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Everyday Driving Skills

The skills that can help save your life.

by Julian Edgar

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The trouble with writing about driving techniques is that the best way to learn about driving is to actually do it - not to read articles like this one! However, if you're armed with more theory then you're likely to be able to put into practice some better techniques and approaches to controlling a car.

Setting Up

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Before you can drive the car you have to be in the right position to control it. The old-style macho have-the-seat-way-back driving position meant that straight arms needed to be employed. As soon as the wheel was turned through more than about 90 degrees it also meant that very little leverage was available. Best is to have the seat adjusted so that your arms are slightly bent at the elbows when you're holding the wheel at the ten-to-two - or quarter-to-three - position. Another way to check this is to stretch out your arms in a straight position, resting your wrists on the top of the wheel. You should be able to hold your palms vertically without the wheel being far enough away that they slip off.

Next up is the adjustment of the mirrors. The internal mirror setting is obvious enough, but there are two distinct schools of thought with the side mirrors. You can either have the mirrors adjusted so that you can see the door-handles, or alternatively you can have them angled out to better cover the blind-spots. After years of being a 'door-handler', I'm now a total 'blind-spot' man; and I'd never change back.

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To set the mirrors up for blind-spotting, park the car and then have someone walk around in both the left and right-hand blindspots. Adjust the mirrors so that the person is in view, and then check which areas around the car the mirrors do and don't now show. I have the left-hand mirror set so that as a car draws alongside of me it passes out of the mirror's view and into my peripheral vision. In other words, if I can't see anyone in the mirror or out of the corner of my eye they're probably not there. Even slight mirror changes can alter this relationship, so set them up carefully and be wary of inadvertent changes caused by bumps and vibration.

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With the mirrors set up for blind-spotting, you won't be able to see through the mirrors the areas right next to the car. As a result, you'll need to move your head slightly to get a different angle of view. This isn't necessarily a bad thing - when juggling lane changes in traffic, moving your head around when looking through the mirrors allows you to see almost everything.

The only other point before you hit the road is to make sure that all the devices with which you communicate with other road users work. I'm not talking about a mobile phone, but about the horn, brake-lights, indicators and headlight flasher. Periodically check the operation of these, especially if you service the car yourself. If you car is not factory equipped with one, fit a central high-level brake light. Tests have indicated that they substantially reduce the chances of someone tail-ending you.

City Driving

There's one fundamental rule about driving in urban areas - assume every other bastard is both dumb and feeling homicidal! Come to think of it, this applies in the country too...

Decisiveness, communication of intention, and vision are the three key areas. Most young drivers don't have too many problems with making a decision and then sticking to it - but a heap of people out there start off lane changes and then feel too timid, start to drive across a stream of traffic and then decide that there's insufficient room, or brake-then-accelerate-then-brake at amber traffic lights. If you fall into any of these categories then change!

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Communicating with other drivers means that they must know what you're doing before you do it. Obviously, the indicators are the most usual method - and they only work when they're used to show your intent, not what you've just done! However, the brake lights are often forgotten as a communication tool. Work out at what pedal travel your brake lights operate, and then use it to tell other drivers what you're up to. For example, if you have to slow down to pull off a busy road - and you're afraid that someone will punt you up the bum in the process - then light your brake lights a hundred metres before the turn-off. Even the dumbest bastard will realise that you're slowing down. If travelling in a line of nose-to-tail traffic which keeps suddenly stopping, then some showing of the brake-lights before actually hitting the picks will dissuade the person behind you from trying to read the maker's name on the taillight lenses.

If you're into 'Ferrari lane changes' (where you simply floor it in a low gear and then swap lanes, confident that no-one would have been able to keep up) remember that - unless your vehicle has only two wheels - you won't be the quickest around. Watch out for motorbikes, whose power-weight ratio, handling and braking mean that they can round-up pretty well all cars.

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The enormous number of tail-end shunts in city areas (especially during rush-hour) indicates that people follow too closely or that their vision isn't good enough. This doesn't mean that everyone should be given glasses, because it's what they're looking at which is the problem. If you view only the bum of the next car your reaction times have to be good and concentration high. If you look through the front and rear glass of the car in front to the car in front of them then you'll have a heap more time to react. Doing this will often need a conscious change in the distance at which you're focussing your eyes - but it's a technique which works very well.

It never ceases to amaze me that people delay for so long the switching-on of their lights as dusk falls. Watch how the professional urban drivers - the taxi and courier drivers - switch on their lights way before anyone else. It's not so that they can see where they're going, but so that everyone else can see them! A good rule is to light-up when you can start seeing the colour of traffic lights five or six hundred metres before reaching them. This will generally be well before the streetlights come on. If your car is equipped with front and rear fog-lights use them in times of low daylight visibility. This includes not only fog but also when it's raining.

Country Driving

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Lots of people die in single-car accidents on rural roads, when their car leaves the road and rolls or hits something hard. In other words, lots of people stuff up all by themselves. Many of these accidents are the result of losing control when cornering - going into a slide or getting off the black-top. Knowing how to retrieve the situation means that you must have experienced it before - and the best place to do this is at an advanced driving course. Practicing techniques on dirt can also be useful - it's pretty much the same as on bitumen but it all happens earlier on the loose stuff.

Stopping distances at high speed go way, way up - meaning that how closely you follow the car in front also needs to be different. The old 'one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three' count after the car in front passes some marker like a roadside white post is a good way of assessing your safety margin. If you're closer than the three-second gap then drop back or concentrate more!

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If you're driving very fast then always look as far ahead as you can, flicking your eyes from side to side in glances to assess the potential for stray animals to walk out in front. At night be doubly careful: any reflectors which appear to move are probably not attached to white posts - but instead may be the eyes of cattle. Kangaroos in the middle of the road show up reasonably well because of the their light colour, but intense concentration is needed to see them within stopping distance at speeds over 100 km/h - high-powered driving lights obviously help.

In general high-speed rural driving remember that a car that you're closing up on might not be travelling at the speed limit - you might be approaching them at 100 km/h closing speed not the 10 km/h you first imagined. When you need to slow down from a sustained high speed blast watch the speedo - you can easily think that you're doing 70 when in fact your speed may be 120.

Passing other cars is an easy time to die. The actual passing technique which you use depends very much on the power of your car. The handbooks recommend that you stay back from the vehicle in front, meaning that with only a very slight weave you can see past the obstacle to the oncoming traffic. You start your passing manoeuvre well behind, selecting the correct gear and then winding up to speed so that you're ready to pull out at just the moment when the gap in the cars coming the other way arrives. And this is all great if you've got a powerful car. In a gutless machine you're much more likely to be only just getting up to speed to pass the vehicle in front when the straight comes to an end, or a whole host of cars appears coming the other way. With a slower car start the move closer to the vehicle which you're passing.

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In the Australian Outback the truck which you are passing might be two or three semi-trailers long - road trains sway across the black-top and can be inordinately long to reel-in in a slow car. Make sure that the road train driver knows that you're there - they'll normally straighten their vehicle and start hugging the left side - and then make the passing manoeuvre in one decisive, high-speed move.

Whatever the passing technique which you adopt, always check both your central and right-hand side mirrors before pulling out. This saves you being cleaned-up by the car which started passing you at the same time as you were trying to pass the truck! Both mirrors need to be checked because a fast car will be able to move from being directly behind you to being next to you in the time it takes for you to check only the right-hand mirror and start pulling out.

If you like passing a whole crocodile of slow cars at high speed it can be a good idea to use your headlight flasher (pulled onto high beam) to let everyone know that you're coming through. Finally on the subject of passing, if someone coming the other way has made a misjudgement and you're confronted with two vehicles coming straight for you, show your intentions with the left-hand indicator and then pull off out of their way.

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On a long country drive wipe over the windscreen, tail and headlight lenses with the squeegee each time you re-fuel. To help you stay mentally alert reset the trip meter at each fuel-stop, and check the time you pull out. Working out your average speed each hour then becomes simple, and it also means that you can predict when you'll reach the next stop. If you do lots of country driving then buy a CB radio. The truckies will be glad to chat (if you use the right language!), and in times of trouble it can be invaluable. On a road with a heavy truck traffic, the CB will also let you pass with greater safety.

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