How to Make Driving Safely Your Top Priority
Updated: May 29, 2020
Professional tips for staying accident-free on the road.
Let’s face it: Driving can be dangerous, and your risk of being in an accident increases with age. With slower reflexes, along with other changes — including rapidly evolving car technology and more vehicles, bikes and even scooters on the road — it can't hurt to refresh your thinking on how to drive safely.
One way to stay out of trouble is defensive driving, or avoiding potential hazards by being acutely aware of other drivers’ behaviors and knowing what maneuvers are the riskiest. A few examples of defensive-driving approaches to tricky situations:
Making a left turn across oncoming traffic. Unless you have a green left-turn arrow, it may be safer (and less nerve-wracking) to go further up the road and make three right turns, so you’re ultimately turning right into where you want to go, rather than having to judge the speed of oncoming traffic and find the safe gap for a left-hand turn, says Bill Van Tassel, AAA manager of Driver Training Programs.
Merging into high-speed traffic. This is a maneuver that leads to accidents because of the differences in speed between your car and the cars on the highway. “The biggest mistake drivers make is approaching too slowly," Van Tassel says. “That can make it impossible to enter the highway, so you actually come to a stop, making the situation worse.” Use the on ramp to rev up to the speed of traffic, then slot into a gap in the flow of traffic.
Using right-turn-only lanes. Sometimes after the turn these lanes continue, but often they merge into an existing traffic lane, with other cars coming at you from the left. This is a common accident zone, requiring careful observation of traffic patterns — especially when using a right-turn-only lane from one highway to another (see previous tip). Keep your speed, but check to see if your lane is ending and you need to merge into a gap.
Navigating traffic circles. The increasing use of roundabouts over traditional four-way intersections can be vexing to drivers who aren't familiar with them. “Treat them like a right turn on red,” says Van Tassel. “When it’s clear to the left, you can scoot into the roundabout.” And stay relaxed. Worst case, you may have to go around more than once because you've missed your exit, but ultimately they’re safer, because if there is a crash, it’s not at high speed.
Exiting your car after parking on the side of the road. In an urban environment, where there are often bike lanes and parallel parking, you want to avoid opening your door and stepping into the path of an oncoming car, bicycle or scooter. In Dutch countries where so many people use bikes, drivers use what's known as the “Dutch Reach,” a method now taught by driving-safety instructors in the U.S.: Simply reach across your body with the hand furthest from the door to open it with that hand. That way, your head is already turned and looking out the window, so you can't help but see any oncoming traffic.
Making a left turn into traffic. Sitting perpendicular to a busy road and crossing traffic to make a left is risky, because now you have to judge speed from cars on the right and the left. “Instead, turn right and go up the road to where you can safely make a U-turn,” says Van Tassel. “It may take a few more minutes, but it’s safer.”
Other Safety Tips
There are many other commonsense safety steps a smart defensive driver should take, including keeping your windshield and headlights clean, watching for hazardous weather, and limiting digital distractions from phones and GPS units.
Mind your meds. This is a biggie, because many medications, whether over the counter or prescribed, can interfere with driving abilities. Read your labels for warnings and if you have any doubt, AAA now offers a free web service called Road Wise Rx where you can type in your medications and herbal supplements to see if they might affect your driving.
Get your vision and hearing tested regularly. Making sure your senses are sharp (and if they're not, using glasses and/or hearing assistance) is key for safety on the road.
Sit up behind the wheel. People lose height over time. If you feel like you’re not seeing over the dashboard like you used to, grab a seat cushion and give yourself a boost for a clear view of the road.
Take a defensive driving course. You can find safe-driving classes near you through AAA or with an AARP Smart Driver Course, offered online or in a classroom, to keep your knowledge and skills sharp.
Learn your car’s safety technology … but don’t rely on it. People often turn off safety-tech features such as lane-keeping assistance and blind-spot monitoring because they don’t want to be bothered to figure out the warning lights and sounds. It’s better to take the time to learn those features (this is where a driving course can help) than to switch them off. “But once you understand them, use them as a backup,” Van Tassel says. “Don’t rely on them to take control … Believing that certain car safety technology will help you in ways that it won’t is worse than not having it at all.”
Make a driving retirement plan. AAA statistics show that Americans are staying behind the wheel an average of 7 to 10 years after they've lost the ability to drive safely. “Make a plan for what you’ll do, such as using shared-ride services or alternate transportation, in the event you can’t drive any longer,” Van Tassel suggests. You’ll be less likely to push your safety limits when you have a considered plan.
Article by Selene Yeager, AARP, February 27, 2019