Okay, you’re thinking, “I drive defensively; I watch my mirrors and the traffic ahead, so what else do I need to worry about?” Well, how about the traffic following you, the traffic beside you; the traffic to the left and right rear quarters and then there are the side streets and all the telltales that something is going to happen.
How Can I Do All of This?
This is an excellent question because it would require the neck work of an owl to see almost everywhere at once or within a reasonable length of time (owls can turn their heads almost 360 degrees before they have to turn back), so let’s break this down a bit.
Learning to watch traffic just takes experience. It isn’t something that is learned the day you get your license or the day you get behind the wheel. No driver’s ed course even bothers covering it in depth, except to say, “Don’t forget to drive defensively.”
Some would say that “driving defensively” means driving offensively all the time (others call this road rage, but we’re not dickering over semantics here) because “driving defensively” certainly doesn’t mean driving offensively, at all. It means keeping an eye on the environment around your car watching — as best you can — for other drivers who may be wavering in lane or changing lane without signaling. It also means that not only do you have to look at the cars directly in front of you, but you also have to look at the cars in front of them, if you have that type of clearance.
More than once, we’ve been in situations where the driver in front of us is a “late-braker,” or he/she waits until the very last minute to use their cars’ stopping system. If you are following too closely — a real no-no — all that will happen if you fail to watch the cars two or three car lengths ahead is that your car may end up with a new hood ornament, the rear end of the car in front of you and you, being the rear car, are automatically assumed to have caused the accident. In our case, by watching the taillights of the cars ahead of the car right in front of use has caused us to slow down and brake because something was happening, while the person directly in front of us usually says something like: “Ohmigod!” and hits the brakes late.
Watching the cars off the left and right fenders is pretty easy because they are ahead of you in lane. Some of the things to watch for (it will come with experience if you are a new driver but everything here is subtle):
- The most obvious sign here is the turn signal. If the driver signals that he or she is changing lanes and turns on the blinker, you can be certain that something is going to happen. The suggestion here is slowing down a bit and allowing the driver who is either entering or leaving lane to have an easier time by passing in front of you. Road-ragers tend to speed up and close gaps, so you have to be wary of that, too.
- Next, watch the fenders and wheels of the cars ahead of you; if you see the right or left front fenders of the cars in front of you or the left or right rear quarters moving, then the chances are good that the car will be changing lanes, even if they do not use their flashers.
- Watch the drivers in the cars ahead. Usually, if a driver is planning to change lanes, you will see him or her looking intently at the mirrors on that side of the vehicle before the lane change is made.
What More Do I Have To Do?
Here are some other defensive driving techniques that many drivers never practice because “the other guy should be doing it.” Well, that’s not true because every driver should be driving defensively. Defensive driving includes:
- Leaving at least two car lengths between your car and the car ahead (to determine if you are in the right spot, watch the car just ahead of you and pick a spot at the side of the road and then count “one thousand, two thousand.” If you hit two thousand and the front of your car has passed the spot, you are too close and have to back down a bit.
- Keep up with traffic. It’s true that on many roads traffic speeds along at speeds higher than the posted limit, but to be safe you have to keep up with it. If you slow or drive too slowly, your car could end up the hood ornament of another vehicle that is speeding up behind you.
- Keep to the limit, if you can, as you will not only be safer, but you will also be saving gas.
- Always have a bail-out route planned. For example, if you see traffic suddenly closing up on you ahead, how would you proceed? If you had a bail-out planned you could signal; slip into the spot you had chosen and then, if your car is near an exit, slip off the roadway. This one requires constantly analyzing your driving environment.
- In rain or snow double or triple the following distance, using the same formula and make sure your tires and brakes are in good shape.
- Use your turn signals whenever you are planning a lane or other change.
- Always make sure your car has open space to the sides and rear.
- Check your mirrors constantly and watch the blindspot, especially if you are changing lanes. Many cars today have blindspot warning systems that indicate there are cars in the blindspot (the area between your sideview and rearview mirrors that you can’t see).
- During the daytime use your headlights or “fog” lamps to tell people there’s a vehicle coming.
While this isn’t the most complete compendium of defensive driving techniques, these techniques have been learning in more than 40 years of driving. When they were ignored, problems usually resulted (visits to the rumble strip on the Interstate and to the shoulder on suburban roads.
With the crowded roadways around the world, there are two words that should be on the lips of every driver “defensive driving.” No, it’s not cowardly driving or overly hysterical driving, it’s simply watching the road ahead and the cars around you, leaving the proper spacing and ensuring that your car is in good shape for the condition s it must drive through. The lights should be working as should the wipers and the heater/defroster, especially with winter coming on in the Northern Hemisphere
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