Winter is coming. That means scary driving conditions for many Americans—and not just those in cold climates who have to deal with snow and ice.
Those in warmer climates, such as Florida, Arizona and Southern California, will have to cope with an influx of drivers on their roads. Flocks of “snowbirds” will arrive from out-of-state, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the local driving laws and customs.
It isn’t just snowbirds who contribute to the danger of winter driving conditions. Locals and out-of-towners alike can make the roads more congested and more dangerous during the holidays, with the most fatal crashes occurring on Thanksgiving Day. This means that you need to be more cautious and diligent when hitting the road during this time of year.
Here are some tips for how to drive more defensively as you deal with a potential influx of long- and short-term visitors who may be unfamiliar with your local roads and laws and thus pose a driving hazard:
1. Stay extra vigilant.
It may seem obvious, but one of the easiest ways to avoid a crash when the roads are packed with drivers is to drive more cautiously. Maintain a safe distance between you and other drivers on the road, so that if you have to brake suddenly, you can do so without having to swerve out of your lane.
A good rule of thumb is to keep three seconds of space between you and the car in front of you in good traffic conditions, six seconds at night and in inclement weather (such as light rain or light snow), and nine seconds in bad weather (such as heavy rain, snow or ice).
You can time the distance between your car and the one in front of you by selecting a fixed marker along the road—such as a road sign—and slowly counting the seconds between when the other car reaches that marker and when you do. If you reach the marker before your three-, six- or nine-second count is done, slow down.
Even though it may be tempting to speed when you’re running late, don’t. Speeding increases the chance that you’ll get in a serious crash as you have less time to react to changes in the flow of traffic. And crashes at high speeds tend to be higher impact (read: more serious) than those at lower speeds.
Likewise, avoid the temptation to ignore traffic signs (e.g., No U-turns). Obeying local road rules becomes all the more important when more drivers are on the road. Remember, it’s better to arrive late than to risk your life and the lives of others.
Of course, make sure you and your passengers always wear seat belts to prevent serious injury in case of a crash, even if your backseat passengers aren’t required to do so by law.
Never drive if you’re inebriated or even feeling sleepy. Drunk or tired drivers tend to get into more crashes because their alertness is more diminished, their judgment is more impaired, and their reflexes are slower than well-rested drivers.
2. Avoid distractions.
Most people know they shouldn’t be texting or checking email while driving, yet many people still do it. In 2014, 3,179 people were killed and 431,000 more were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s site Distraction.gov.
The likelihood of distraction contributing to a crash is even higher when traffic is heavy and/or road conditions are bad.
Take proactive steps to minimize your distractions on the road. Keep your phone on silent and out of sight (e.g., in your glove compartment or purse), so you won’t be tempted to grab it whenever it rings or a text comes in. If you do need to make a call—say, to tell your family that there’s traffic and you’ll be late—pull into a rest stop to make it.
Avoid eating, reaching for items on the floor, and other activities that may require you to take your eye off the road, even for short periods of time. If you’re following directions using a navigation system, turn on voice navigation.
Finally, if you have kids in the car with you, avoid looking back at them while the car is moving.
3. Make sure you’re visible.
Crashes often occur because one of the drivers didn’t see the other car, noticing only after it was too late that it was turning or stopping. The best way to prevent such confusion is to try to make sure your vehicle stays as visible as possible to other drivers.
Always use your turn signals prior to executing a turn, and flip on your headlights once it begins to grow dark or the weather starts to change for the worse. Avoid remaining for too long in other drivers’ “blind spots,” such as the back right or left side of their car.
4. Drive at the right times—and places.
When possible, avoid driving in severe weather or at times when there is heavy traffic or the potential for a high number of intoxicated drivers on the road (e.g., 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day). Other times to avoid driving include:
- Between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Let’s face it, most people can’t stay off the roads during these hours, but mark this as a time to stay alert and drive extra carefully. The highest number of crash fatalities happen during these evening hours, according to annual crash stats published by NHTSA. (That said, the most crashes overall, including crashes with non-fatal injuries, tend to happen between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.)
- Between 12 a.m. and 3 a.m. These hours see a higher number of intoxicated drivers on the road, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. In fact, two-thirds of all fatal crashes caused by alcohol-impaired drivers occur during this time frame.
- The day after winter’s first snowfall. If you live in a region that gets snow, you might want to avoid venturing out the day after the first snowfall. Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley found that fatal crashes were 14 percent more likely to happen right after the first major snowstorm of the cold season, Forbes notes.
In terms of the number of crash fatalities and injuries, the safest types of roads to drive on include interstates, whereas urban streets and two-lane highways, such as those often found in rural areas, are more dangerous, according to the blog Freakonomics.
5. Brush up on your driving skills and knowledge.
You can’t control how well other drivers drive or whether they follow the local road laws and customs—but you can control your own driving habits and understanding of the local laws.
Some organizations offer “driving safety” courses that provide practical tips for preventing accidents and dealing with other drivers on the road. The AARP Smart Driver Course, for example, is available to both AARP members and non-members. Another bonus is that some states offer auto insurance discounts to people who voluntarily take a driving safety class.
Driving more defensively can reduce the odds that you’ll get in an accident. Take some time to self-evaluate your driving. Before you get behind the wheel, think about how you can be a better driver.
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