How to Become a Safer Driver - 2016 Edition

Driving is dangerous, and cars can become weapons. Every time you get behind the wheel, you risk your life and the lives of others. You might do this unknowingly, but it is still not an excuse. Statistically, driving is a dangerous way of getting around, but necessary in today’s world.
A student maneuvers their vehicle through a defensive driving course aboard Marine Corps Bogue Air Field, N.C. 1 photo
Photo: Lance Cpl. Katherine M Solano
You’ve probably wondered how you can be a safer driver, but you have a few years of driving behind you without any incidents? Well, there’s always room for improvement, and even top-level drivers from the highest forms of motorsport follow specific training courses.

Before you go on to a defensive driving course in your area, a move which we highly recommend, we’ve put together a list of five common sense changes that you can apply to your driving for enhanced safety.

We must note that these changes are good for driving just about any vehicle with a steering wheel operated by humans, so you should be good to go for any size vehicle you might own. Just before we go into details, please remember never to text and drive and refrain from using your phone while driving.

Furthermore, a good common sense move to make you a better driver even if you do not follow our tips, along with the previously mentioned rule of not texting, would be never to drive under the influence of alcohol or other controlled substances. Now that we’ve got that message out, let’s go on with our list.

It all starts with how you sit

Your position behind the wheel is one of the most important principles taught by defensive driving instructors worldwide. In theory, your driving instructor presented you with a proper position. Once you got your license and started driving on your own, you started adjusting your seat to get “comfortable.” Chances are you arranged it wrong.

It is true that your driving position should be comfortable, but it has to be correct first. You can sit comfortably and correctly behind the wheel. One doesn’t rule out the other. Once a proper position behind the wheel is achieved, you will be a better driver, and you'll be safer in case you get involved in an accident, as cars are designed to protect occupants that are properly seated.

First of all, take a seat. Adjust the gap between your seat and the dash by extending your feet to the pedal area, pressing the space between pedals. You should be able to press hard into the floor while still having a good degree of bending of your knees. This position means that you can reach the pedal’s maximum potential with the maximum force available in your feet, without them being fully straight.

If you have your feet straight to reach the pedals, you will not have access to the full braking power of your car, and you endanger your legs in case of an accident. Make sure your back and shoulders are touching the backrest entirely. If they are, and you have positioned yourself correctly on the seat, there shouldn’t be any room between your butt, your back, and the seat.

Adjust the backrest close to a straight position, and the headrest so you can easily rest your head on it comfortably (this is important if you get rear ended). Failure to have your head on the headrest when being hit from behind could break your neck.

Don’t go for an entirely upright position of the backrest, as it might not be comfortable for you and may impair your driving. A few degrees leaned to the back is allright, as long as you can reach the steering wheel properly. However, how do you check this?

Extend your left arm to the top of the steering wheel. Put your wrist on the center of the wheel. Use the place where your wristwatch would normally sit to check if you can reach the described place on the wheel without your back or shoulders leaving the backrest.

Adjust the steering wheel if that is available. Remember to keep a distance of 10 to 14 inches (30-45 cm) between your chest and the center of the wheel - otherwise, the airbag deployment could be dangerous for you.

Once the backrest is sorted, check your seat height. Put your hand on top of your head, with your palm facing the windshield. You should raise your seat to get a good view outside, but you must not have a distance of less that four or five fingers from your head to the headliner. Buckle up!

Hands on approach

Once you’ve perfected your driving position, it is time to hold the wheel. With both hands at all times. Now, what’s the correct position of your hands on the wheel? Imagine the wheel is a conventional, analog, clock. Hold your left hand where the number 9 sits, and your right hand where the number 3 rests. Not higher, not lower.

One-handed steering wheel operation is wrong and should always be avoided. Never turn your palms towards you while rotating the wheel, as it limits your range of motion because of how human elbows work.

Operating the wheel is another question. You can drive most cars without your hands leaving the "9 and 3" position. The trick is to push with one hand and pull with the other while operating the wheel, along with turning at just the right time. Make sure you do not cross your hands while turning, as the corner could “close” its angle and you’d be left without any more movement left in your steering.

If your steering rack does not allow you to do this, or you are uncomfortable driving like this, there are solutions. You can always move the hand opposite the direction of turning to a lower position on the wheel for a brief moment so you can get more movement out of the deal, and then revert to the normal “9 and 3” position once you’ve brought the wheel back to normal. It takes practice to make perfect, but it works.

What are you looking at?

A fundamental rule, that sounds like a no-brainer, is to look where you want to go. If you are not doing this, you are driving distracted, or you are doing something called point fixation. Both are done without intention, and your brain focuses on another thing while you are driving. We hope you are not looking at the scenery while driving and that you are not looking at your smartphone’s display so that we can cover other aspects.

Point fixation happens when you focus your eyes on the obstacle on the road you must avoid. If it is a fixed object, don’t look at it twice, just find the open space you need to go with your eyes, and your limbs will lead the way. If the obstacle is a moving object, it is best to acknowledge its presence and try to predict its route, but you must keep looking for the open spot on the road to direct your vehicle towards it.

Never accelerate when you are not looking ahead, and having your right foot covering the brakes when you are looking some other way while your car is moving is a very good idea. Avoid not looking ahead while driving. Try to see more than the immediate area, so you have a better understanding of what’s happening on the road in front of you.

If we are on the topic, check your vision annually. Oh, by the way, make a habit out of checking your mirrors and making sure there’s nothing in your blind spot before changing lanes or steering onto a side road.

Pace yourself, remember the two-second rule

Tailgating is a crime in some countries, and there’s good reason for that. The tailgater is a menace to himself and other drivers. This is why the two-second rule exists. Why two-seconds? Because that's how long it takes the average driver to react to visual stimulation, think what to do, and apply the brakes.

How do you apply the two-second rule? Look at the vehicle in front of you and count to two from when it passes a stationary object on the side of the road. If you get it right, you will only pass the same immovable object after you get to “two.” It works at any speed and is considered the minimum safe following distance while operating a vehicle. Even a bicycle.

Don’t forget to be nice

Last but not least, be considerate of other drivers. Don’t enter traffic in front of another vehicle, forcing its operator to hit the brakes. You hate it when it happens to you, and it means shifting several gears down and back up if you get in front of a semi.

Avoid any altercation with other drivers and only use the horn if there’s an immediate danger ahead or around you. Don’t flash your lights to make other drivers get out of your way (also illegal in many countries) and use your turn signals every time you turn or switch lanes.

Be considerate towards fellow road users, as everybody wants to get home safe at the end of the day. Being a jerk does not help anyone (you included), and road rage is a thing that can be avoided by civilized driving and common sense.
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About the author: Sebastian Toma
Sebastian Toma profile photo

Sebastian's love for cars began at a young age. Little did he know that a career would emerge from this passion (and that it would not, sadly, involve being a professional racecar driver). In over fourteen years, he got behind the wheel of several hundred vehicles and in the offices of the most important car publications in his homeland.
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