Driving isn’t an easy skill. It just looks easy because most Americans grow up around cars and driving and then go on to practice it every day (or at least every week). That gives us plenty of time to learn how to obey the rules, to understand what all of the lines and all of the signs mean, how to keep safe and be polite around other drivers in order to prevent accidents, and how to deal with terrible weather without falling off the road.
Of course, we don’t learn everything there is to know from driver’s ed classes. Some things you just have to figure out for yourself – or else you need to find a friendly article like this one that shares the wisdom gained from spending years on the road. Here are some practical things I’ve learned about driving.
1. Tailgating Never Works
At the very least, driver’s ed classes will warn you not to tailgate and follow too closely behind the car in front of you. They probably even told you why: if something happens to the car in front of you and it stops suddenly, you need time for your brain to react, your foot to move, and your brakes to kick in and bring you to a stop. That’s why we have the three-second rule: mark a landmark as the car in front of you passes it by and then make sure it takes at least three seconds for you to reach it.
You might even know the reasons why people tailgate, although it’s hard to truly understand them until you’ve felt the temptation yourself. The biggest reason is that you’re in a hurry and you feel like you have to get somewhere as fast as possible. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t, but the point is that you’re letting your impatience decide that you should drive as fast as possible, or at least as far forward as possible, which may mean tailgating the car in front of you. Other reasons include trying to get the car ahead to speed up and just plain habit.
But tailgating never works. Once upon a time, I was on a long road trip with a friend of mine, and it was his turn to drive. We were on a long, empty, divided highway out in the middle of the desert, and one of the lanes was blocked for construction work.
I noticed we were driving awfully close to the truck in front of us, so I asked him what the deal was. He told me it was to get away from the car behind us, which was riding our bumper in just the same way. Thing is, his tailgating didn’t stop the car behind us from doing the same thing. The only thing he was doing was making all three vehicles less safe.
2. Sometimes You Need A Distraction
As a rule, distracted driving is a very bad idea. Cellphones and texting are the culprits people love to point to, but other distractions include eating, makeup and shaving, dealing with kids in the backseat, and even just talking to the person sitting next to you. Driving demands a lot of your attention, especially on city streets and in heavy traffic.
However, driving on the open highway can be a different story. When there’s no traffic and few enough cars on the road to worry about, all you have to do is maintain speed and follow the curves of the highway. And if that’s all your brain has to worry about, it’ll often decide to save some energy and shut down. This is what people are talking about when they say you can get hypnotized by the road, and this is what’s happening when you suddenly start to feel drowsy as you’re driving.
It’s because of this that AAA and other organizations warn drivers to get out every two hours or so to stretch their legs and reset their brains. However, there are other ways to help fight this highway drowsiness in between stops. If you’re driving with others, talk about something that you can really get into. If you’re alone, load up talk radio, an audiobook, a podcast, or something else you need to concentrate on to listen to.
You should always be ready to shut off or shut up when you reach a city or a traffic snarl, but when it comes to an empty highway, a small distraction is better than none.
3. You Don’t Have To Win
Every human being has a bit of a competitive streak inside. Most people also have a sense that it’s better to play fair than to not. That’s why it’s always a little grating when you’re on the road and someone breaks the rules to get ahead. This can mean someone ignoring whose turn it is at an all-way stop sign, someone merging at the very last second in order to get as far forward as possible, or else someone squeezing past a person who stops to turn left.
However, even if it is unfair, even if the other driver is at fault, even if you aren’t breaking a single law by sticking to your right-of-way, it’s not worth getting in an accident. It’s not worth dealing with the insurance companies, the mechanics, and very possibly the hospitals and clinics just so you can say “I was right.” Defensive driving sometimes means swallowing your pride, and doing so is a whole lot cheaper than the alternative.
So when it’s your turn to head out onto the road, remember that you don’t stop learning with your driver’s ed classes. So keep an open mind, do your best to train your good habits and forget your bad habits, and try to remember what the voice of experience has to say when you hear it.
4. Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over Every Mistake
Let’s face it. Mistakes happen. Whether your dog distracted you or you’re facing some annoying backseat driver, there comes a time where we’ve all made an embarrassing mistake that’s made us sink into our seat beet red.
Some people tend to beat themselves up over each and every mistake on the road, even if they were just a few seconds late to notice the green light. This is especially true for new drivers who feel exceptionally lousy at driving and blame themselves for things they aren’t at fault for.
However, blaming yourself or feeling ashamed that you annoyed the cranky old lady behind you isn’t a productive way of looking at the situation. Everyone makes mistakes. Yes, even the person who stared at you for braking a bit too suddenly (even though they may not admit it). Instead, if mistakes are a recurring problem, take a bit of time to figure out whether you need a bit more training or you’re getting a bit too distracted on the road.
5. Always Keep A Dashcam
You never know what’s going to happen on the road, or what drivers you’re going to have to deal with.
We’ve all seen the videos of drivers looking to get into minor accidents to commit insurance fraud or the petty drivers that look to brake check you to score some imaginary points. Having a dashcam is a great investment if you’re looking to avoid having to deal with denial when the police show up. Trust me, this can save you time and points on your license.