Drive to survive

What you can do to beat the odds

You won’t see the word “accident” in Transport Canada’s annual summary of vehicle-crash casualties. “About 80 percent of collisions have a significant human component,” notes Derek Sweet, director of road safety for Transport Canada. “The driver is the key.”

Sadly, innocent victims often suffer because of someone else’s error. In 1997, 3,064 people were killed and 221,186 people injured in motor-vehicle crashes in Canada. If there’s an upside to that grim tally, it’s that casualties have been declining steadily for two decades despite a soaring number of vehicles and drivers. In 1979, almost twice as many people were killed in vehicle crashes and injuries were about 14 percent higher.

Safer cars, better roads and a high rate of seat-belt use have helped slash the death toll. But there’s still lots of room for each of us to improve our driving habits – and save lives. Here are some pointers:

The sooner you spot trouble and the faster you react, the better your chances of avoiding danger. Some drivers simply focus on the car in front of them. Learn to look well down the road to anticipate trouble.

Hazards lurk on all sides. To properly track traffic, you must frequently check your side-view and rearview mirrors as well as scanning ahead. Keep your eyes moving and your vision will improve.

Anything that diverts your attention from the road can cut into your reaction time. Cell-phone chats, smoking, snacking and radio channel surfing can be hazardous. Save the leisure activities for your living room.

Don’t let lovely weather lull you into a false sense of security. In 1997, there were almost five times as many fatal accidents in clear conditions as there were in rain, snow and hail combined. More injuries occurred in daylight (101,639) than in the dark (40,036).

A red light cannot magically force cars to stop, nor can speed limits tame lead-footed motorists. Be alert for red-light runners, pedestrians and bikers who ignore traffic signs, drivers who don’t signal or change their minds after signaling, cars going the wrong way on a one-way street and so on. Laws can deter careless driving but they can’t eliminate it.

The more distance you put between your car and the vehicle ahead, the more time you have to stop safely. In ideal conditions, stay at least two seconds behind the car ahead and increase the spacing based on speed, weather and the size of the vehicle you’re following. Sure, drivers will cut in front. But just back off again and you’ll arrive on time – and in one piece.

Your nifty sports car may be able to stop on a dime, but a hulking sports-utility vehicle or transport truck cannot. The bigger the vehicle ahead of you, the farther you need to stay back. A transport truck may need seven seconds to stop in situations where you take two. Trucks also have bigger blind spots. Stay well back and avoid the blind spot. If you can’t see the driver in the side-view mirror, the driver can’t see you.

An emergency isn’t the time to learn how your vehicle handles. After a heavy snowfall or rain, drive to a large empty parking lot and do some heavy braking. To really sharpen your skills, enrol in a skid school.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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