Pop quiz: Do you know more about driving than Indy race car driver Johnny Unser of the Unser Racing Family?
It’s a safe bet that most drivers don’t have Unser’s knowledge or skill but still drive in ways he wouldn’t consider.
“One of the biggest problems people have is how to control their cars and how to manage their distractions,” says Unser, who is now a technical advisor for Cooper Tire and race director for Pro Mazda. “Obviously the more focused you are, the better your driving. When you’re driving, you have no idea what the other guy is going to do.”
When Unser climbed behind the wheel of his race car, his entire focus became the car and his driving. He takes the same stance in personal vehicles.
Consider this advice from Unser and other driving professionals to make all of your holiday travel merry – no matter the season.
1. Make sure your car is road-ready.
Many drivers don’t regularly check their cars’ fluid levels, windshield wipers, lights and other elements. Yes, a professional should regularly service your car, especially before a long trip. You need to spot check it, too, though.
“I’m extra careful about checking the fluids, the windshield wipers, and the washer fluid, and the tire pressure,” says Unser. “A lot of people also forget to check their tires’ pressure.”
Incorrect tire pressure can cause a blow out or flat. It also reduces fuel efficiency and causes uneven wear of the tires.
Some drivers don’t realize the tire pressure increases in heat and decreases in cold. Drivers should check the stickers on the door jams of the drivers’ side doors to determine the correct pressure.
2. Familiarize yourself with the vehicle.
Do you know everything about your car? Your relative’s car? Or the rental vehicles you drive on vacations?
It’s vital to familiarize yourself with the car before you drive.
You never know if you’ll need to decipher a signal or locate a switch – think of the hazard lights – that you don’t regularly use.
If there is not an owner’s manual in the car, request one or look online.
“Make sure it’s set up properly before you leave,” says Unser. “You need to sit there until you’re totally comfortable in the car. We don’t drive a car onto the track until we’re completely comfortable. It should be the same in a personal car.”
3. Check your car insurance.
Review your car insurance before your trip. You need to know what coverage you have if a mishap occurs. Having towing insurance, for example, could be extremely helpful if you’re in an accident. It also helps to know ahead of time whether your insurance will cover a rental car. If it doesn’t, you can make adjustments to your policy before your trip, just in case the unexpected occurs.
4. Rest before and during your trip.
Some people push themselves to drive long distances. After all, they drive all the time, right? Former police officer Jeff Westover, an owner and instructor at 911 Driving Schools in Tacoma and Lakewood, Washington, noted most people regularly drive very short distances such as from home to work. Road trips are different.
“How many times do you hear about someone getting up at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. and driving all night?” he says. “I was a cop for 18 years, and I’m now a driving instructor. I would never do that.”
When you’re tired, your reaction time slows so you’re in more danger. And those with less-than-perfect eyesight may also have difficulty seeing well in the dark.
It’s also essential to add time for plenty of breaks from driving into your trip. Try to avoid rest areas and get off the highway, says Westover. And if you grow tired while driving you should switch drivers or find lodging.
“You see so many people driving for 12 straight hours just so they can lay by a pool for a few days,” says Westover. “Don’t be in such a rush.”
5. Watch for those driving under the influence.
When drivers see another car weave in traffic, they often think the driver is talking or texting on a cell phone. Many times, though, the driver may be under the influence of alcohol or narcotics, says Westover.
“Most DUIs happen between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., but they can happen at anytime,” he says. “Never drive next to those who may be impaired. Also, don’t try to drive around them. Stay behind them and put as much distance as possible between your car and theirs.”
6. Don’t drive while impaired.
Even if you don’t drink alcohol or use narcotics, you might still be an impaired driver. Those that are tired or not fully concentrating on the drive are guilty of cognitive impaired driving, says Westover.
“Sometimes you look at a driver in the next car, and they have their hands at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock,” says Westover of the recommended stance to keep control of the car and keep them out of the way of a deployed airbag. “You think ‘Boy, they are really concentrating.’ But sometimes those people are thinking of everything else except driving.”
Practice Unser’s advice and pay strict attention to your driving and your car.
8. Give yourself room to escape.
You know you shouldn’t tailgate or stop too close to the car in front of you.
Westover recommends the four-second rule – watch the car in front of you, look at a fixed object (such as a street light or mile marker sign) and then count. If you pass the object in less than four seconds, you’re too close.
When you stop your car in traffic, check that you can see the rear tires in the car in front of you.
Those habits can prevent an accident or even a chain reaction if the car in front of you stops or slows suddenly.
Another reason to practice them? You won’t be trapped if there is a threat to your safety, says attorney and author Alain Burrese, Survive A Shooting.com.
9. Rethink how you drive on country roads.
When you drive on deserted, rural roads, consider driving more toward the center of those roads, says driving expert Wyatt Knox, special projects director for Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire. That way, if a moose, deer or other danger does appear, you’ll have an opportunity to quickly pull to either side of the road to avoid a crash.
10. Prepare for all weather conditions, no matter what the calendar reads.
The different climates in the U.S. mean drivers can quickly go from snow to dust storms to 80-degree weather in a short time. Check the weather forecast before you leave and make sure you have packed appropriate gear. If ice and snow are in your future include a snow brush, a snow shovel, and sand or kitty litter (to improve traction on ice), suggests safety and security expert Alyse Ainsworth of ASecureLife.com of Salt Lake City. Regardless of whether you are driving in wintry conditions, or sporadic summer weather, make sure to have these essential supplies on hand:
- A blanket
- Bottled water
- An extra cell phone charger
- A jack that you can actually operate
“We know from auto crash statistics that summer is actually the most dangerous time to drive, yet a May 2017 Michelin survey found that two-thirds of Americans felt safer on summer roads citing better road conditions and warmer weather,” says Ron Margadonna, Senior Technical Marketing Manager, Michelin. “But the truth is that foul weather in this case rain and wet roads can originate quickly, be abundant and can be over a prolonged time period.
11. Understand emergency driving techniques.
Everyone who spoke for this article underscored the importance of proper tires. But drivers also need to know how to react when they can’t control a car that slides on wet pavement, known as hydroplaning.
“There is a common misconception that the best thing to do when hydroplaning is to take your foot completely off the gas pedal and let the car coast until you regain traction,” Margadonna says. “But during a hydroplaning situation, rapid deceleration, acceleration or steering can apply additional forces to the tire that could further reduce grip and possible loss of control. The proper response is to keep light pressure on the accelerator pedal and steer straight forward until tires regain traction.”
12. Pack human and pet supplies.
Pack water and snacks, no matter the season, says Burrese. And if you travel with a pet, make sure you can care for them.
“Look at people that get stuck, whether it’s a traffic jam or an accident. You might have to wait for hours before the road gets cleared,” he says. “You want to make sure that you have some liquids and have something to eat to help keep everybody in the vehicle hydrated and health. That’s especially important on a super hot summer day.”
Also, pack sunscreen. You may have to leave your car in case of a breakdown or crash.
13. Print out vital numbers.
If you belong to a roadside assistance service, make sure you have your membership card and the contact number with you when you travel, suggests Kriston. You can save the details on your phone, but you should also write them down on a piece of paper that you keep in your glove box, just in case your phone runs low on battery power. You don’t want to waste your phone’s energy searching for information when you need to make the call for help.
14. Carry a paper map and directions.
It’s easy to rely on your GPS, but it’s not infallible. What if you haven’t updated it recently? What if it can’t find a signal? Or, what if it simply breaks down? Pack maps and written directions, advises Kriston.
15. Store valuables in the trunk.
In the summer months, many drivers leave luggage, cameras, purses and other valuables in plain view when they go into a restroom or store for “just a minute.” You may feel carefree on vacation, but thieves are still working. Store your luggage and valuables in the trunk, even if your drive isn’t long, says Kriston.
Winter holidays may be a time for good will towards men, but that doesn’t mean would-be thieves aren’t still on the prowl. Store your presents in your trunk, even if your drive isn’t particularly long. Don’t let yourself become the victim of a holiday Grinch.
16. Don’t overload your vehicle.
If you pack your vehicle to the brink, you are asking for trouble, says RV industry expert Mark Koep, founder of CampgroundViews.com. Look at the vehicle’s owner’s manual to determine how much weight you can carry safely . Overloading your car can cause many safety issues including tire ruptures, he says. Furthermore, carrying an extra 100 pounds in your car reduces fuel economy by one percent.
17. Check the tires of your trailer.
It’s common to see cars towing boats and trailers or recreational equipment pulled to the side of the road. Many times, that’s because the driver didn’t check the tires of the other vehicle or pack a spare, says Westover. Check that the tires of any vehicles are in good condition and properly inflated. And don’t forget the spare!
18. Insist everyone buckle up.
Yes, that means everyone—including the family pet. Not only are pets distracting, but in an accident, unrestrained animals can seriously injure or even kill other auto occupants and can easily themselves be injured or killed. A report by AAA and Kurgo Pet Safety notes: “An unrestrained 10-pound dog in a crash at 50 mph will exert roughly 500 pounds of force, while an unrestrained 80-pound dog in a crash at only 30 mph will exert approximately 2,400 pounds of force.”
Spend the extra time and energy to properly secure your dog, cat, gerbil or other animals in the back seat of your car. Your car’s Lower Anchor and Tether for Children (LATCH) system, secures infant and child car seats, can be used for pet carriers as well. If you are not familiar with the system, check the car’s owner’s manual for where to find and how to use them.
19. Take extra care around tractor trailer trucks.
Professional truck driver Billy Manas of New Paltz, New York, says many drivers of cars or RVs pass tractor trailers and then quickly cut in front of them.
“A semi needs 500 feet to stop at highway speeds,” he says. “If, God forbid, you blow a tire or a deer jets out from the brush or just about anything happens where a car driver needs to make a sudden stop, they will never survive with a truck so close to them. Give trucks space.”
And don’t pull out in front of trucks unless you have plenty of space. Again, trucks can’t stop quickly, and when they do, it is perilous.
20. Keep an eye on your temperature gauge.
In the summer your car is at an increased risk of overheating. Your gauge should always be somewhere between “C” and “H” when your car is running, says Josh Hostetler, Course Content Supervisor, Aceable.
“If you notice that your gauge is completely to the right on ‘H,’ or you see the symbol below pop up on your dash, pull over and let your car cool down,” he says. “If it’s not safe to pull over right away, turn off your air conditioner and turn your heat on full blast instead. This action will pull hot air off the engine and push it into the car, helping to cool the engine until you’re able to pull over.
It’s easy for everyone, especially long-time drivers, to assume they know how to drive safely in any situation. But everyone’s skills change and knowledge fades. Drivers that refresh and update their driving and vehicle know-how boost the odds of staying accident- and incident-free.