Apr 212012

Although some traffic accidents are beyond our control, many can be avoided, so here are some safety measures that I’ve been exercising in my 100% accident-free history of driving throughout over 30 states in the USA, and elsewhere in Europe and Mexico. However, I won’t here preach about defensive driving because you can read about that everywhere (and you should). These are the safe driving tips I’ll share with my kids someday, so please have in mind that the list below is not set in stone. When it’s about driving, don’t blindly follow my or anybody else’s instructions, but always use your common sense and adjust your speed and driving style to road conditions.

Avoid Other Drivers’ Blind Spots

In theory, blind spots are the areas not visible in the driver’s rear-view and side mirrors, but when I go driving I leave theory at home and avoid spending time in the “wingman” position, aside and slightly behind another driver, REGARDLESS of their side mirrors. Some people don’t align them properly or just don’t look at them, so I just try to avoid being at any vehicle’s side. When it happens, which is often on Chicago highways, I’ll either brake and slow down a little to leave them room in my lane in case they don’t see me and try to get in, or I’ll quickly accelerate to get where I’m sure they can see me at their side. When passing someone moving slower than me, I rather slow down and wait until there’s enough room to get fully ahead of them, then accelerate to shorten the time spent in their blind spot. Whenever I see two vehicles passing each other at a fraction of a mile per hour difference, I always think of Homer Simpson meeting his alike. If someone is trying to pass me that slowly, I’ll use my brakes and let Homer get ahead before resuming my speed. What’s more valuable, Homer? A few drops of gas, or our safety?

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Viewing Convex Blind Spot Mirrors

After few years of relying on very small add-on convex blind spot mirrors, I realized I was spending too much time studying objects in them before each lane change, meanwhile making it much more probable to hit someone braking ahead of me, so I gave up on that and for a while I relied only on the ever-recommended and much quicker look over the shoulder. Then I discovered the next trick.

Minimize Your Own Blind Spots

As described in my related article, you can minimize or virtually eliminate your blind spots with clever alignment of side mirrors. Of course, that shouldn’t ever make you skip the lifesaving look over the shoulder.

Don’t Assume Green Light Means Go

In my book green light means go only if I won’t collide with somebody running the red light. Check for them first.

Be Horn-Happy

Although some drivers are easily annoyed when someone’s honking the horn, I don’t hesitate to use it to announce my presence if I think it can lower the risk of an accident. Even if I’m in an area where honking is forbidden, I’d rather have a ticket than an accident. Hitting the horn saved me several times when I happened to be in someone’s blind spot and they started getting into my lane, or even when a guy ahead backed up to get out of the intersection and forgot to switch from reverse to forward while waiting for the lights to change. Moreover, when engaging into passing a slow vehicle on a two-lane expressway, after making sure it’s safe and turning on the left blinker, I like to honk my horn shortly just to warn the driver ahead of me I’m coming about. I’ve seen a lot of this custom worldwide, and the truckers appreciate it most.

Be Turn-Signal-Happy – Announce Intentions

Chicago has either a number of overpaid luxury cars lacking turn signals, or their drivers lack the common decency to signal their intention to people around them when they are about to change lanes or turn. My example from the lifesaver over the shoulder look below (a car coming from behind at a much greater speed in a blind spot two lanes aside, getting into the lane I’m trying to change to), is also a good example why a turn signal should occur at least 5 seconds before a turn or a lane change – it can save lives as well. Turn signals should announce the driver’s intentions instead of the factual state, so that others can adjust to the anticipated new position (excluding some lane-territorial uncivilized jerks who don’t let people in after seeing the blinker). If you are not absolutely sure whether you’re going to make that turn or lane change you’re considering, relax, you can always switch off the turn signal, so announce your intentions and you’ll be surprised how many drivers will actually make room for you.

Use Flashers During and After Heavy Braking

I’ve picked up this habit from some wise 18-wheelers and I find it very useful because I don’t like getting rammed into from behind by some Mario Andretti wannabe (had a few close calls there as well). When traveling in highway speeds and becoming aware of heavy braking ahead, I start braking as early as possible to make it easier for the guys behind me to see my stop lights and adjust to my speed change. This is kind of tricky, but as I brake I keep watching the situation ahead and glancing the rear-view mirror to see how far the guy behind is and if he’s too close and there’s enough room in front of me, I ease it up a bit on the brakes to give him a “brake” (pun intended). If the guys behind me are far away and driving much faster, I will keep my foot gently on the brakes even after slowing down so my stop lights are visible and I also turn on the emergency flashers until there’s many cars behind me so that the ones approaching at a much higher speed can see something’s up and start braking early instead of hitting me or other vehicles. Once I’ve seen this, like in a slow motion, in my rear-view mirror after we suddenly stopped due to a motorcycle accident ahead on the highway, when a guy behind a guy behind me got rammed from behind and hit the guy behind me, and I expected to feel the hit any moment but he didn’t fly as much ahead as the first “buffer” guy. I was lucky.

Use a CB station

Speaking of the truckers, CB channel 19 is full of trash talk, speeches of 18-wheel politicians and useless quarrels, but when push comes to shove they all shut up and start warning each other about dangerous road conditions, traffic jams, police speed traps and most of all, accidents, so this is why I consider them my buddies and just like they warn me, I warn them about any possible danger. I highly recommend getting a CB radio. It’s not for the faint of ears, but it can save lives. You can read more about my experience with CB radios in my related article.

Cut Truckers Some Space

Usually I’m driving for either pleasure or necessity, but the truckers (and cab drivers) do it for a living, so give them a break. This applies especially in your big city where you are perfectly comfortable while it may be their first time on that road. When I see an 18-wheeler with a turn signal trying to get into my lane, I slow down and when there’s enough space for them to get in, I give them a signal with my lights (turn them on, then off, or the other way around if it’s night). Most of them usually give me a “thank you” flash with all their rear lights once they’re in and it’s much easier for me to later go around them than for them to wait for the next guy. Once before the GPS times on a trip from Chicago to Monument Valley I missed a highway exit in Colorado, just because a guy or a lady aside and slightly behind me didn’t want to let me into their lane and it cost me a lot of nerves, about an hour of extra time on side roads, and a speeding ticket in Utah while trying to get to a motel in Mexican Hat before the night becomes a morning. OK, the speeding ticket was my fault, missing the exit was my choice (instead of seriously risking an accident by cutting the person off right before the exit), but I still remember the jerk. Now try to imagine how bad it can be to miss an exit in an unknown town while you’re on the clock, driving an 18-wheel monster that’s not allowed on every road and that can’t go under every bridge. Give them a break.

Use Intuition and Rely on Higher Power

Listen to your intuition. If you’re religious, pray for guidance and a safe trip. Luck and providence are often my best friends. To this day I don’t know how I managed to steer a minivan full of people to avoid the guy who missed his stop sign and then mistakenly hit both gas and brake pedals when he saw me coming into the intersection. It was some crazy brake-turn-brake-turn maneuver that I possibly couldn’t repeat. Or one icy night in Wisconsin, and the other example from my early years, when I used to drive like a maniac on a familiar, curvy, narrow and empty country road, when it suddenly occurred to me that with that driving I couldn’t possibly avoid a bus or a big truck, only to see the bus appearing from around the corner after I slowed down. Or dreaming about a car on the wrong side of a two-lane road driving straight toward me and as I turn left to avoid him, he turns back to his right and we collide, but in a very similar situation in the real life I remembered the dream, stuck to my right and the guy turned back on his side and missed me. I don’t want to turn this into preaching but I often think that in those moments Holy Spirit was holding me by the shoulders.

Never Skip the Lifesaver Look over the Shoulder

If you will remember only one thing from this post, this is it! Some of the few close calls I had throughout the past few decades were related to my own or other drivers’ blind spots, and they made me fully appreciate the value of looking over the shoulder before changing lanes. This maneuver is among motorcyclists known as the “lifesaver” for the obvious reasons, and every driver should do it. Just like with turn signals, I do this even when there’s nobody around and I have a seemingly perfect mirror view of my sides, just to cherish the valuable habit. Moreover, few times when I thought there was nobody there, my lifesaver view saved me, revealing a “wingman” vehicle in my blind spot that got there when I wasn’t looking.

Nothing else gives a momentary awareness of 270 degrees of our surroundings like one short glimpse over the shoulder. Regardless of how many mirrors I have, there can still be a blind spot I can’t see without the lifesaver look. For example, I may not see a car coming from behind at a much greater speed in a blind spot two lanes aside, getting into the lane I’m trying to change to. So for your own and other traffic participants’ sake, be a trooper and train yourself to always perform this routine before changing lanes – it saves lives.

Disclaimer: This describes my driving experience and things that make me feel safe when driving four-wheel vehicles. Your experience or needs may be different. Consult experts when in doubt.

Oh yes, and i almost forgot the obvious: NEVER TEXT AND DRIVE!

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