Bad driving habits

by Paul Williams

My teenaged son recently got his driver’s license. It’s an Ontario G2, which means he can drive anywhere, anytime. This is no problem, he assures me, as he is a total expert at driving. He has countless hours of experience.

Like many new drivers, my son was initially a model motorist. He tried to do everything by the book. He even took a course. Consequently people banged their horns at him, shook their fists and pretty much ran him off the road.

Now he’s more, shall we say, flexible. Truth is, you have to be.

The number of vehicles registered in the nation’s capital has increased from 427,840 in 1990, to 478,000 in 2000. Police responded to 11,658 accidents in 1999, and happily, that’s down from approximately 15,000 in 1995.

But that doesn’t mean everyone’s becoming a better driver.

According to Acting Staff Sergeant Rick Wilhelm of the Ottawa Police Public Safety division, “I mainly attribute the decline in the number of accidents to Ontario’s new graduated licence system. It targets the least experienced drivers, and it seems to be working.”

However, after 20 years on the job, Sgt. Wilhelm sees the same kinds of accidents repeated with monotonous frequency. He points out that the most common accident in the Ottawa area is the rear-end collision.

“A lot of people just aren’t paying attention,” he says. “They blame it on road conditions, but I don’t buy that. Road conditions are not an excuse. If you hit someone from behind, you’re too close. You haven’t properly adjusted to the conditions.”

Other common causes of accidents, he says, are that people are preoccupied (talking on the phone, eating lunch or even operating a laptop computer), they’re in too much of a hurry and make reckless decisions, or in some cases, they simply don’t know the rules.

We all have to deal with the unpredictability associated with driving on congested roads. The more you drive, the more experience you build and hopefully, the better driver you become. But with familiarity comes bad habits.

From my temporary view as an instructor in the passenger seat, I got to see examples of all of the above, and more. Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and take a deep breath — no wonder new drivers are intimidated.

Here are some bad habits and dangerous manoeuvers that I noticed: If you do any of these things, please stop.

Turn signals: The purpose of turn signals is to let other motorists know that you intend to change the direction in which your vehicle is currently pointed. The key word is “intend,” which means you’re planning to do something in the future.

The problem is, if you activate your signal at precisely the same time you change the direction of your vehicle, then you’re not showing people anything they can’t already see. Let your signal flash a couple of times before you make your move. If you don’t have time to do that, then maybe you should stay where you are until you do.

Intersections: When two or more vehicles approach an intersection with stop signs, the vehicle that arrives there first, goes first. If vehicles arrive simultaneously, the vehicle on the right goes first. But many people are either too polite or too rushed to make intersections work properly.

Often you’ll see people flashing their lights, waving, smiling, or just staring blankly at the person on their left. After a few awkward seconds, both cars start at once with the usual consequences.

Then there are people who think it’s okay to go through the stop sign in pairs. These drivers stop behind the guy in front, then, as if they’re at a green light, they go through with him, too. It’s called “driving on auto-pilot,” I think.

Daytime running lights: All vehicles are now equipped with daytime running lights (DRLs). On some vehicles, only the front DRLs operate. This is why you see so many vehicles driving at night with no rear lights. Their drivers have forgotten to turn them on. The next time you see a car at night with its rear lights off, check that yours are on.

Rear fog lights: Speaking of lights, owners of late-model European cars have a habit of driving with their rear fog light turned on. Their rear fog light? Yes, we don’t have them on our cars here, but they do in Europe. The left-rear tail light glows brightly so the car can more easily be seen in fog.

However, to most North American motorists, it simply appears that one of the brake lights is out. What’s typically happening is that the driver isn’t even aware there’s a rear fog light on the car. Somehow it’s accidentally been turned on, and will stay that way until it’s accidentally turned off.

Cutting corners and passing cyclists: These are related, as they both effectively involve driving on the wrong side of the road. When cutting corners, the offending motorist cuts into your lane in order to make their turn a bit smoother. If your car is approaching while a driver is cutting the corner, that driver may hit you. On a right turn, the usual way to cut corners is to drive over the sidewalk, in which case pedestrians may be hit. Try to go around the corner, not through it.

When passing cyclists (or other slow-moving or stationary obstacles) you’re supposed to slow down and wait until it’s safe to pass. Just because you’re following a slow-moving vehicle, doesn’t mean you can blithely pull into the path of oncoming traffic in order to pass. Too many motorists make their temporary inconvenience somebody else’s problem.

Exit ramps:I’m surprised at how many people are prepared to use emergency manoeuvres to make an exit. Some swerve violently across the highway risking life and limb (theirs and yours) to get to the off-ramp. Others miss the exit, slam on the brakes, back up along the shoulder, then slink off the highway. I can honestly say I’ve never done this in 30 years of driving. If you miss an exit, simply drive to the next one, then come back. Relax, for goodness sake.

Red lights: What can one say that hasn’t been said? Too many people completely ignore them. Some treat them like stop signs. Others hit the gas and blow through intersections at 80-100 km/h on city streets. Are these the same people swerving off highways? Maybe. For the rest of us, make it a practice to look both ways when proceeding through an intersection, even if you have a green light. You never know what might be coming at you.

The Superman Syndrome: Contrary to popular belief, SUVs are not invincible. Many of these vehicles don’t even have good crash ratings, although they’ll likely demolish smaller vehicles hit by them. Their greater mass makes them more difficult to stop, and their high centre of gravity makes them harder to control. Even simple lane changes can literally send one spinning. Yet SUVs can often be seen belting down the road in the worst conditions. If you drive one, take it easy. If you don’t, give them lots of room.

Funny thing is, so many people agree that these behaviours are annoying and dangerous. We all knowingly roll our eyes when discussing the kind of people who do these things. Strangely, though, it’s always someone else with the bad habits.

What’s the one thing you can do to improve your driving? According to Staff Sgt. Wilhelm, “Don’t follow too closely. This is truly an accident waiting to happen. If you’ll just put some space between you and the guy in front, you’ll reduce your chances of getting into an accident for sure.”

And my teenaged son? So far, so good.

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