For those of us who truly love driving, it’s always frustrating to have to cope with all of the clueless, distracted, and un-safe drivers that clog America’s streets, highways, and expressways. They’re everywhere—tailgaters, passing-lane squatters, cell phone talkers, oblivious drifters—and they make you wonder why we hand out driver’s licenses as a right rather than a well-earned privilege. As always, your best defense against such automotive incompetence is to enhance your own smart driving skills.
So we gathered the top 10 tips—from safety-minded maneuvers to simple highway etiquette—that all smart drivers know. And if you’re in the market for a flashy new set of wheels, here are The Best Cars from the 1990s—ranked.
Tailgate at Your Peril
Consider this simple math: At 60 mph you are traveling at 88 feet-per-second. Let’s say you’re hovering about two car-lengths behind the vehicle ahead, and contemporary mid-size car lengths average at around 190 inches (or about 31 feet). Suddenly, the driver ahead responds to a hazard. Assuming you’re focused directly ahead and not fiddling with your phone, you’ll respond to his brake lights in 0.5 seconds. Not a bad response time, but it won’t do you any good. You’ll have traveled 44 feet right into his rear. Rule of thumb: Smart driving dictates that you should keep a minimum of three car-lengths of separation, and more at higher speeds. And if speed is truly your goal, check out our 10 Best Not-So-Subtle Cars.
Steer Clear of Danger
It’s a simple fact that a lot of accidents occur when drivers “lock in” on what they’re about to hit and simply freeze in panic. The body’s motor reflex will always steer the car in the direction of where your eyes are focused. (After all, that’s how we manage to stay in our lane in the first place, by locking our vision down the road ahead.) So if danger is about to strike, ignore the object in your path and look in the direction of where you need to go to avoid a collision—your escape route—and your hands will intuitively steer you there and out of harm’s way. For more great car and smart driving tips, here are the 5 Tips for Starting a Car Collection.
Forget 10 and 2
There are many outdated notions about safe and smart driving, none more ubiquitous than the old-fashioned “ten-and-two” rule. This piece of driving-school etiquette actually has no place in contemporary automobiles. If you’re holding the steering wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions, your wrist and arms will be in the direct path of a deploying airbag, the power of which explodes with awesome force.
Today, the National Highway Safety Administration actually recommends the nine-and-three positions. By correctly positioning your hands lower on the wheel, you’re minimizing your risk of injury by creating a bigger opening between your limbs. And if you’ve ever witnessed footage of professional race drivers plying their craft, you’ll see that’s how they grip their wheel. They should know.
Not All Lanes Are Equal
In most states, cops take a dim view of drivers squatting in the far left lane on freeways, and for good reason. That lane is actually intended for passing, which astonishingly few drivers seem to recognize. As a result, traffic gets bogged down. Remember: it’s a courtesy to other drivers to travel in non-passing lanes, since it helps avoid bottlenecks that form when slower cars are arrayed across the entire road. And it also eliminates the possibility of explaining to the officer your ignorance of the law.
Your Car Has Bluetooth, Dammit, Use it
No matter how much you hear about the dangers of texting or talking while driving, you’ll never cease to spot that guy with his phone pressed to his ear. It’s even more worrisome given that pretty much all vehicles produced in the last ten years or so are Bluetooth-enabled.
And yes, speaking via Bluetooth doesn’t exactly qualify as smart driving, but the risks are significantly reduced and it allows you to keep both hands on the wheel, where they belong. And by utilizing voice commands, your eyes stay up, fixed to the road. Smart drivers don’t handhold their devices on the road. Period.
Don’t Sit Too Close
Too many drivers sit with their arms jack-knifed up against the steering wheel, their faces mere inches away. Smart drivers, meanwhile, always position their seats as far back as possible. In the unfortunate event of an exploding airbag, you’ll need space. And with your arms extended fully, slightly bent at the elbows, you are also much more dialed in to the driving experience, with better control and feel.
Height-challenged drivers may need to compromise due to the difficulty of reaching the pedals while maintaining proper distance from the wheel. In that case, reclining the seat back slightly makes a big difference. Today, many cars are equipped with adjustable pedal clusters which makes it easy to find your optimal driving position. If your current car does not include that, consider it a must-have on your next purchase. And here is a list of The 14 Sports Cars to Buy Now.
Use All of Your Mirror Surface
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of your external rearview mirrors. But your driver-side and passenger-side mirrors are useless if improperly positioned. You should always keep them aimed so that the edge of the car is barely into view. That way, if you’re sitting in proper driving position, your mirrors will give you the biggest field of view in order to avoid any blind spots.
Blindspot detection systems, wonderful though they are, were developed to compensate for the common mistake of poorly adjusted mirrors. It’s best to consider it a supplement—not a first-line defense—for safe driving.
Modulate Speed and Stability with Your Accelerator
On wet roads, sudden changes of speed or direction can cause your tires to lose grip. If you head into a rain-soaked curve too hot and work the brakes and steering wheel to overcompensate, you’ll be putting yourself in real danger.
Instead, feather the gas pedal by lifting off slightly to bring down your speed without braking as you enter the curve. Then with one fluid motion at the curve’s apex, resume throttle pressure to power out of the turn. Smooth inputs are key to maximizing stability under any situation, none more so than on wet surfaces.
Anticipate Those Around You
Everyone is familiar with the experience of someone suddenly and inexplicably drifting into his lane, prompting a terrifying second of evasive maneuvering. The obvious solution is to keep a safe distance from other drivers on the road, though that’s not always possible in tight traffic. If that’s the case, try to anticipate the intent of other drivers by staying aware of their lane position. Smart drivers can always sense that the car ahead is pondering a lane change by its slightly erratic movements.
Stand On It!
Before anti-lock brakes (ABS) became the industry standard, it was common practice to pump the brakes during emergency stops to prevent dreaded wheel lock-up. You don’t have to do this anymore.
The brilliance of ABS lies in predictive electronics that pulse the disc calipers hundreds of times a second during hard braking, simultaneously allowing wheel spin and full control, making it possible to steer and turn the vehicle as needed. It also controls front-to-rear braking bias—known as electronic brakeforce distribution—for additional dominance over the physics conspiring against you.
When you do this the experience can be horrible—you’ll feel the gnashing sensation of the ABS’s metal-on-metal system—but it’s just the system doing it’s job. So if you’re careening toward an obstacle, go ahead and pound on it and don’t let up.
Now, once you’ve mastered the art of smart driving, here are 15 more Essential Skills to Master in Your 40s.