Someone got cut off. They bleeped their horn. You bleeped back. They gesticulated, you gesticulated. And now you're stuck with a lunatic on your back, tailgating and swerving, keeping up with you with a crazy grimace on his face and trying his best to force you off the road. Whoa there. Not everybody lives in Orange County, Calif. Or Miami, Fla. And maybe you're the lunatic, who knows? Or perhaps you take a more considered path of action. We've chosen eight often overlooked defensive driving tips that hopefully will help ensure situations like this one don't develop, and which come with the added bonus of avoiding an expensive insurance payment or minimizing the risks of injury or death in a serious crash.
Tip 1: Don't do unto others
So the crazy-driver pursuit is unlikely to occur, but remonstrating with another driver can not only prove dangerous to your health and wellbeing -- remember you may be inflaming a road-rage situation -- but perhaps more crucially, it distracts a driver for a split second or longer. The entire event could adversely affect their driving for the rest of the day. Remember: Don't take it out on others. And though I usually don't subscribe to the fractured logic of bumper stickers -- mean people, and in particular mean drivers, really do suck.
Tip 2: Stay out of the way
One of the first defensive driving tips listed by Dr Leon James, a professor at the University of Hawaii who publishes DrDriving.com, is: "Stay out of the way. Give aggressive drivers plenty of room to get around you." If another driver is endangering you or his actions are threatening to cause a smash, the best tactic is avoidance, usually by slowing down (with one caveat: always check mirrors before hitting the brakes).
He tells AOL Autos: "One thing to remember is that there is a diversity of drivers on the road. They have different goals for being there -- some are in a hurry to get somewhere, others are just looking around or don't know where they are going exactly and have plenty of time. Others are challenged by sickness, age, drugs, anger, depression, etc. So the best defensive driving advice is to give them more latitude. Let them do what they want at all times."
Tip 3: Yield
Dr. James also says it is never a given that other drivers will follow the rules of the road, and to never insist on your own right of way if another driver is challenging you. Mark Sedenquist, the publisher of RoadTripAmerica.com, agrees, advocating a "yield anyway" strategy. He says: "Even if the right of way is yours by law, custom, or common sense, always remember that the real object is to get home safely. So when someone barges out ahead of you when it's not their turn, put your ego and irritation in the back seat and ... yield anyway."
Tip 4: Be aware of your surroundings
Riding Chicago's L train system to O'Hare Airport alongside the Kennedy Expressway, as I did recently in transit to Los Angeles, gives a great opportunity to observe what drivers get up to behind the wheel: text messaging, applying lipstick, talking on cell phones and reading (!), often at speed. Sedenquist advises keeping an eye out for others' -- and also your own -- bad habits. He says: "One major key to safe driving is observing and responding to the unexpected things that other drivers do. Drivers should be scanning the road constantly, both ahead and (in a rear-view mirror) behind. Another strategy is the 'two-seconds-plus rule,' ensuring a safe following distance between your car and that car or truck in front of you."
Tip 5: Overcome overconfidence
Russ Radar, of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, suggests overconfidence could be at the root of the problem and also offers a practical approach to safety. "We all think we're good drivers and it's all the other drivers out there that are dangerous. We need to examine our own driving behavior: Slow down, obey traffic laws, and always wear safety belts. If everyone did those things, our highways would be a lot safer."
Tip 6: Take a refresher course
I attended a brief defensive driving course as part of an assignment a few years back and was shocked by just how much my road habits had decayed in a decade or so behind the wheel, perhaps as a result of overconfidence. One-hand steering wheel spins? Please no. Even crossing hands is frowned upon here. Quick to point out and work on combating bad habits, my instructor also offered valuable lessons on everyday road stuff that I'd forgotten, some as surprisingly basic as road position or safely approaching a stop sign or street entrance. It's valuable in other ways, too: Any money spent on the course may end up saving larger payouts on speeding tickets or traffic misdemeanors -- both of which will probably necessitate the taking of defensive driving course, usually in a class or online.
Tip 7: Rest and refresh
The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 56,000 crashes annually are caused by drowsy drivers. It also suggests some startling characteristics of crashes involving a drowsy driver: The crash occurs late at night or early in the morning; it is likely to be serious; a single vehicle leaves the roadway; the crash occurs on a high-speed road; the driver does not attempt to avoid a crash; the driver is alone in the vehicle. A friend of mine, who crashed a Volvo 850 into highway safety barrels at 70 mph (and thankfully walked away without a scratch) will bear witness that all of these factors occurred in her early-morning smash when she fell asleep at the wheel. The NHTSA says that, young people (ages 16 to 29), especially males, are most at risk. Shift workers whose sleep is disrupted by working at night or working long or irregular hours also face the same risks. Sedenquist, who has tallied a half million miles in his 30 years on the road across America, says "Before you push on for 'just another fifty miles,' keep in mind that sleepy drivers can be just as dangerous as drunk ones." Stay alert, it can save your life.
Tip 8: Take a Zen-like approach
Dr James advises: "The secret of being a "supportive driver" -- the opposite of an aggressive driver. Facilitate what they are trying to do. Do not put your sail in their wind. Be a smart driver, a peaceful driver, and be safe and calm that way."