An overwhelming majority of traffic accidents are caused by human error so they’re entirely preventable.
We all develop bad habits behind the wheel over time, like speeding or eating on the go. The best way to stay safe is to take a step back and look at what we’re doing wrong.
We looked at data provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Automobile Association (AAA) to single out the most dangerous things you can do in a car.
Driving with headphones on
If your car’s radio is broken, or missing altogether, listening to music through headphones might sound like an attractive alternative to driving in silence. It’s not; it disconnects you from the outside world. You might not hear someone honking or the motorcycle that’s about to pass you. Odds are you’re already streaming music from your phone, so investing in a Bluetooth speaker is a safer solution.
The NHTSA reported nearly 30 people in the United States die each day in drunk driving-related crashes. While accidents happen, these deaths are completely preventable. The effects of driving while drunk are proven and well known and the solution couldn’t be simpler: if you’re driving, don’t drink. If you’re drinking, don’t drive.
Recreational marijuana is legal in a growing number of American states but that doesn’t mean driving after hitting the bong is within the law. Driving high is just as dangerous and just as illegal as driving drunk yet AAA’s research shows 14.8 million drivers reported getting behind the wheel within one hour of using marijuana. The same study found nearly 70% of Americans think it’s unlikely they’ll get caught if they drive high; they’re wrong. Several police departments are looking into using THC breathalyzers.
In 2018, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety announced 9.5% of accidents involve drowsy drivers. The study is sobering; researchers concluded driving on five hours of sleep is just as dangerous as driving drunk. “The only antidote for drowsiness is sleep,” AAA pointed out. Red Bull won’t give you wings behind the wheel, neither will a double espresso. Make it a point to drive when you’re normally awake and stop for a 20-minute nap if you start drifting in your lane or if your eyes begin to close.
Not wearing a seatbelt
It’s never a good idea to drive without a seatbelt on, even if you commute in a 1973 Volkswagen Bus in which you’re expected to perform crumple zone duties. Going belt-less is even more dangerous in a late-model car decked out with airbags. If you crash, you’ll be projected towards the steering wheel while the airbag is deploying in the opposite direction. That’s not a great recipe for survival.
Relying too much on electronic driving aids
Electronic driving aids like adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and automatic emergency braking help make your commute safer but they don’t give your car driverless capabilities. There are no autonomous cars currently available for the general public to buy anywhere in the world. While your car may know when to brake or steer, you still need to keep both hands on the steering wheel and both eyes on the road. The same goes for parking aids; having parking sensors and a rear-view camera isn’t an excuse to throw your car in reverse and go flat-out without first looking around you.
Driving with your knees
Driving with your knees is tempting, especially when your arms get tired during a long road trip, but it’s an excellent way to stuff your car into a wall. While odds are you can keep going in a reasonably straight line without having either hand on the steering wheel, you’ll have a far more difficult time avoiding another car, a wild animal or an ice patch if you’re relying on your knees to steer. Try parallel parking with your knees if you don’t believe us.
Browsing the infotainment system on-the-go
The infotainment system found in virtually every single new car can be far more distracting than a smartphone, especially if you’re not familiar with how it works. Modern-day systems are packed with a shockingly long list of features that are sometimes buried several menus deep. If you can’t immediately find what you’re looking for, pull over instead of poking at the screen for miles on end.
The closer you drive to the vehicle in front of you, the less likely you are to stop in time if it suddenly slows down. That’s basic physics. Keep at a least a two-second gap between your car and the one in front to make sure you have enough time to hit the brakes or steer if needed.
Taking your eyes off the road to send a text message or to reply to an email is one of the best ways to get in a crash. The world around you doesn’t go on pause while you look away. And yet, 41.3% of the drivers polled by AAA admitted to reading a message on their phone while driving in 2018 and 32.1% said they typed something. Talking on a cell phone while driving is even more common. And, while you can talk while looking at the road, you’re likely using one of your hands to keep your phone glued to your face, so the argument that chatting is safer than texting doesn’t hold water. It’s safer to put your phone in your center console, or somewhere out of sight, and forget about it while you’re on the move.
Recalls are free so there is no valid reason to ignore them. Some fix potential mechanical problems such as transmission problems but they’re often issued due to safety concerns, like doors that could open unexpectedly, fire risks or airbags that could spray shrapnel when they deploy. Automakers send recall notices in the mail but, when in doubt, ask a dealer or check with the NHTSA.
Letting a pet loose in the cabin
Driving with a pet (hopefully a dog rather than a cat or a parrot) is a huge distraction. 52% of participants in a AAA study said they pet their dog while driving, 23% used their hands to hold it while braking and 19% have had to prevent it from jumping onto one of the front seats. There’s another problem: a 10lb dog becomes a 300lb projectile in a 30mph crash. That’s bad for the passengers and even worse for the dog. Use a pet restraint if you’re taking your pooch on a trip.
Eating while driving
Sooner or later, autonomous cars will merge into the mainstream and you’ll be able to eat ribs while traveling at 80mph on the freeway. Heck, in a big enough car, you may even be able to cook them first. We’re not there yet and eating while driving increases the odds of crashing by 80%, according to the NHTSA. Find somewhere safe to stop when it’s time for a snack.
Driving a car that’s not properly maintained
Regularly maintaining your car keeps it reliable while saving you money in the long run but it also ensures that you, your passengers and other motorists stay safe. If you don’t fix a coolant leak, your engine will eventually overheat, seize and cost you a fortune to repair. If you don’t fix your brakes, however, they’ll quit sooner or later and you’ll end up t-boning another car because you can’t stop. Suspension parts and tires should also be replaced as soon as they begin to wear out.
Driving in extreme weather
Avoid driving in the snow and in the pouring rain when possible. There are times when you can’t stay home, of course, but if a trip isn’t urgent it’s always better to wait until weather conditions improve and the roads are clear than to try soldiering through a foot of snow in a Toyota Corolla.
Driving too fast
Speeding is the most common traffic violation in the United States by a long shot and speed is a factor in 33% of all fatal accidents, according to AAA. You’ll save a little bit of time by exceeding the posted speed limit but not as much as you might imagine. If you drive at a constant 55mph, a 30-mile trip will take 32.7 minutes. The same trip requires 27.7 minutes, so five minutes less, at 65mph.
Driving too slow
Driving far below the speed limit can be just as dangerous as exceeding it, which is why you’ll often see signs indicating the minimum speed cars must travel at on a given road. Safety experts warn slow driving increases the risk of an accident by causing confusion and disorganization. You also run the risk of catching other drivers off-guard; someone might need to make a last-minute maneuver to avoid you.
We love classics and we know first-hand that they can’t always reach or maintain the speed limit. The best advice is to plan ahead when driving in crowded areas and avoid high-speed roads like freeways.
“Aggressive driving is extremely common among U.S. drivers,” according to AAA. Nearly 80% of drivers admit to getting aggressive and significantly angry behind the wheel at least once a year. Brake-checking other motorists, cutting them off, honking and making obscene gestures puts everyone at risk, even pedestrians. Broadly speaking, don’t do anything when you’re behind the wheel that you wouldn’t do while pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket.
Putting your feet on the dashboard
We’re absolutely baffled by the number of people who still put their feet on a car’s dashboard while riding shotgun. While it’s never been a safe or acceptable practice, don’t forget nearly every car sold new has an airbag waiting to explode packed into the passenger side of its dashboard. Imagine the severe injuries you’ll sustain if it goes off while your feet are on top of it. Being involved in a crash is bad enough; don’t make it worse. Besides, your shoes have been everywhere, they belong in the footwell.
Driving without lights in the dark
The number of motorists who drive without their lights on has grown significantly since automakers began making LED daytime running lights standard. They’re on your front end, and they’re bright, but they don’t replace your headlights. And, significantly, they don’t turn on your rear lights, either. Look for the light icon in your instrument cluster when in doubt. If it’s off, so are your lights.
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