Ten top tips to drive safely

Accident - Blue SUV with destroyed front end against black railings

Photo credit: Steven Vance

There were 32 million cars on the road in the UK in 2013 – about one car for every second person. That’s up 1.4 per cent on the year before. So it follows that there’s more chance of bumping into one than ever before.

With this in mind, we’re giving you ten top tips to help you stay safe on the roads.

Drive Safely Tip 1: Check your mirrors

Might sound obvious – but I don’t mean just while you’re driving – check them before you set off. Your offside mirror should be adjusted so that you can see along the side of your vehicle in the left side of the mirror. Similarly with the nearside – you should be able to see along the side of your vehicle.

Some recent advice suggests setting mirrors ‘wide’ so you can only see the very back of your car, meaning you have a better view of blind spots alongside you. This is not safe – seeing these blind spots are what your neck is for. Setting mirrors ‘wide’ increases blind spots behind the vehicle. This is illustrated here on ‘Drive and Stay Alive’.

And your rear view mirror should be adjusted so that you just need to move your eyes, not your head, to see behind you. If you have adjustable headrests in the back seats, and no passengers – put them down to the lowest position, so you can see more of the road.

For a detailed technical explanation from an expert that illustrates the safety benefits of correctly adjusted mirrors, see the article on ‘Drive and Stay Alive’ by Eddie Wren, a former police patrol driver who achieved the ‘police advanced’ driver qualification. Eddie knows his onions.

Drive Safely Tip 2: Check your tyres,  windscreen wash, and fuel

We all have to pop into the petrol station regularly for fuel. Make a habit of stopping to check your tyres are in a good condition and inflate them to the right pressure every couple of weeks. Not only can this save fuel, it could save your life if you spot a deep cut or notice wear on a tyre.

And while you are there – do you have enough fuel for your journey if something unexpected happens? Do you have the fuel to sit idling for half an hour in a motorway queue, or to make a 30-mile diversion?

And if you’re driving in any conditions, and you can’t quite see what’s going on ahead of you because of dirt, steam or streaky marks on your windscreen, you’re not the only person you’re putting at risk. Especially in winter, clean windows inside and out regularly, and don’t move off until all of your windows are demisted if it’s humid, wet or snowing.

Drive Safely Tip 3: Check the route in advance

Heard of Google Maps? Realise you can get it on your phone? Why not check your route before you leave, just to see if there are any delays or issues on the road. Or try local travel sites where roadworks and incidents are shown, or the AA’s web site. You can save yourself delays and frustration, and if it’s an unfamilar destination, check the critical turns and landmarks along the way.

Drive Safely Tip 4: Leave more room to the vehicle in front

If you’re travelling at 50 miles per hour, you’re covering 73.5 feet a second. Do you know the braking distance at 50mph for a car? It’s 14 car lengths. Fourteen. 53 metres, or 175 feet. So leave this gap at least. If something does go wrong in front of you, you’l stop safely. Otherwise… you won’t. If it’s raining, or worse, there is snow or ice around – drive slowly, smoothly and to be sure, double or triple distances.

And of course, expect the unexpected. If that cyclist looks like they might turn left without warning, you’re probably just as safe to assume that a right turn is coming. If that lorry looks like it’s going to move out, hang back, and give it the benefit of the doubt – don’t plant yourself in its blind spot and then be caught out when the car in front of you starts braking. Be cautious, and you’ll be safe.

Drive Safely Tip 5: Use sat nav for unfamiliar journeys

A calm voice telling you to bear right in a mile allows you to focus on what’s happening on the road, not what that exit sign says. It reduces your stress levels, and even if you miss a turn, it’ll work it out for you in a few seconds. Set the destination before you start moving in the car – and save your regular destinations for when you have to reach them from places you rarely visit.

A security tip related to sat navs is not to call your home destination ‘Home’, because if someone does pinch your car, they also have a good idea where to go to pinch your stamp collection. Call it ‘Office’ or ‘James’.

Drive Safely Tip 6: Don’t brake-test tailgaters

As soon as you see that vehicle looming up in your rear view mirror, you instinctively want to warn someone driving too close behind you to stay back. But a dab on the brakes to wake them up may just enrage them, and in the worst scenario, they could be picking their nose or looking at their speedo in frustration when you touch the brakes, and they’ll slap right into you.

Instead, just give your windscreen wash-wipe a pull. The effect of the water from your car hitting the windscreen of the vehicle behind you will cause them to back off as a reflex action. If it’s raining of course, this won’t work, but in any event, just concentrate on what’s in front of you, resist any temptation to speed up, unless you’re not keeping up with traffic ahead of you, and use your indicators to signal your intention to pull over early, but only when it’s safe. Don’t be tempted to make eye contact as they pass. Keep yourself safe.

Drive Safely Tip 7:  Don’t make or take phone calls

We’re talking about cognitive overload here. The brain is only good at doing one thing at a time. When you give it two things to do, it means it can’t do things quickly enough. You’ll sound a bit slow on the phone, and your reactions to events on the road will be slow.

Even with your bluetooth hands free voice-activated doo-dah, if you’re talking to someone on the phone, they are not aware of what’s going on around you. A passenger would sense when there’s potential danger on the road, and stop talking, or warn you. Joe in the office is not so gifted – he’s thinking about getting that monkey off his back and onto yours, so he’ll want decisions and input from you – which means you can’t process what’s happening around you effectively. And the more complex the conversation, the worse your driving performance is going to be.

So unless the call is essential, and traffic conditions are safe and predictable (they seldom are), let your calls go to voicemail. If you’re running late – run late. Don’t call to say you’ll be late when on the move, because that moment’s inattention might mean you don’t arrive at all. As for texting and selfies – well, just don’t even think about it.

Drive Safely Tip 8: Check your lights are working

When is the last time you saw your own car’s brake lights illuminated? Perhaps in the reflection of another car’s bodywork as you reversed – but do you know if your front nearside indicator is working? Are your headlights working correctly on high and normal beam? Get out and check it while you’re doing your tyre pressures – and if you have a passenger, ask them to check your brake lights illuminate normally and ‘high’ when you press the brake pedal. Takes 20 seconds, and you know you’re street legal and safe – and if there is a problem, you know about it and can get it fixed promptly. Even more importantly, especially with your indicators, you know that your intentions are not being made clear to other road users, and so can drive accordingly.

Drive Safely Tip 9: Find out what to do in a skid

Quick question – if you start to skid, do you steer into it, our away from it?

There’s no right answer – it depends on whether you are driving a front wheel drive or rear wheel drive car, and if you’re losing traction at the front or back. The situation with a four-wheel drive is different again. I once assumed I was in a front wheel drive car, but my hire car was rear wheel drive – so I did exactly the wrong thing when I hit a diesel spillage on a roundabout, and was lucky to avoid being hit by other drivers as I spun to an abrupt halt in front of them.

Do you know what to do in an understeer skid? Oversteer? In a four wheel drive car with ABS and ESP? Traction control systems dial a lot of the chance out of skidding by adjusting traction – but do you know if your car has traction control – and if it’s currently active? Find out what applies for your car. Check your handbook, and do some learning. If you drive a lot, consider going on an advanced driving or skid control course – it could well save your life.

Drive Safely Tip 10: Don’t kid yourself

Everybody – and I mean everybody – overestimates their own abilities behind the wheel. This is known as illusory superiority – which is a cognitive bias causing you to overestimate your positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate your negative qualities, relative to others. Other people cause accidents, not you. Wrong. Think again.

In a 1986 study, McCormick, Walkey and Green asked 178 participants to evaluate their position on eight different dimensions relating to driving skill (examples include the “dangerous-safe” dimension and the “considerate-inconsiderate” dimension). Only a small minority rated themselves as below average (the midpoint of the dimension scale) at any point, and when all eight dimensions were considered together it was found that almost 80% of participants had evaluated themselves as being above the average driver. That does not compute.

  • Lastly, we all make mistakes. When you do, hold your hand up and say ‘sorry’. And if someone else makes a mistake, even if they don’t acknowledge it, forget it. An angry driver is not a safe driver. Don’t let that be you. Move on, and keep yourself safe.


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