pays your medical bills, that’s what. In my state, this costs taxpayers around $35 million a year.
6. “I’ve heard of people who were in crashes who would have been killed if they’d been wearing belts.” Who says so? Not any safety expert with whom I’ve ever spoken. If a collision can kill you with a belt on, then you’re out of luck without the belt also, unless by a fluke. What I want is good odds. The statistics show that seat belts would prevent roughly 50% of deaths and injuries.
What about others who ride with you—what if they won’t wear belts? I would say no ride for them. In any collision, unbelted passengers become flying objects—you can be injured if you are struck from behind by an unbelted passenger, even with your belt on.
Here’s one last argument. If you are involved in a crash without belts, you may be held partially responsible for your own injuries, even if the other guy is mostly at fault in the crash. The insurance company or a court may rule that X% of your injuries were caused by your failure to protect yourself, and reduce any award by that amount. If your injuries are severe, that can cost you millions.
Rule 7: Buy and use safety devices.
In addition to seat belts, we also recommend size-appropriate child safety restraints, ABS brakes, and air bags.
Child Safety Seats: As a defensive driving practice, children under age five should be restrained in approved child safety seats, buckled properly into the vehicle, even when they seem “big” enough to use regular belts. Keep in mind your state may have different legal requirements, and if so, you should comply with them.
There are different types of seats to use depending on the age, weight and size of the child. Be aware and use the correct type for your child. Buckle the seat into the center, rear seat position where there is increased protection from side impacts. A child seat should not be in the front seat, especially if there is an air bag system installed; an air bag impact can injure or kill a child in an incorrectly installed safety seat.
ABS Brakes: ABS brakes prevent uncontrolled skids during hard braking, by sensing wheel lock-up and releasing brake pressure (many times per minute), and just long enough to prevent a skid. As a result, you can still steer the vehicle, since the wheels can’t lock up. Experts say that steering is faster than braking, but with ABS you can do both. You might say, “I was taught to do this with regular brakes; I pump the brakes to avoid skids.” The reality is, when faced with a panic situation, you will NOT likely be able to stop or steer around a hazard using “threshold braking” (or pumping the brake). Average drivers don’t practice those skills, and they MUST be practiced repeatedly to be mastered. Note: ABS brakes don’t usually stop you FASTER than you can with the correct use of standard brakes, but for most of us, the advantage is in the ability to avoid a skid and still steer. If you have ABS brakes, it is very important that you read the information about how to use them in your owner’s manual—and even practice in an empty parking lot somewhere so you know how they work and feel.
Air Bags: There are some things you need to know about air bags. First of all, the opening of an air bag is not a gentle event; they open with a certain amount of violence. They are timed so as you are thrown forward, they expand to fill the intervening space to prevent your impact on harder surfaces. You can be injured by an air bag – but the injuries will usually be minor compared to those you’d incur otherwise. You do not want to be too close when one triggers, either. Sit as far back from the steering wheel as you can while still comfortably reaching all the necessary controls, and grip the wheel correctly (your vehicle’s owners manual has more specific information about this). This is especially important for smaller people. These systems are being improved every year, but even the problems with earlier versions don’t change the fact their positive contribution to occupant safety far outweighs their shortcomings. Many people are still walking around today because they had air bags when they needed them. One last thing, be sure to wear your seat belts too; the bags can’t help you if you’re not in the right place!
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