Auto Safety: It’s No Accident!
Setting up in your car: The proper seating position is very important. Your seatback should be adjusted so that your shoulder blades touch it, which gives you support. Then move your seat so that if you put your wrist on top of the steering wheel, there’s a bend in your elbow. If the seatbelt height can be adjusted, move it so that it’s not cutting into your neck. Be sure you’re at least 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) away from the steering wheel, which is a safe distance from the airbag. You should be able to push the brake pedal all the way to the floor, while still maintaining a slight bend in your knee. If you're only pushing with your toe, try moving the seat closer.
Adjust your mirrors properly. Lean as far as you can toward the passenger side, and move the mirror so that you can just see the side of your car. Do the same for the driver’s side. This, in conjunction with the rearview mirror, eliminates your “blind spots.” You should not be able to see your own car in your mirrors when you’re sitting properly. When you’re driving, you should be glancing in all three mirrors regularly; always know what’s around and behind you.
Airbag safety: All new cars have airbags in the wheel and in the dash in front of the passenger; many also have them in the sides of the front seats (side impact airbags), and above or alongside the windows (curtain airbags). Unlike in the movies, these don’t act like soft pillows; they explode with considerable force, and immediately deflate (some curtain airbags stay inflated for a few seconds for rollover protection). They can save your life, but airbags can be potentially dangerous or deadly if you don’t remember some important rules:
- Always wear a seatbelt, which keeps you in the correct position for airbag deployment
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for placement of infant and child seats
- If your car has side airbags, don’t use seat covers
- Don’t put anything on the dash, as it can become a dangerous projectile
- Don’t drive with your arm in front of the wheel, or with your hand on top of the wheel, and never “hook the wheel” – hold it with your palm facing you – when making a turn; should the airbag deploy, it can break your wrist or elbow
- NEVER allow a front-seat passenger to ride with his or her feet up on the dash; should the airbag deploy, it can cause serious and possibly irreparable leg and pelvis damage.
The driving position: Your hands should be at nine-and-three. Hold the outside of the wheel, without hooking your thumbs around it. This will give you maximum control in all driving circumstances. Ten-and-two doesn’t give you a full range of motion, and causes fatigue on longer drives. Driving with one hand on top of the wheel doesn’t give you control in an emergency situation. Always keep both hands on the wheel. For most turns, the nine-and-three will let you turn the car without moving your hands. For sharper turns, you can move one hand up to finish the turn. Never “hook the wheel” on a turn by holding the wheel at the top with your fingers wrapped around it and your palm facing you. If a car hits you and the airbag deploys – and it only takes a split second – it will break your wrist or elbow.
Where to look: Many drivers only look at the road a few feet in front of the hood – they’re the ones stuck behind the construction barriers or slammed into the car in front. Look as far ahead as you can – right to the horizon, if possible. This will allow you to see and avoid potential problems, but you’ll still see the cars and their brake lights directly in front of you. It takes a little while to get used to doing this, but once you are, you’ll feel uncomfortable not knowing what’s up ahead.
Looking ahead lets you assess potential problems and gives you time to react. Always think about what other drivers will do. If you can safely go around a car stopped or turning up ahead, you’re not at risk of being stopped yourself and susceptible to a rear-end collision. If an erratic driver passes you, watch him up ahead: if he crashes, you’re going to have to take evasive action. Note what drivers ahead are doing: if everyone’s moving out of your lane, maybe there’s construction or a stopped car. Looking far ahead lets you move smoothly and safely into another lane; stopping and then trying to change lanes puts you in a potentially dangerous situation. (Smooth driving, instead of start-and-stop, also saves gasoline!)
No distractions! Your car is not a phone booth or a restaurant. Driving your car should take all your attention. Eat, drink and make telephone calls only when the car is safely stopped. Studies show that hands-free calls are no safer than ones where you hold the phone.
On the road: The right lane is for driving, the left lane (or lanes) for passing. Despite what far too many drivers think, the middle lane on a multi-lane highway is not the driving lane – it’s a passing lane, and for tractor-trailers, it’s the only passing lane available. If you stay in the middle lane, you impede the flow of traffic, causing other drivers to have to go around you. You’re also putting yourself in a dangerous situation, as you have no “escape lane” – if something happens up ahead, you can’t pull over to the shoulder. The rule is simple: if a vehicle passes on your right-hand side, you’re in the wrong lane. Move over.
Merging onto the highway: Merging successfully into traffic involves looking and planning ahead. On the on-ramp, as soon as you can see the highway, watch traffic behind and beside you to find a space, and then adjust your speed so that you can merge smoothly into it. You should be picking up speed on the straight part of the on-ramp so that you can blend with the flow of traffic. The key to safe, successful merging is in starting the process as early as possible. Never stop on the on-ramp, and don’t take the merge lane all the way to the end and hope to find a spot. When you’re on the highway, don’t just look straight ahead. Watch each on-ramp as you approach it. If there’s a car coming on, judge its speed, and adjust yours accordingly so that you’re not “meeting in the middle.” If necessary, especially with trucks, temporarily move into the middle (passing) lane to give the driver room. Safe merging depends on every driver taking responsibility. If you miss your exit, go to the next one. Never cut across traffic or try to back up. When leaving the highway, don’t slow down in the driving lane. Instead, move into the exit lane (the beginning of the off-ramp) and then start to slow down there.
Truck safety on the highway: You shouldn’t be afraid of big trucks, but you need to know their limitations and drive safely around them. They accelerate slowly, require a lot of room to stop, and they have massive blind spots. If you can’t see the truck’s mirrors, the driver can’t see you. Never stay alongside a tractor-trailer any longer than necessary. Wait until traffic is clear all along its length, and then accelerate to pass. Leave a lot of room before pulling back in, and never pull directly in front of a truck. The middle lane on a multi-lane highway is the only passing lane available to trucks. It’s not your driving lane; if the right lane is clear, move over. Trucks also need to make wide turns to clear the curb. If a truck is partly in the left-hand lane with its right turn signal on, don’t pull up alongside it; it will be turning and you will be in its path.
The right of way: You may think it’s polite to let another driver “go first,” but it can be very dangerous. Traffic flows smoothly and safely when each driver does what’s expected. If you have the right-of-way, but you wave another driver through the intersection, this can cause confusion and lead to collisions. It’s also dangerous to stop in traffic to let a pedestrian jaywalk; you could be hit from behind, which could knock your car into the pedestrian. If a driver or pedestrian is waiting for traffic to clear, and is obviously not going to drive or step out in front of you, keep going. It’s safer for everyone. If you’re turning left into a driveway across two lanes of traffic when oncoming cars are stopped for a light, be very careful if a driver leaves room for you to turn in front of him. Cars may still be moving in the curb lane and could hit you when you turn. At an intersection with two stop signs (when cross traffic does not stop), the car going straight has the right-of-way, no matter who got there first. But at a three- or four-way stop, the first car there goes first, no matter if the driver is turning or going straight. If two cars arrive at the same time, the car to the right goes first.
Turn signals: They’re meant to signal your intentions, not announce what you’ve just done. Put them on well before you plan to turn or change lanes, so that other drivers are aware of your intended action. Use them only when moving. If you pull over and stop, use your four-way flashers instead.
Safety at intersections: Most collisions happen at intersections and can be easily avoided by taking some common-sense precautions. Obey traffic lights. If you’re turning left, don’t try to “sneak through” as the light turns red. Always watch the light, not the car in front of you, and never blindly follow traffic through a turn. Stop with your wheels straight ahead: When you’re waiting to make a turn, keep your wheels straight. If they’re turned to the left and you’re hit from behind, it will push you into oncoming traffic. Do the same when turning right, to avoid being pushed into pedestrians.
Watch the sidewalks: While you’re waiting for traffic to clear for your turn, always watch the sidewalks on both sides of the intersection. If you turn during a break in traffic but then have to stop for a pedestrian, you will be stuck in the intersection and could be hit by oncoming vehicles. Be sure to look far down the street, as bicycles or skateboarders can reach the intersection very quickly. Stop at the lines: Bring your car to a stop behind the white line, and don’t creep over it unless you’re making a right-hand turn on a red. This leaves the walkway open for pedestrians.
Look both ways every time: All too often, drivers making right-hand turns at lights or stop signs only look to the left for traffic. Never move your vehicle without looking to the right as well, as there may be pedestrians crossing in front of you. Always make eye contact with pedestrians, to ensure that everyone is aware of intentions.
Make sure your car is safe: Have your vehicle checked on a regular basis to be sure that your brakes, steering, and shock absorbers are in good condition. Listen for any unusual sounds, such as squeaking or grinding that could indicate worn brake pads. Your single most important safety item is your tires! Every other safety item, from airbags to stability control, is there to help “mop up” after your tires have lost contact with the asphalt. Have them checked regularly for tread depth and wear.
Tires contain “wear indicators,” which look like little bars running crossways between the treads. If you see them, it’s time for new tires. Check your tire pressure regularly, at least once a month. The recommended pressure is indicated on a label in the door jamb or in your owner’s manual, not on the tire itself. Properly-inflated tires are safer, wear evenly, and save gasoline. “All-season” tires are a compromise, and good-quality, winter-specific tires will vastly improve performance, both in snow and on cold, dry roads. Good tires aren’t cheap, but your life and the lives of your loved ones are riding on them. Along with brakes, they should be your number-one safety priority.