Monthly Archives: April 2010

Zen and the Art of Long Distance Driving

I’ve been thinking a lot about distance driving recently. This is because I’ve been doing a lot of long-haul driving recently, which has given me plenty of time to think about how to drive long distances in as safe and as painless a fashion as possible.

Anyone who is a frequent road traveler has probably developed his or her own ideas about what makes a drive both safe and fun. The key to successful long-haul driving is really a matter of finding what works for you. Today, I’m going to offer a mixture of my own observations and other pieces of advice I’ve been given over the years, both by road safety experts and other regular road-trippers.

Overall, the secret to a successful drive is probably similar to the secret of a happy and healthy life: don’t stress. Stress is the body’s natural reaction to a difficult or potentially threatening situation. When under stress, your entire physiology changes: blood flow changes, heart rate and blood pressure increase, hormone balances are altered. Not only does prolonged stress have long-term health impacts, but short term stress can really wear you down as well. As a result, an hour of stressed-out driving—say, in bumper-to-bumper traffic—can be far more grueling than three hours of stress-free driving an open road.

The moral of the story: plan and execute your trip to minimize stress.

First, prepare for your trip. Get your car serviced a week or two before heavy driving, so that you’ll have time to address any issues that may arise. Check the weather forecast a few days in advance, so that, if possible, you’ll be able to avoid heavy rain or snow, even if this means leaving a day early or arriving a day later. Also try to time your trip so that you are driving during daylight as much as possible. The reduced visibility of night-time driving makes it far more stressful.

If you are passing through or near major cities, try to time your trip so as to avoid rush hour; if you can, take a break for breakfast or dinner during peak traffic hours. Plot your route in advance and make sure you are familiar with the basic outlines of your trip, so that you don’t have to consult a map or GPS constantly but also won’t get lost. The day before your trip, drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and then get a good night’s sleep.

Once you do get on the road, attitude is key. Don’t push yourself to get to your destination as soon as possible. I used to think that the sooner I arrived, the happier I would be, as I’d be spending less time on the road. I’d stress myself out rushing to get there, and then would arrive so tired, high-strung, and cranky that I’d ruin the rest of the day for myself and my friends. Try, as much as possible, to enjoy your time on the road. If driving with friends, see it as a chance to have the kind of prolonged, oddball conversation one so rarely has enough time for. If driving alone, you have some precious time with yourself to reflect or simply enjoy the quiet. If done right, a long haul drive can be immensely relaxing.

Finally, break your trip into manageable chunks. In general, 500 miles is a good limit for a solo driver; 600 is possible, but pushing it. Keep in mind that long-haul truck drivers, who are seasoned driving professionals, are not legally allowed to drive more than eleven hours per day, after which they must have at least ten hours off duty.

On the highway, try to find a comfortable speed for yourself and stick with it. Don’t ignore speed limits, as they’re designed to keep you safe. The middle lane is often the best place for a long trip, as the flow of traffic will keep you from speeding but you won’t usually end up stuck behind a particularly slow car or truck. Do keep in mind that your speed tends to creep up over the course of a long drive as you get accustomed to going quickly; check your speedometer every now and then to make sure you haven’t accelerated too much. Also, don’t tailgate. Tailgating reduces your visibility, which also reduces you ability to react to road hazards and/or sudden moves on the part of the car in front of you.

Next, don’t be afraid to take breaks. Instead of seeing a day’s drive as a single unit, break it up into segments in your mind. Having little goals along the way will help you feel that you’re making concrete progress, rather than tackling a huge and unmanageable distance. For example, I like to stop at a rest station every two to three hours or so. I get a snack and stretch my legs; if I’m feeling really antsy, I’ll run around the parking lot or do a few stretches. I also try to drink water gradually throughout my trip, using a sport-top bottle so I’m not forever fussing with the cap. This way, I stay hydrated, which keeps me alert, and also have to take a comfort break every few hours, which makes me resist the temptation to power through a long stretch of highway.

As you drive, beware of drowsiness! Fatigue can creep up on you unexpectedly, so make sure you stay aware of how you feel. Turning on the air-conditioner or opening the windows can help to keep you alert. Try to listen to fast-paced, upbeat music, as this is more likely to keep you alert than something more sedate. Bring along an iPod or a few CDs with some of your favorite music or a really interesting book on tape. I, for one, listen to top 40 pop while dancing and singing in the driver’s seat; I’m sure other people on the highway laugh at me when they drive past, but it keeps me happy and awake.

Endless snacking can seem like an attractive solution to boredom. However, try to avoid eating too much sugar, as a sugar “rush” will end in an energy low, while salty snacks can make you dehydrated. Aim for a mix of different kinds of snacks; some also suggest that you alternate fruit juice with soda. Be wary of eating heavy meals, however, as these can make you pretty drowsy.

Also, don’t be afraid to stop! If you do become fatigued, don’t push yourself. Even if you aren’t in immediate danger of falling asleep at the wheel, your reaction time is significantly slower when you are tired. Stop at a motel if you find yourself becoming exhausted towards the end of the day. Also try to stick to your normal sleep schedule. If you normally go to bed around eleven, then don’t drive late into the night. I often find that I hit an afternoon low between three and five pm, so I’ll try to plan a stop during this time. You can even take a short nap in the car if you need to. For safety reasons, park in a well-trafficked area and lock your doors before falling asleep.

I’ll talk more about distracted driving in a later segment. For now, I’ll paraphrase advice I’ve received: “be the car.” Don’t take your eyes off the road and make sure that you’re able to freely access all controls and pedals at all times. When driving alone, I am careful to position all of my food and drink so that I can reach it without looking for it. I peel any fruit I may want to eat and open packages of food and bottles of soda. I also decide on what I’ll be listening to for that leg of the trip—CD, iPod, or radio—and stick with that until my next stop. Finally, I make all the calls I need to make before I set out. I then put my phone on silent so that I won’t be tempted to check my messages or answer calls.

Opinions on cruise control are mixed. Some driving experts believe that the use of cruise control decreases driver awareness, making it a danger. Personally, I find it very helpful. Using cruise control keeps my speed within safe limits and prevents cramping in my right leg; I also find that it makes me more aware, as I’m constantly trying to judge my speed relative to the car in front of me, in order to decide if I can safely keep cruising or not. I use cruise control when I can, but I think it’s a personal choice. Notice how you drive with and without cruise control and then choose the option that makes you a safer and more comfortable driver.

This point brings me back to where I started: know yourself as a driver. Budget some extra time for your trip, so that you don’t have to rush. Keep trying to find little things you can do or games you can play with yourself to make the trip more engaging. Take care of yourself, respect your limits, and enjoy the experience.

To learn more about this cars and driving, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

 

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.

Advertisements

The Most Dangerous Hazard: Fog

Depending on where you live and travel, you may or may not encounter fog on a regular basis. No matter when, where, or how often you encounter fog, always bear in mind that this is one of the most dangerous road hazards out there.

In an ideal world, this entry would be very short. Driving in fog? Just don’t do it. However, it is not an ideal world, and you may find at some point that you have no choice but to drive through a patch of fog. While this isn’t the safest situation to be in, there are steps you can take to make sure that you complete your journey without incident (or accident.)

Fog consists of water droplets suspended in the air; driving through heavy fog is a bit like flying through a cloud. As a result, fog is often heaviest at night and in the morning. If possible, wait until mid- or late afternoon, by which point the fog is likely to have burned off. If waiting isn’t an option, then proceed with caution. Remember that fog can dramatically reduce visibility; in thick fog, visibility can be as low as ¼ of a mile!

First, make sure that your low beams and fog lights (the red lights next to your brake lights and yellow lights next to the headlights) are turned on. However, don’t turn on your high beams. Remember that fog is made of water and, like the surface of a lake, will reflect light. If you are putting more light out into the fog, more is being reflected back at your windshield, creating a glare that will further reduce visibility. So, avoid high beams; however, do keep your other lights on, as, without these lights, other cars may not be able to see you.

Next, as you would in any hazardous weather, slow down—and stay slowed down! Fog can affect your sense of your own speed, as we generally judge speed using visual clues (like trees passing in our peripheral vision) that fog obscures. Make sure you check your speedometer to make sure that you are actually maintaining a reduced speed.

Reduced visibility may also affect your sense of where you are on the road. For this reason, use the white line on the right side of the road (sometimes known as the fog line) to make sure that you are staying safely on your side of the road. If you use the center line to check your alignment, you could end up in a head-on collision.

While fog may impair your sense of sight, don’t make the damage worse than it has to be. Turn on your defrost and use your wipers to keep your windows clear, as the damp fog will quickly condense on your windshield. Use your sense of hearing to supplement your vision; turn off your radio and open one of your windows slightly, so that you can hear approaching cars even before you see them.

You also need to be aware of other cars on the road. While it may be tempting to “follow” the taillights of the car ahead of you, don’t get too close. Remember that you may not judge distance as well as you would under other circumstances, and therefore can’t stop as suddenly as you may need to. Make sure you don’t get to close to the car in front of you. Also, avoid any sudden moves that may disturb the drivers behind you, such as suddenly stopping or turning. If you need to slow down or stop, begin by tapping your brake lights to alert drivers behind you and then slow your vehicle as gradually as possible.

If you should need to stop for any reason, avoid doing so while still on the road. Try to find a rest stop or other safe place to pull over. If you are unable to make it to a safe stopping place, then try to pull as far off the road as possible. Never stop in the middle of the road when fog occurs, even if the thickness of the fog makes continuing your journey safely impossible. Get as far off the road as you can and turn on your emergency lights.

And remember: the first rule of fog is: don’t drive in fog. The second rule of fog is: don’t drive in fog. The third rule of fog is: don’t drive in fog.

You get the point. 

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

 

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.

Back to Basics: Right, Left, and U Turns.

Before I launch into a discussion of today’s topic—turning—I’d like to take a moment to return to a previous topic: merging. Yesterday, I was driving home from a dinner out with friends. It was dark, cold, and rainy. While I was in a familiar area, I ended up having to access a major road via an entrance I seldom take. As I was about to begin my merge, I noticed a sign that read “yield.” Having recently blogged on just this topic, I immediately remembered that yield = do not merge. Instead of accelerating, I came to a stop at the end of the access ramp. As soon as a sizeable gap appeared in the traffic, I safely entered the road. At that time, the rainy conditions and poor visibility would have made a merge particularly dangerous. So, the moral of the story is: a thorough knowledge of basic road rules and diligent attention to signs and road conditions are the keys to being a safe driver!

With this in mind, let’s talk about turning, surely one of the most basic and seemingly elementary aspects of driving. However, I find that the “easy” parts of driving are the areas in which I’m most likely to get complacent and sloppy, making in practice some of the highest risk maneuvers.

The first principle of turning is: don’t be indecisive. Make up your mind that you are going to turn well ahead of time. This is particularly true when you’re driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood. If you aren’t sure of where you’re going, pull over and take a moment to get your head straight. Keeping one eye on a Google Maps printout and another on street signs is a recipe for disaster, unless you happen to have three eyes.

Once you’ve decided to turn, make sure to signal well in advance. Aim to signal a full city block (500 feet) in advance of your turn; legally, you are required to signal at least 100 feet before turning.

Right Turns

To make a right turn, first move to the right side of the road or lane you are in. If there is a bicycle lane at the side of the road, you may only enter this lane 200 feet before your turn. Make sure to watch for bicycles or motorcycles that may be travelling near the side of the road.

As you approach the intersection, slow down. If you are at an intersection, come to a stop before the limit line. Look left, then right, then left again. If the road is clear and there are no pedestrians, make your turn.

Make sure not to go “wide” on your turn. You want to end up on the right hand side of the road without dipping into the lane that approaching cars are travelling on. If you are turning onto a road with multiple lanes, make sure that you stay in the “corresponding” lane, i.e. move from right lane to right lane or center lane to center lane.

Left Turns

Follow similar steps to make a left turn. Approach the center line or divider; if there is a left-turn lane, enter this lane once you have signaled. Look in both directions and then make your turn. Once again, be careful not to cut into the lane of approaching traffic.

Turning at a red light

In the United States, you are legally allowed to turn right at a red light. To do so, first come to a full stop—NOT a rolling stop—before the stop line. Make sure that the road is clear before turning. Additionally, be particularly careful about the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk, as these pedestrians may have a walk sign and thus won’t be checking carefully for cars.

In general, you cannot turn left at a red light. There is, however, one exception to this rule. If you are on a one-way street and are turning onto a one way street, you may turn left at a red light if there is not approaching traffic. I’ve never actually seen this happen, but I fully intend to take advantage of this situation should I find myself in it.

U-Turns

U-turns are, unfortunately, a necessary driving maneuver. I’ve always found them a bit nerve-wracking, perhaps because I wasn’t fully acquainted with the rules governing their use.

First of all, you can only make a legal U-turn in places where there is no “no U-turn sign posted. Next, you must be in the far left lane in order to make a U-turn. You cannot make a U-turn from the right-hand lane. You also need to be sure that approaching cars are far enough away for you to turn safely, usually a distance of around 200 feet. If you can’t see this far due to hills, curves, or poor visibility, then try to make your turn in another place. You can make U-turns at green lights, across solid yellow lines IF it is safe and legal to do so, and across openings in highway dividers.

These are places where you cannot make a U-turn:

  • At a red light
  • On a one-way street
  • Across a raised meridian or two sets of double yellow lines on a highway
  • In front of a fire station

If you’d like more detailed information on turning, including some helpful diagrams, check out this site, courtesy of the California Department of Motor Vehicles:

http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/hdbk/turns.htm

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

 

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.

Mastering the Merge

Years back, a timid friend of mine went for her first driving lesson. Unlike many of us, who had been practicing with our parents, she had never actually driven a car before. Needless to say, she was terrified simply by sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car.

Unfortunately, her instructor subscribed to an old-school “sink or swim” theory of driving pedagogy. As my friend hesitantly drove down a local road at a rocking 20 MPH, her instructor told her to take the highway entrance ramp on her right. She was shocked, but her instructor insisted. And so, shaking and on the verge of tears, she crept nervously down the entrance ramp with her red-faced instructor shouting “pedal to the metal! Pedal to the metal!” Instead of heeding his advice, my friend stopped at the end of the entrance ramp and stubbornly waited until the flow of traffic on the highway had all but ceased. Fortunately, it wasn’t rush hour.

There are, however, better ways to make a merge. This is one of the trickiest and most dangerous basic driving maneuvers, so it’s worth taking a moment to review the basic steps to making a good merge.

The goal of merging is to integrate seamlessly into a stream of traffic. This means that, in order to merge, you will have to accelerate until, ideally, your speed matches the speed of traffic on the highway. Merging requires that you look behind you, to the side, and in front of you. As a result, it demands a great deal of concentration. Focus, focus, focus and don’t let passengers or angry driver’s ed teachers distract you!

Before you begin accelerating, look for gaps in the stream of traffic in the lane into which you’ll be merging. Try to gauge the speed of the oncoming cars in order to identify a gap that you can fit into easily. You don’t want to reach full speed and then realize you have nowhere to go.

Once you’ve identified a gap, turn on your blinker to indicate your intent to merge and begin to accelerate. Notice that access ramps end in an “acceleration lane” and that, at first, this lane is separated from the highway by a solid white or yellow line. This line serves as a good indicator for where you should begin and end your acceleration. Use the acceleration space provided; don’t cross the solid line, as this could confuse other drivers on the highway, resulting in a collision.

As you accelerate, however, make sure to keep a safe distance between your car and the car in front of you on the entrance ramp. Always expect the unexpected! If a car ahead of you suddenly stops or slows down, you want to make sure that you have time to react.  When you’ve reached the “gap” that you’ve identified, move into the empty space. Be careful not to slow down right before you integrate into the new lane; this is a common and dangerous error!

Once you’ve succeeded in merging into the lane, acclimate to the new flow of traffic. Try not to slow down the other cars in the lane or tailgate those ahead of you. If you’re entering a road via an unfamiliar access point, pay particularly close attention to the signs and markings. If you see a “no merge” sign, you’ll have to stop and yield to oncoming traffic instead of merging.

As always, be patient, pay attention, and respect the rules of the road! With practice, you’ll be able to merge safely and without suffering a major panic attack.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

 

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.