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 safety organisations around the world 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.
Department for Transport figures for the UK show that the number of fatalities in incidents where at least one driver was over the drink-drive limit rose to 250 in 2017. 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.
Driving under the influence of marijuana is as illegal as taking the drug itself. Driving high is just as dangerous and just as illegal as driving drunk yet US research shows 14.8 million drivers reported getting behind the wheel within one hour of using marijuana in the States.
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 breathalysers and these could make their way over to the UK.
A 2018 survey from the AA found that one in eight (13%) UK drivers admit to falling asleep at the wheel. Nearly two fifths (37%) say they have been so tired they have been scared they would fall asleep when driving.
American researchers concluded that driving after only 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. Going belt-less is even more dangerous in a newer car equipped 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.
Also, the car’s design is entirely based on occupants being in a fixed position in the event of a crash. If you are flying around the car, all bets are off.
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
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 America’s AAA admitted to reading a message on their phone while driving in 2018 and 32.1% said they typed something.
Talking on a mobile 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 gearbox 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 post but, when in doubt, ask a dealer or check online.
Letting a pet loose in the cabin
Failing to properly restrain a dog or other animal when travelling in your vehicle can cause dangerous distractions. It can also land you with a fine of up to £5000 for careless driving.
Eating while driving
Sooner or later, autonomous cars will merge into the mainstream and you’ll be able to eat a sandwich while traveling at 70mph on the motorway.
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, the American road safety bureau. 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 crashing into 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 Ford Focus.
Driving too fast
Speeding is the most common traffic violations in the UK by a long way and speed is a factor in 33% of all fatal accidents, according to the UK’s Department for Transport.
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 disorganisation.
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.
A recent survey suggests half of UK drivers have been on the receiving end of road rage. Brake-checking other motorists, cutting them off, hooting 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 trolley 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 as a front-seat passenger. 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 carmakers 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.
If you enjoyed this story, sign up to Autocar’s newsletter for all the best car news, reviews and opinion direct to your inbox.Click here to subscribe.