Driving tips

Driving is something which must be learned; It cannot be taught. No amount of reading books or getting advice from others will teach you to drive. You can only learn to drive by actually driving.

However, a little advice never hurt anybody, and indeed, tips from others can make you a better driver. Many small nuances of the art of handling a car will be learned over time, but it's nice to have them explained to you before you learn them on your own, especially since driving is such a life-threatening situation: Unlike many other activities in life, driving does not always let you learn from your mistakes, because you might not live to learn from them.

Almost everybody who takes a car to the road on a regular basis is interested in driver safety. To that end, here's a small collection of driving nuances which you should learn before you actually have a chance to make use of them. After all, learning the hard way can be hazardous to your health.

Don't follow too close

Hands down, this is probably the most important lesson you need to learn. It is one of the most commonly-broken rules anywhere. Tailgating is unsafe for very obvious reasons: If the car in front of you stops suddenly, you may not be able to stop for it in time.

Another reason for not following too close is, it lets you see the road ahead of you. This may seem obvious, but I learned it the hard way after following just a little too close on the freeway; A huge rock appeared from under the car in front of me. The driver managed to dodge it, because he saw it coming, whereas I didn't. My wheel ran right over it, creating a jolt that could easily have thrown my car's front-end alignment into disarray. Mercifully, all I got was a flat tire, but it could have been worse. Don't let this be you.

How close people tend to follow varies around the world. In big cities, people tend to follow very close indeed; In rural areas, folks usually give each other a bit more room. Either way, leaving enough space between you and the car in front of you is a difficult habit to get into, for several reasons: First off, it makes you feel like you're going slower than you should, especially when you're got another car a hair's breadth from your rear bumper and you get a sensation that the driver behind you feels you're going too slow. Secondly, if you ever actually do leave some space between you and the car in front, you'll quickly notice that it gets filled. Other drivers, noticing the space you have helpfully created, will naturally take advantage of it, and you'll have a car right in front of you again. There is really nothing that can be done about this, because after all, it has to do with the mindset of the other drivers on the road, but it is a serious problem.

The ultimate question is "How much space is enough?" There are two extremes: You can leave a ridiculous amount of space, so that the car in front of you is just a speck in the distance, or you can leave no space, so that all you can see is that car. Obviously, the right way is somewhere in between. Exactly how much space is appropriate cannot be set in stone. It depends on what kind of vehicle you're driving, how good your brakes are, how fast you're going, what the road conditions are, etc. Even if an exact distance could be given, nobody is going to go out with a tape measure and measure the distance between cars; It's just something which must be developed by feel.

There is another, more subtle reason for not following too close: Leaving room in front of your car tends to ease the flow of traffic, which helps to prevent traffic jams. For more information on this theory, check out the fairly well known Traffic Waves: Physics for bored commuters, an interesting site with a theory that seems simple and almost obvious, but which is either unknown to or ignored by most commuters: Drivers could cure a lot of freeway jams by simply leaving more room for other vehicles to merge. The site goes into quite a bit more detail on this, but suffice it to say that the reasoning behind this idea is logical and in lighter jams it may actually be quite helpful. In very heavy jams, however, it is useless.

Accelerate moderately

If you pay attention to the drivers around you, you'll notice that most of them tend to accelerate away from stops rather quickly. People tend to be in a hurry when they drive, and they don't like to speed up any slower than they have to, so they just push the gas pedal down with dramatic and abrupt force. About the only advantage this has is getting up to speed a little faster. The disadvantages are numerous: First and foremost, for most people, is decreased gas mileage. Your car uses much more gas to make the burst of energy needed for a quick start. Secondly, it's hard on the engine. Think about it: Virtually any machine's hardest task is starting up. (The common reference is a light bulb, which usually burns out right when you turn it on.) Similarly, you're taking years off the life of your engine if you make its starts harder than they already are. I usually try to press gently on the gas pedal when I come out of a stop, letting my speedometer slowly and smoothly climb to the speed limit. The only real problem with this is the cars behind you. People are so impatient that when I do this, they usually start trying to pass me after a couple of seconds. It amazes me that people can't even wait a few seconds for someone to speed up. But such is life on the road.

Brake moderately

Just as taking it easy on the gas tends to lengthen the life of your engine, slowly coming to a stop and easing the brake pedal down instead of suddenly jamming it will make your brakes last longer. It's also safer, because it gives the traffic behind you more time to stop.

That's not to say that you always should brake softly. Emergency stops are sometimes necessary. If the situation dictates that you need to stop in a hurry, by all means, stomp on the brake pedal. A new set of brakes is cheaper than a new car.

Use your turn signals effectively

As you may have guessed, the first part of this is actually using them, period. Yes, you've seen the drivers who never seem to use their turn signals. I can't really understand why they don't; It's not that hard to push the small lever. Heck, it's harder work to turn the steering wheel. If you're so lazy that you think it's too much trouble to flip your signal lever, maybe you shouldn't be driving.

But there's more to the art of signalling than just using them. You also need to signal at the right time. How many times have you seen a driver turn on their signals RIGHT WHEN THEY TURN? It's incredibly annoying. You're turning? No! Really? Who'd've guessed? Gosh, I can SEE you turning right now, it's so helpful of you to turn on your signal now, just in case I thought the image of your car turning was an optical illusion. Please, turn on the signal at least a few seconds before you turn so the cars behind you have some advance warning of what you're about to do.

Also be aware of potential turn-off points before the spot where you actually want to turn. If you're going to turn left onto a street, and there's a driveway or some such on your left side that's closer than the street, cars behind you can't tell which you're planning to turn left onto. They may assume you're planning to take the driveway, when you're really going for the street beyond it. Generally, turn on your signals only when there are no conflicting places to turn onto, just so others know exactly where you're planning to turn.

Use your mirrors effectively

You've heard this one before: Adjust your mirrors so you can actually use them to see around you, and check them every few seconds.

A common error made by many people is to aim the side-view mirrors so you can see what's behind you. This is not what they're for; That's why you have your rear-view mirror. The side-view mirrors are (surprise!) for seeing what's BESIDE you. That means that you should aim them so you get a good view of the lanes beside your car. If you do it right, you can get a pretty good view of all directions surrounding your car (forward, backward, left, and right) without having to turn your head much. However, that leads me to the next tip...

Be aware of your blind spots

This is a classic driving axiom. If you've never heard it before, you learn it very quickly when you start driving. To sum it up: Your mirrors don't give you full 360-degree visibility around your car. (Or even full 180-degree visibility of your rear area.) Your rear-view mirror shows you what's behind you, and your side-view mirrors give you a sort of diagonal-backward view of the lanes next to you. Together, they provide pretty good coverage, but they leave two blind spots, one on each side of your car. They're right beside your car, a little bit towards the rear. You usually can't see there very well with your mirrors. And so this creates the need to turn your head and look through the side windows. This isn't just a driving myth propagated by over-cautious people. It's a plain fact. To prove it for yourself, try putting something beside your car, then sit in the driver's seat and check how well you can see the object in your side-view mirrors. In all probability, you won't be able to see it.

It's important to be able to know if something is beside you or not, particularly when you're changing lanes. Blind spots in your awareness are simply not acceptable. After all, if you don't know something is there, how can you know if it's safe to go there? You're taking a complete chance, and it's a toss-up whether you'll hit a car or not. Thus, with most cars, you simply *must* turn your head to look through the side windows when you're changing lanes.

Notice I said "most cars". There are exceptions to this rule, and they usually occur in larger vehicles. Many vans don't have side windows on the cargo storage area; The sides are simply not see-through. On such a vehicle, you obviously can't turn your head to look if something is beside you, unless it's close to the front (where you would be able to see it through the door windows). These vehicles must have special convex mirrors, those ones which bulge outward. They produce a "fish-eye" effect, making things look distorted but giving you a much fuller field of vision. These mirrors are able to show things which would normally be in your blind spot. I have driven a van like this, and although the convex mirrors take some getting used to, I came to appreciate their convenience: You don't have to turn your head much, you can get a complete picture of your surroundings just through your windshield and mirrors. Although I have never driven a really large vehicle like a bus or trailer truck, they use similar mirrors.

The visiblity of your side-view mirrors also varies from car to car. With some cars, you may find that they give you good enough coverage. Basically, the area you can see in your peripheral vision and the area covered by the mirrors are the two side-view regions; If they overlap, you've got complete coverage. If there is a gap between them, that gap is your blind spot. You will find that adjusting your mirrors correctly helps to narrow (if not eliminate) the blind spot. Remember, as I just said before, your side-views are NOT to show you what's behind you. That's what your rear-view is for. The sides are for exactly that: Showing you what's beside you.

When in doubt, go slow

Let's face it: Speed thrills, and speed kills. Car accidents are dangerous not because cars and big and heavy, but because they go so fast. If everybody drove around at 5 MPH, accidents would be a lot easier to avoid, and even when they did happen, nobody would get killed and the cars would hardly be damaged. Simple fact: The faster you're going, the more danger you're in. Sure it's fun to pretend you're at a racetrack and whizz by the other traffic, until you have to suddenly stop at a point where you didn't anticipate having to stop so quickly. When driving, your safety is inversely proportional to how much fun you're having. The point of all this is that in any situation where circumstances are dangerous (heavy traffic, slippery roads, etc.), the only safe way to deal with it is to proceed slower than you normally would. Having well-tuned anti-lock brakes is nice, but you know that no matter how good they are, your brakes won't save you if you drive like a loony.

Know the law

Every state and province has its own local driving law, and as you might guess, these sometimes vary. Although laws are usually fairly consistent (don't speed, don't run red lights or stop signs, and don't hit anything), it helps to be aware of the law if you're travelling to a different place.

As an amusing example, in Quebec, pedestrians do not have the right of way on the street; Cars do. This has become a way of life in Quebec, and they are used to it there, but imagine if a driver from Quebec suddenly went somewhere else and wondered why pedestrians all seemed to want to be run over. This is an extreme and unlikely example (people from Quebec never travel anywhere), but you get my point.

In a skid, don't brake

Braking is the worst thing you can do for your traction. It makes you lose your grip on the pavement. When you start to slide, you instinctively want to brake because you want to stop. Unfortunately, that usually just makes the slide worse. This is a hard rule to follow because it requires you to do the opposite of what feels natural, but it's generally worth it.

It is true that stopping your car in a skid is sometimes called for. In fact, when you're skidding is usually the time when you'd really like to stop the most. If a collision seems imminent and your tires aren't likely to regain traction anytime soon, the standard procedure is to "pump" the brakes, which is exactly what it sounds like: Instead of holding down the brake pedal, pump it using quick strokes. The idea is to jolt the brakes to help the car slow down, without locking the wheels completely so that you lose even more traction. You shouldn't press the pedal too hard when doing this, speed is more important than force. (This is exactly the kind of motion set up by anti-lock braking systems; If your car has such a system, you can ignore this bit about pumping the brakes and just hold the pedal down, since the ABS system will automatically pump the brakes faster than you could do manually.)

Master the art of merging

Merging from one stream of traffic into another is quite possibly the most unsettling part of driving a car. This is especially true when you're doing it on the freeway, and traffic is moving around quickly. Merging is hard because it requires a decent-sized gap between cars for you to merge into, and it needs the cars on each side of that gap to leave the space open long enough for you to enter it. There is no other aspect of everyday driving that's based purely on chance; At any other time, you have a clearly defined place you're supposed to go. If you're driving straight, you go forward in the line you're in. If you're turning, you turn from the turn lane, into the designated lane on the street you're turning onto. If something is blocking your way, all you have to do is stop. But stopping while trying to merge onto the freeway is not safe. And so you're forced to try and make your way into the stream of other cars, which boils down to a matter of pure luck: Either the other drivers will be nice and let you in, or they won't. How polite drivers are depends on where you live. On lightly-traveled outlying roads, drivers are usually more courteous than on filled-to-the-brim downtown streets where everybody's in a hurry to get where they're going.

In any case, merging is something that takes a lot of practice and steady nerves to perform well. Keep an eye on traffic around you, be aware of where cars are and where they're moving to, and don't forget to turn on your turn signal to politely ask other drivers to give you a little space. If things get desperate and the other cars are trying to speed past you instead of giving you a break, don't feel too bad about forcing your way into the road. This is dangerous, and there are times when it's just plain foolish (as when you suddenly cut in front of a car that's barreling up behind you at close range, or a speed much faster than yours), but in some parts of the world where you could wait all day for a kind soul to come along and let you in, this kind of merge is a way of life. Even if a car behind you was speeding up to try and get past you, they are incredibly unlikely to deliberately rear-end you once you are in front of them. They will slow down once you are in front of them. Again, this is not recommended except as a last resort; It tends to be safer than the only other alternative, which is to stop in the on-ramp and then try to get into the freeway at low speed. On heavily-travelled freeways, you'll find yourself performing a lot of "desperately trying to find a gap big enough to shove yourself into before you run out of acceleration lane" type merges. Get used to it.

Go With The Flow

It's said that on the road of life, there are passengers, and there are drivers. The implication being, I suppose, that "drivers" are leaders, people who tend to make their own rules and set their own trends, while "passengers" are those who just follow along and don't make waves.

Most people would probably rather be drivers. I'm among them, and I'd encourage others to be drivers too. But if there's one place in life where it pays follow the flock, it's when you're driving a car. Generally, you're safest when you're doing what everybody else is doing. The most obvious and often-cited example of this is speed: If you're going faster than others, you create obvious problems with having to brake when there are cars in front of you, or having to pass them. If you're going slower, you create a back-up which tends to lead to a lot of people trying to pass dangerously. Following along with the speed of traffic is usually the safest speed. (As a bonus, it makes you a lot less likely to be pulled over by the police. There's safety in numbers when driving. Even if the whole pack of traffic is moving well over the speed limit, the police are unlikely to pull anyone over since everybody else is doing the same, and they can't give tickets to everybody on the road. Although there have been cases where bored cops singled someone out of a group, this is fairly rare and usually happens either in Los Angeles, or because a particular car stands out for some reason, for example, being a bright red sports car.)

But this principle applies to things other than speed too. Take cues from what you see other drivers do. If you suddenly notice a lot of brake lights coming on somewhere ahead on the road, it's likely that there's a good reason why all those cars are suddenly putting on the brakes at that spot, and you should probably start thinking of applying your own brakes too. And if you notice all the cars swerving oddly at one spot, there's probably something in the road that they're trying to avoid hitting, and you should be prepared to do the same.

The communality of the road is strong, even if it's somewhat unintentional. The people out there driving want to stay alive and get to their destinations without hitting anything, and as precarious as driving sometimes seems, the fact is that most people succeed. There are a lot of people out there who've been driving for several decades. You can learn by watching them. Take examples from good drivers and learn to be a safe, sharing member of the brotherhood of motorists.

Learn to know where your car is

When you drive, you can't see all of your car; You see your car from the inside. This means you can't see exactly where the foremost or rearmost parts of your car (usually your front and rear bumper) are, nor where your sides are. This is exactly why some maneuvers, such as driving through narrow spaces or parallel parking, are difficult for the driver: You can't see if you're lined up correctly or not. To an outsider observing the car from a helicopter directly overhead, it would be easy to see if the car is going to hit something or not, but when you're inside driving, it's not always so clear. This creates the need to be able to drive by "feel"; Rather than seeing exactly where your car is, you just need to develop a feel for when you are in the right place, and when you are not.

I must admit that this is one of the hardest things for me as a driver. I have been driving for several years and I'm still not always sure of exactly where my car is in relation to objects around me. If you're a typical North American driver, you can usually do a pretty good job of getting by with just keeping your car within the lane markings. Each car keeps to its own lane and there is usually more than enough room for a car to have a little leeway to the right or to the left in one lane. However, there are many times (especially when changing lanes) when you're not able to always stay safely between the lane markers. Even worse, in many less urban areas (usually in less developed countries), some roads have no lane markers; These roads require you to be able to maintain an orderly traffic pattern without the aid of visible lanes laid out on the pavement. Many American drivers would be lost on such a road. It all comes down to being able to know where your car is, and whether you're too far to the left or to the right. It just takes practice: The more you drive, the better a driver you'll be. It also helps to be able to get used to one car; If you own a car you'll eventually start to develop a feel for it, but there are many people (such as the valet parking people who park your car for you at hotels and such) whose job requires them to instinctively be able to drive any car at a moment's notice. It's not as easy as it sounds.

Driving test tips

When you take a driving test, you are expected to drive like a wimp. You are not expected to drive like normal people actually drive in the real world; You are expected to meticulously follow all driving laws and axioms in an anal-retentive fashion, because otherwise the driving tester will probably penalize you for them, resulting in failing the test. Granted, nobody actually drives that way, and the tester will know that you are deliberately driving like a sucker simply because of the test. However, he or she will not care. What matters when you take the test is not how you actually drive in day-to-day life, but how you drive during the test itself. To that end, a few pointers on what you should do especially for driving tests is in order.

Make complete stops

In the real world, people usually slow down a lot for stop signs, but they usually don't come to a complete stop. They often drag through at crawling speed. Although colloquially known as "California stops" because of California's famously perverse drivers, the truth is that this practice is common almost anywhere. Although it is pretty safe as long as you can see there are no cars coming, the driving tester will not care, and will almost certainly fail you for running a stop sign even if you go through at 1 MPH. When they say they want a complete stop, they mean just that. Stop dead still, and stay that way for two or three seconds. And while you're there, there is one other thing you must do at a stop sign. That's right, you must... (drumroll please...)

Look both ways when you stop

Even if you are sure there are no cars coming, do it anyway. Even if there was a front-page article in the newspaper this morning stating that you and your driving tester are the last two people alive on the planet, look both ways anyway. And don't glance quickly. The driving tester will be watching you. I once knew a guy who failed his test for not looking both ways, at a stop sign, even though he did. Presumably, he just made a quick glance, probably just by moving his eyes. Turn your head to the side, hold it there for a couple of seconds, then turn it the other way and do the same. Make it very clear that you are looking down the street, and are able to see if there is traffic coming or not.

In fact, it's best to look both ways even when you *don't* stop. Even if you drive clear through an intersection because you have the right-of-way and no stop sign, some places will penalize you for not doing a standard left-right traffic check. Just to be safe, always look down any cross-streets that you drive through.

Check your mirrors a lot

Remember, the tester is not just watching how you drive; The tester is watching YOU, and how you act behind the wheel. They want to see a lot of mirror action. They will like it if you check the mirrors every few seconds. Again, make it clear that you are looking where you are by turning your head slightly. This will make it quite clear to the tester that your attention is at the mirrors. However, there is one time when you DON'T want the tester to see you using the mirrors...

When you back up, actually turn your head around

When backing up, you're supposed to turn your head over your shoulder to look behind you. Even though the rear-view mirror exists explicitly for the purpose of seeing what's behind you, the tester will NOT like you using it to back up, especially during parallel parking. I know a guy who was failed for this reason, and this reason alone. Even if you are sure there are no cars behind you, it doesn't matter. You must turn your head anyway.

Keep both hands on the steering wheel

Generally, driving with both hands on the wheel gives you better control than only driving with one. Keep your left hand on the upper-left corner of the wheel, and your right hand on the upper-right corner. (The classical hand-positioning advice is to imagine the wheel as the face of a clock, and put your left hand at 10 o'clock and your right hand at 2 o'clock.) The tester will like this.

Maintain distance from the car in front of you

This is important even when you stop. Even though there is little danger of hitting the car in front of you when you are stopped at a traffic light, the driving testers still don't like it if you stop really close. At all times, maintain at least one full car length between you and the car in front of you.

Be wary of where you might have to wait

During driving, there are often places where you might have to stop and wait for a while, such as when you have a "Yield" sign while merging into another road. If you are forced to wait because of traffic, be very careful about having your car block pedestrian crosswalks. Stop before the crosswalk, unless doing so blocks your view of the road, in which case make sure there are no pedestrians nearby who look like they're about to use the crosswalk, then move forward as much as necessary so you can see. I myself was failed on a driver's test for blocking a crosswalk while waiting to merge into traffic. Also watch out for blocking an intersection because traffic is so bunched-up that you can't go all the way through the intersection. In heavy traffic, wait until there is enough room on the other side of the intersection before you go into it, or you may end up blocking cross-traffic. This will almost certainly get you failed on the test, and in many places, police actually give tickets for this, because the driver is supposed to wait until there is sufficient room before entering the intersection.

Use your turn signals

Again, this has been mentioned before, but it beomes even more important during a driving test. Even if there are no other cars around to see it, you can't go wrong with signaling your turns; The tester will not fail you for making an "unnecessary turn signal".

Practice parallel parking beforehand

In most states and provinces, parallel parking is an important part of the driving test. It takes a lot of practice to be able to parallel park effectively. In most cases, you are expected to do it all in one smooth motion; They will not like it if you have to reverse and go forward two or three times to straighten yourself out. Practice, practice, practice, because when the tester tells you to park, it's too late to practice anymore.

Check your car beforehand

The tester will usually perform a basic check of your car before the test begins, to make sure it is in normal working order. To be sure you are not disqualified before the test even starts, check your car to be sure the headlights work, all turn signals work, the brake lights work, and the horn works. Some testers will also refuse to let you take the test if you are low on gas, so gas up first. (Yes, I know it sounds ridiculous, but I have personally witnessed cases where people were not allowed to take the test because they did not have enough gas. Okay, "cases" is the wrong word; "One case" is more accurate, but still.)

Ask about their speed policy beforehand

Most testers do not like you talking to them during the test, so stay quiet, and ask any questions you might have before the test actually begins. In particular, ask what kind of speed they expect you to maintain. Do they expect strict obediance to speed limits, or would they rather you go with the flow of traffic? They will not fail you for asking this simple question before you begin the test; Just ask them politely, something like "If traffic around me is doing 60 and the speed limit is 50, am I expected to stick to the speed limit, or follow the flow of traffic?" Different areas (or even different testers) may have different ideas on this, and it is something important to know, since otherwise you may be failed for breaking the speed limit when you were just following traffic, or for impeding traffic when you were just following the limit.

Remain calm

Being nervous while driving is a bad thing. And you are very likely to be nervous when taking a driving test. That's why you must be in the right frame of mind. The tester is watching everything you do, so you must phase the tester out and not think about that. Take a few deep breaths, and just imagine that you are driving alone. Focus only on the car and the road around you. This is hard to do, especially since the tester will be giving you instructions, but you must not think about the tester any more than you need to. The art of remaining calm under pressure is a very handy skill, not only when taking a driving test, but at many other times in life. It is a skill well worth developing.

Have your fee available in cash

Even if you're paying for the test by credit or debit card, have the cash available just in case. Once when I took a test, the office's computer systems were all down and they weren't able to process the transaction, so people could only pay by cash. I had to run to a bank machine at a nearby gas station and withdraw the cash in a hurry before my test began. This sounds ridiculous and it rarely happens, but to be on the safe side, be prepared.

Accept that the test is not fair or democratic, then get over it

If you are failed for a totally ridiculous reason, there is nothing you can do. Unlike a convicted criminal who is allowed an appeal, you have no recourse if the tester fails you. If the person does not like you, he or she can make up some completely unjustified excuse for failing you, and there is nothing you can do. Just accept that, and get over it. Like getting your appendix removed or getting married, passing a driving test is something you usually only need to go through only once in life. Once you're done, you're pretty much done for life. If you don't succeed this time, there's always next time.

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