Driving a motor vehicle is dangerous business. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (USA) data, the number of traffic accident fatalities in the U.S. has decreased markedly since the early '70s. That said, the number of deaths still seems to hover at about 35,000 per year, and traffic accidents usually rank in the top ten causes of death annually.
Many people involved in traffic accidents are likely to say, "It wasn't me, it was the other guy!" Okay. So what was the other guy doing? Are you the other guy?
Often, operator error is a key factor in a wreck. Here are a few things not to do if you want to keep from becoming the cause of an accident. Most of these are no-brainers. Unfortunately, there's no shortage of seemingly brainless drivers on our streets and highways.
1. Driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol
NHTSA data paints a clear picture: drunk driving causes accidents. The majority of traffic-related deaths are caused by drunk drivers. It's a well-known fact that alcohol impairs your ability to drive, and more importantly, to react. So follow common-sense guidelines like taking a taxi or using a designated driver if you're planning a booze-fueled night on the town. Doing so can avoid tragic consequences. As laws governing the use of marijuana become relaxed in some places, it too has the potential to become a bigger part of the traffic accident statistical mix. You may think you're good at driving high, but chances are that you aren't. Law enforcement officers trained to look for signs of impairment will explain this as they lead you to the back seat of their patrol car.
2. Driving tired
Drowsy driving is every bit as dangerous as drunk driving. When your body needs sleep, it's going to get it, one way or another. People who insist on driving when they should stop for a rest will have slower reaction times and are likely to fall asleep at the wheel. The results usually aren't pretty. Drivers who are sleepy or asleep tend to crash on high-speed roads, and they usually don't do anything to avoid the crash in the moments before impact. The problem is such that some luxury automakers have introduced driver aids intended to combat drowsy driving. So if you feel yourself nodding off, pull off the road and grab a few Zs someplace safe. You might get home later than planned, but that's a small trade-off for your safety and that of the drivers sharing the road with you.
Speeding is the second leading cause of traffic fatalities after drunk driving. According to a 2005 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "The relationship between vehicle speed and crash severity is unequivocal and based on the laws of physics." There you have it: the faster you go, the more likely it is you'll be pulverised in a crash. An object in motion, and so forth. Even though they may sometimes feel arbitrary, posted speed limits exist for a reason. The IIHS study also points out that the likelihood of a crash increases when a driver goes above or below the average speed on a given roadway. When everyone travels at the same general speed, things are more predictable, and the road is safer as a result.
4. Distracted driving
You know the drill. Shave/put your makeup on at home, and turn off the cell phone while you're driving. NHTSA estimates that there are 660,000 distracted drivers on the road most of the time. The federal government has responded by pressuring state governments to ban texting and driving, eating and driving, and all other activities that take motorists' eyes and minds away from the road. How many times in the past week have you looked into someone's car at an intersection only to see that they couldn't see you, because they were on the phone and/or yelling at their kids? Distracted drivers are an example of why some people think autonomous, self-driving cars are a swell idea, so don't give those people any more ammo.
5. Driving too fast for the weather conditions
Yes, we just discussed speeding, but this merits particular reinforcement. When the weather gets bad, slowing down is the best way to avoid an accident. This goes back to that physics thing. Unfortunately, not everyone gets that. All-wheel drive isn't an excuse for driving fast in inclement weather. When the road surface is slippery, a 3,500- to 5,000-pound vehicle will probably skid if you need to slow down in a hurry. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 24 percent of all vehicle crashes are weather related. That's a good reason to slow down and leave a little space between your car and the one in front.
6. Drafting tractor trailers
Yes, following closely behind a tractor trailer can increase your fuel economy. That doesn't mean you should do it. Drafting works for NASCAR drivers, so it makes sense that a 4,000-pound car can "hide" in the low pressure zone behind a 13-foot-tall, 80,000-pound big rig. Back in 2007, the MythBusters even proved that it worked. But they also pointed out that following closer than 150 feet behind a truck is really dangerous. Even that distance gives a driver less than two seconds to react if the trucker suddenly slams on the brakes. Other things to consider are that truck drivers can't see what's directly behind them, and the relationship between trailer heights and car hood heights is a recipe for decapitation.
7. Reckless driving
Reckless driving, better known in many parts of the world as "driving like a jackass," is a good way to cause a crash. This includes swerving, weaving in and out of traffic, passing on the right, accelerating and braking suddenly, and yes, driving slowly in the left lane on the freeway, among other things. Many states consider driving 20 mph or more over the speed limit reckless driving, which carries heavy penalties in the form of fines, jail time, or a combination thereof. This goes back to predictability. If your movements in traffic are drastically different than those of other drivers, you're more likely to cause an accident. Not surprisingly, younger males are more likely to engage in this shabby mockery of race car driving.
8. Not wearing a seat belt
According to NHTSA, seat belts saved more than 75,000 lives between 2004 and 2008. Airbags certainly make cars safer, but they're designed to work in conjunction with seat belts, which help prevent passenger ejection during high speed crashes and rollovers. Really, putting on a seat belt is such an easy thing to do, it's almost incomprehensible that people don't wear them. Having grown up with seat belts in cars, I feel naked without one. Also, consider that many accidents occur at low speeds near home, so even if you're "just running down the street" on a quick errand, just buckle up. It matters.
9. Failure to yield the right of way
One of the leading causes of accidents, hands down, is failure to yield the right of way. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that it's the top cause of accidents among drivers aged 70 and older, particularly on freeway merge ramps. In Uncommon Carriers, his book about long haul truckers, John McPhee points out that space cadets in the merge lane are a constant source of teeth-grinding anxiety for the people driving 80,000-pound big rigs. Another facet of failure to yield that's more prevalent in cities is running stop signs and red lights. Drivers coming from other directions expect the intersection to be clear when the light on their end turns green. Once again, predictability is good.