Tuesday, April 26, 2005


Safe Driving #7: On the Expressway

Expressways should be the safest roads of all. There are no stop lights or signs, no intersections, no steep hills or sharp bends. But practically every day there are backups caused by four easily preventable accidents.

1) Rear-ending the car in front. How do people keep hitting the car in front? It's not exactly easy to miss, after all. Are you driving too close? Watch the car in front go under a bridge or past a sign. Say, "One Thousand, Two Thousand" slowly. If you reach the bridge or sign before you finish saying that, you are far too close and have practically no chance of avoiding hitting him should he stop suddenly. Remember: when the guy in front hits the brakes in a panic, and you see the smoke coming off his tires, you're toast.

2) Being rear-ended by the car behind. If you are paying attention you should be able to slow down progressively when you see an obstruction, giving drivers behind time to slow down as well.

3) Being side-swiped. Everyone knows that on single-lane roads, overtaking or passing or whatever you want to call it, is dangerous. But on expressways you are actually carrying out many, many overtaking maneuvers without realising it. When alongside another vehicle you are in a zone of danger where it does not do to stay too long. Why? Because you are in the other driver's blind spot. He will not be paying attention, see his exit looming up or decide to pass the car in front of him, and enter your lane because even if he looked it would be physically impossible for him to see you. Be particularly careful with semis and other large vehicles. They often have signs saying: "If you can't see my mirrors, then I can't see you". You should mentally append: "(if I bother to look)".

When passing another vehicle on the expressway ensure the car in front of you is sufficiently far ahead to allow you pass the vehicle completely and not be stuck alongside him. If not, hang back.

When passing, keep an eye on the tires of the vehicle you're passing and keep a finger on the horn. Compare the distance between his tires and the lane markings. If it starts to reduce, your finger's ready to start blasting the horn to wake him up.

When passing, look in the lane ahead of the guy you're passing. Is he coming up on a slower vehicle and likely to swerve out into your lane at the last second?

When passing, look in the lane to the right of the guy you're passing. Is somebody going to swerve in front of him causing a chain reaction?

You have to go through that thought process with every car you pass, but in time it becomes automatic.

When moving to a lane to your left, ALWAYS check your mirrors AND the blind spot over your left shoulder. American drivers love sitting in your blind spot, especially if you are driving the speed limit. They get level with you and only notice the speed when they're about to pass, decide they don't want to risk a ticket, and take up station where they can't be seen.

4) Being hit while parked. There is no safe place to stop on the expressway. To see what I mean, follow a semi for a few miles. Notice how he drifts all over the road, and on to the shoulder? Semis are susceptible to gusts of wind and also the absurd schedules their drivers keep, resulting in more than a few falling asleep at the wheel.

The only reason you should ever stop on an expressway is if your vehicle breaks down. Get it as far over to either the left or right side of the road as you can. Get everybody out of the car and stand as far from the traffic as you can. Never cross the traffic lanes on foot. Call for help on your cellphone or wait for the highway patrol. Leave your pets inside the car. Turn on the hazard lights before you exit the car. When you call for help, you were keeping an eye on the exit signs you passed, weren't you, and can tell the dispatcher where you are?

If you must stop to read a map, probably the safest place to do so on an expressway is the shoulder of an on-ramp. You have less chance of being rear ended or sideswiped by a sleeping driver, but have someplace to go fast if it turns out that on-ramp is in a dangerous neighborhood and you're menaced by the locals. I don't recommend stopping anywhere on an expressway, however, and it's probably illegal as well.

Don't run out of gas. I've been amazed how in supposedly car-friendly USA you can drive for miles even in California and not see a gas station. Always fill up if you're going somewhere unfamiliar. If you run out of gas you and your family are at the mercy of every crazy out there, plus you will be price gouged viciously on the recovery.
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