I owed my best friend a phone call, so last night, I picked up the phone and gave him a ring. The minute he answered, I knew by the tin-can distant timbre of his voice that he was in his car. He is a salesman and is in his car a lot, so he was speaking to me hands-free, but it still makes me nervous. I would rather wait to talk until he gets home, but with his wife and two kids at home, he probably is less distracted talking to me while he was driving.
Sure enough, as we neared the end of our conversation, he takes a wrong turn and starts laughing about it. “I can’t believe I took just went down the wrong street—and I live here!” I can believe it. Just because he isn’t holding a phone to his ear doesn’t mean he is paying full attention. But if you asked him, he wouldn’t say he was distracted while driving since he was hands-free. I beg to differ.
All of this made me think about all the other little mistakes we make in our cars that don’t seem like a big deal … but actually are.
1. Hands-free phone conversations
It doesn’t matter if you have a cell phone or not—you are still driving a two- to three-thousand pound block of steel down the road and though we do it every day, it’s still not the safest thing we can do. Research has shown that it’s the talking that distracts drivers, not the actual holding of the phone. The average person is only capable of focusing on four objects at any time. Once you account for all the mechanics of driving—steering, braking, accelerating, shifting, changing the radio station, etc.—having a phone conversation tips the balance. And it’s not like you are only listening; in a phone conversation, you have to listen to the person, think about what the person is saying, and then reply to the person. This all takes away precious attention that should be focused on driving.
One of the most basic tenants in driving is to stay in your own lane. Sounds simple enough, right? But it’s not. Many drivers unconsciously view road markers as guides, not absolutes, and drift over them like some preschoolers color outside the lines. The fact is, in 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 15,574 people died in crashes due to a drivers veering out of their lanes. In that same year, 13,041 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving accidents. Pretty scary.
3. Failure to yield right of way
There are few things more annoying than trying to merge onto a highway and some jerk won’t let you in. But failure to yield the right of way is more than annoying—it’s dangerous. For drivers over the age of seventy, failing to yield while merging into traffic is the top cause of crashes. With these older drivers, they simply fail to see the other vehicle or they misjudge the time they have to yield. But it’s not just older drivers—in 2007, failure to yield the right of way was the fifth leading cause of fatal automobile accidents.
4. Running red lights
Did you know that 75 percent of all car crashes occur in cities? Can you guess the number one reason why? Running red lights. Each year, red light running causes about 1,000 deaths and nearly 90,000 injuries, and the most common reason people give for running the red lights are because they are in a hurry. The problem has gotten so bad that many states now have red light cameras installed at busy intersections. So far, the cameras have led to a 10 to 40 percent drop in accidents caused by red light running. It’s sad that the only thing that prevents reckless driving sometimes is a hit to the wallet.
5. Riding the brakes
This is a tough one. I live up near Twin Peaks in San Francisco, and to get downtown, I have to drive down a long winding hill. The hill is so long and steep, I don’t even have to use my gas pedal. But the brakes are another story. Even though I know I shouldn’t ride my brakes all the way down, it’s almost impossible not to. So, what should I do?
The proper way to brake down a long grade is to control your speed with the transmission. This is called “engine braking,” which uses the compression of the engine to slow down the vehicle. If you have a manual transmission, this means shifting into a lower gear, like going from 5th to 4th gear in a five-speed transmission. For automatic transmissions, just shift into the next lowest gear, like from D4 to D3.
We should all be more careful when we drive—that’s a given. While it’s impossible to control the jerk who won’t let you in or the guy eating a burrito while driving with his knees, we can control what we do … and we should.