Living

Ready for the road?

Your driving habits may need a tune-up

If you’ve been driving collision-free for years, you might take it for granted that you’re a great driver. After all, what better standard for competence than a clean driving record? But veteran driving instructor Valerie Williams, a motorcycle-riding grandmother and operations manager for the Ontario Safety League, believes motorists who never question their driving skills could be slowly slipping into a rut of sloppy or outdated habits. “It’s like eyesight deteriorating,” says Williams, 55. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s so gradual, you’re not aware of it at first.”

Advances in auto technology mean previously “good” habits can become unsafe. Pumping the brakes in a vehicle equipped with antilock brakes, for example, hinders emergency braking. If you haven’t analysed your driving routine recently, it could be time for a tune-up.

Good driving habits begin before you leave the driveway. Just as cars need a moment at start-up to “wake up” and check circuits, drivers should do a personal inventory before getting into a car. Alcohol isn’t the only cause of impaired driving. If you’re tired, sick, hungry, thirsty, medicated, angry, sad or hurried, it can hamper your driving. If you must drive, make an extra effort to stay focused.

Check the weather and traffic reports. Allow more time so you won’t be late and impatient. Check your windshield-washer fluid weekly; replace your wiper blades every six to 12 months; promptly replace burned-out headlights; keep a pair of sunglasses in the car and always brush off all the snow on your car.

Your seating position and steering grip are important in an emergency. “Your hand position is critical,” says driving instructor and racer Pierre Savoy. “That’s how you control the vehicle.” You should drive with two hands on the wheel at the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Your hands should be light but firm, not clenching or locking your thumbs. Savoy says drivers may think it looks cool to steer with one hand at the top of the wheel, but such motorists risk “eating their wrist” if the air bag deploys. It also puts you at higher risk of losing control.

A clean driving record doesn’t mean you’re a great driver.

You should sit so your right foot can rest on the floor behind the brake pedal with the knee slightly bent. Your left foot should rest comfortably on the dead pedal, that raised area to the left of the pedal assembly. Your wrists should be able to rest on the top of the steering wheel, elbows slightly bent and breastbone 25 centimetres from the air bag.
Headrests aren’t called neckrests for a reason. They’re meant to prevent or lessen whiplash but they can’t do their job propped against the curve of your neck. The thickest part of the headrest should be slightly below the deepest part of your skull, near the top of your ears.

Although generations of drivers were taught to perform shoulder checks during lane changes, Savoy says blind spots can be eliminated in most vehicles through proper mirror setup. If you can see the side of your car in your side-view mirrors, they’re set wrong. As Savoy says, drivers are never in any danger of being hit by their own car. To set your mirrors, adjust the rearview mirror to frame the back window. Locate an object in the left-hand edge of the rearview mirror and adjust the driver’s side-view mirror so the object appears inside the right-hand perimeter. Next, locate an object in the right-hand edge of the rearview mirror and adjust the right side-view mirror so the object appears inside the left-hand edge. With this setup, a passing vehicle is always somewhere in your field of vision. It may take some adjusting, but the reward is a safer perspective on traffic.

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