By Jil McIntosh

By the look of the news reports, this is turning into a deadly summer.

In Ontario, where I live, we’ve already had several major highway crashes, some of them fatal, and some allegedly tied in to street racing.

The outcry has been predictable: some people are calling for engine governors, to limit how fast a driver can go. But that knee-jerk reaction doesn’t address the fact that far too many people have limited or poor driving skills, or they do not pay enough attention to the job at hand.

Speed alone does not cause crashes, as a long list of still-walking race drivers can tell you. Going too fast will exacerbate the damage caused by the crash, and it can get drivers into situations that are beyond their capability, such as when they take a turn too quickly. But there is always an underlying reason for a car to leave the driver’s intended path, and except in the rare instance of catastrophic mechanical failure, it will be driver error.

There have always been bad drivers, right from the day the first horseless carriages were delivered. Even so, I believe that we’re seeing more of them in recent years, and for a number of reasons: more vehicles on the road, overworked licensing bureaus passing substandard operators, the proliferation of cell phones, overscheduled drivers, and the fact that cars are easier to drive. Roll up the windows, turn on the air, crank up the tunes, point the steering wheel, and you’ve got a self-contained little pod that creates a detachment between the driver and the outside world.

How do we make roads safer? Instead of thinking it’s strictly a job for the police or the government, it starts with us:

Pay attention to what you’re doing. Put down the cell phone, the hamburger, the newspaper and the notes you should have read last night for the meeting. Turn down the stereo and stop looking for your favourite CD. Put on your makeup or shave your face before you leave the house. The bottom line is that no matter how good you think you are, you are not giving your full concentration to your driving, and that’s going to affect how well you control your vehicle. You can’t drive a car to the best of your ability when using a cell phone – period.

Keep to the right. Sometimes I think I’m in England, judging by how many people enter a highway and then make a beeline for the left-hand lane. They usually stay there right until their exit, whereupon they dart across three lanes of traffic to get off. The rule is that the right-hand lane is for driving, the left-hand lanes are for passing, and if someone is passing you on the right, you’re in the wrong lane.

When I read about a fatal collision recently in Ontario, one line jumped out at me: the eyewitness said that the speeding vehicles came up on her right, cut in front of her, and then caused a truck driver to swerve and lose control. The speeding drivers were still at fault, but I suspect this collision might have been avoided had she been in the right-hand lane, allowing both truck and cars to pass her safely without making lane changes.

Brush up on the rules of the road. A few weeks ago, a new four-way stop was installed at the intersection by my house, and I’m shocked at how many people have no idea how it works. (It replaced a two-way stop, which befuddled far too many drivers as well: the car going straight at the stop proceeds before the car facing it that’s turning left, no matter who arrived first.)

Take the right of way when it’s yours. Relinquishing the right of way isn’t polite, it’s dangerous. It confuses other drivers, who then hesitate and make the situation worse.

Look ahead. Many drivers look no further than a few metres ahead of their hoods. You should be looking as far ahead as possible, right up to the horizon. This will help you to see and anticipate problems, judge braking distances, and assess traffic. If you’re the driver sitting right behind the construction barrier with your signal on hoping that someone will let you change lanes, you need to work on changing your habits. Once you’ve gotten into the routine of looking ahead, you’ll find it uncomfortable to go back to your old ways.

Consider driving lessons. I’ve been very fortunate in that, because of my job, I’ve received a great deal of driver training from professionals. Without a shadow of a doubt, I am a much better driver now than I was before my lessons, which have included winter skid school, collision avoidance and entry-level race school. You’re never too old to benefit, but they’re especially important for young people. I can’t believe how many parents will buy their children expensive video games, computer equipment, or even new cars, but they’ll balk at paying for lessons that could save their lives.

Whenever I’m writing stories about cars and driving, the one word I will never use is “accident”, and the phrase I will never write is that a car “went out of control”. Those insinuate that the problem just happened, all on its own. Instead, these are crashes, and drivers lose control of their vehicles. There is always an underlying reason for a crash, and almost collisions are preventable. Drive safely; it’s a jungle out there.

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