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Being safe

Driving Safely in Canada and the U.S.

Driving techniques to avoid accidents and fines

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Although travellers worry mostly about crime, inadequate driving skills pose the greatest danger while travelling in Canada and the United States.

North American traffic conditions dictate driving must be taken seriously.

Safe driving skills can be easily learned. We focus on defensive driving here.

It is somewhat harder to unlearn bad habits, but following just a few driving "rules" can move you into the professional class of defensive drivers who avoid both accidents and traffic fines.

Most importantly of course, these defensive driving techniques can save your life and others:

1. Keep the eyes constantly moving.

Many drivers develop an nearly hypnotic stare at a point on the road not far in front of them. Others stare at the line between lanes.

Both of these types of drivers can be identified by their sudden braking as they notice dangerous situations at the last moment.

Instead, your eyes should be constantly moving up and down the road, to the sides, and . . .

2. . . . to the rear view mirrors.

Keep your eyes moving up and down the road in back of your car.

A driver should always know what is happening behind her vehicle and to the sides of her car.

Again, there should be no surprises.

3. Always leave yourself an out.

At all times, try to place your vehicle where your safety is not determined by other drivers. You want to be in control.

That means you need a place to head if danger appears.

When driving, this is called looking for "space cushions," places where you can go in order to avoid collisions.

  • For example, on a six lane highway with three lanes in each direction, you are in a very unsafe position if you are directly behind another vehicle in the centre of the three lanes going in one direction, and there are cars next to you in the two adjacent lanes.

    In this situation, what happens if the car in front of you suddenly brakes?

    You have no space cushion. You have no place to go if you cannot brake in time.

    Also, what happens if the car on your left or right suddenly moves toward your lane because the other driver did not look carefully?

    Your escape is blocked.

    You have not left yourself an out. Again, you are not in control.

Think about the positions of vehicles a driver is less likely to notice.

Not at her front.

Not at her back if she is using the main rear-view mirror.

Yes, at her sides, especially at the side and slightly to the rear.

These are the "blind spots" when driving.

And, the right side is worse than the left. Unless her mirrors are adjusted perfectly or she turns her head, she will not notice vehicles to her right or left and slightly to her back.

If she suddenly changes lanes, you must watch out if you are one of the adjacent drivers!

When you have a space cushion, you have already avoided this accident.

Therefore, if you must pass, you do not want to linger next to another vehicle.

You should rush to its front as soon as possible.

And, as mentioned, you do not want to follow too closely, especially if you cannot move to the right or left if the car in front of you slows suddenly.

It is fascinating (and frightening) to observe the behaviour of drivers on multi-lane highways. Standing on a overpass or looking down from a low-flying airplane, you see vehicles travelling in packs.

All of the time. Clustered together like cattle on a sub-zero January day in Saskatchewan.

Think about this: When are you most likely to hit something?

When there is something to hit!

Therefore, avoid the packs. Don't be part of the herd.

Hang back. Or, if you want to pass, rush ahead of the group of vehicles as soon as possible, without going so fast that you get a ticket in the process.

"There's a lot of [deleted] you have to put up with when driving, [for example] the other cars. Thousands of these other cars, many of which have people who have licences apparently." — George Carlin

4a. Make sure the other driver sees you, and

4b. Never assume another driver will do something unless you are certain he or she will do so.

On freeways—where improper lane changes are one of the most frequent causes of serious accidents—and on two-lane roads, where vehicles going the other direction are frequently passing slower vehicles—USE YOUR HEADLIGHTS. Yes, turn your lights on. Day and night.

That helps other drivers notice you.

In fact, you may want to use your headlights in nearly all driving situations, as do many professional drivers. In some areas, especially in Canada, this is the law.

Rain and fog, too, are a time for headlights, as well as twilight.

Some drivers have a very ignorant and limited view of the role of headlights or a misguided desire to conserve power, as they delay turning on car lights in the evening as long as possible.

"I can see just fine!" they foolishly say.

But, how well others can see them is also vitally important!

Twilight is the time of most accidents.

Drivers are tired after a day of activity. Some have stopped for an after work drink or two or three and have impaired focus. Others, anxious to get home, rush too quickly.

Help these people to see you and to avoid you.

Be among the last to turn off lights in the morning and among the first to turn them on in the evening—if not driving with lights on all the time.

If another driver does not seem to have noticed you, and it looks as if he might hit you, blinking the headlights may help avoid an accident.

And, moving the right foot off the accelerator to be ready to brake will speed reaction time, if your best reaction is not rushing ahead to avoid collision.

You should be particularly careful at intersections when a driver approaching from a side road or already stopped at a stop sign does not seem to be looking right or left for other traffic as you approach.

The horn, by the way, is nearly useless in most driving situations because other drivers are usually too far away to hear you or their music systems are too loud.

  • Rear end collisions can be prevented or made less serious.

    If you do not have time to rush ahead, repeatedly lightly (so as to not slow down) step on the brake pedal when another vehicle approaches too rapidly from behind.

    This causes your rear red lights to blink in warning.

    Do this over and over, when you suspect a car coming from behind may not have noticed you.

    The great danger, as mentioned, are drivers who do not look far down the road as they drive. They miss seeing slower or stopped vehicles ahead of them until the last moment.

    Blinking the brake lights should attract attention of these faulty drivers, and allow them time to stop. Or, at least decease the impacts of the collisions.

Using turn signals.

Using turn signals also lessens the chance of accidents.

Turn signals attract the attention of other drivers.

All too often, you see signals turned on at the same time as turns or lane changes are initiated, which is not safe or legal driving.

Making a decision at the last moment shows clearly that a driver has not been paying attention. He or she is not driving defensively. These drivers are far more likely to injure themselves and others.

Using signals is far more than a courtesy; it is a key safety technique.

5. Maintain average traffic speed on freeways.

A vehicle going slower than other traffic sets up too many opportunities for collisions on high-speed highways.

If a more relaxed driving pace is desired, use another type of road.

Using freeway ramps.

You should be at average traffic speed when you enter a freeway and be at average speed when you enter the exit ramp.

Before rushing up a freeway entrance ramp, look back and gauge the average speed.

Also look for a break in the traffic in the lane closest to the ramp.

You'll want to enter the freeway at the SAME SPEED as those already on the freeway. Other cars should not have to brake or swerve to avoid you.

Therefore, avoid driving directly behind a vehicle on the ramp in front of you.

Why? Because you want full control over your speed, as you enter the freeway. You don't want your safety determined by someone else.

By the time you reach the end of the ramp, you have reached normal freeway speed.

On all but the most poorly designed freeways, you have time to gain needed speed on the ramps. The usual exceptions are the oldest freeways in cities, such as portions of Interstate 278 in Brooklyn, a grotesquely dangerous highway, in spite of its rather low speed limit.

Note that the proper etiquette for drivers already in the right lane of a divided highway is to move one lane left when they see drivers coming into traffic from an entrance ramp.

If it is not possible to move over, slow down or speed up to give the entering driver a comfortable space to enter the freeway.

This protects both drivers.

Stopping on freeways.

Do not be a stationary object or semi-stationary obstacle on a freeway.

Nothing is more dangerous than when a car stops at the end of an entrance ramp because the driver misjudged the opportunities to enter traffic—or was just too timid.

From this stop, the vehicle must enter traffic as an obstacle as dangerous as a large boulder in the road.

A boulder, however, can better defend itself than a car made of thin metal, plastic, glass, and the bodies of its driver and passengers.

In addition, avoid stopping on freeway margins, except in extreme emergencies. If possible, exit the freeway before stopping.

Otherwise, you become a danger to yourself and others when you pull into high speed traffic again.

6. Respect the weather.

Readers from cold countries know the importance of caution in icy or snowy conditions. In most cases, they have the experience to handle these.

However, you and they may not know that even a light rain may be as dangerous as the worst winter weather.

In much of Canada and the U.S., rainfall is very sporadic during Summer.

As a result, oil residue and dirt accumulates on roads, especially at intersections and on inclines where large vehicles must strain to maintain speed.

When the first rain comes after a dry period, roads can become every bit a slick as in the midst of winter because of the slippery mixture of oil, dirt, and water.

Use caution at the start of a summer rain, and be careful any time driving on slick roads when braking takes longer.

During really bad weather, you may want to check into a hostel or hotel for the duration, even if you are very used to this type of driving.

Otherwise, you'll be on the road with drivers who are not as careful or as skilful as you are.

This is especially true in places like Portland (Oregon), Seattle, Vancouver (both), Victoria, some California mountain ranges, and the southern United States, where most drivers are not used to driving in snow all winter.

7. Remember that your reaction time and driving skills deteriorate when tired or older.

The old adage that ample rest is the basis of dynamic, successful activity applies to driving as well as to every area of life.

Driving without having had sufficient sleep is highly dangerous. Both your reaction time and vision deteriorate when you are tired.

However, you don't always need to sleep to freshen your mind. Sometimes, merely walking a bit will revitalize your focus. Just having your eyes closed awhile at a rest stop may also help.

Follow the guideline to stop every two or three hours while driving long distances.

Scheduling a bit of hiking or swimming while on long car trips not only keeps you safer, it also helps you feel better after sitting so long.

Moreover, you'll need to modify your behaviour as you grow older—or drive among older drivers.

Areas with large populations of older drivers include parts of Arizona, Florida, Southern California, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in winter, southern Vancouver Island, and to some degree nearly everywhere, as the general population grows older throughout North America.

As you age, your peripheral vision—the distance you can see to both sides without turning—grows narrower and narrower.

Consequently, you now need to turn your head more to see what you had seen in the past without turning.

Unfortunately, older drivers are not used to this. They have developed a routine of turning only so far, which can be dangerous both for you and for other drivers.

As a consequence, younger drivers must watch for their mistakes—pulling into oncoming traffic "without looking."

If you're older, do not be bitter.

Those younger drivers may have better vision, faster reaction times, and all that, but you have priceless driving experience, which helps keep you safe.


In summary, use common sense. Pay attention to your surroundings when driving.

The congested, yet high speed driving conditions of North American driving mandate focus on safe driving practices.

Additional driving tips for international visitors, students, and new residents >>>> Driving tips for international visitors page.

For more health and safety tips

Go to >> Being safe

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