Living

Road risk

As women, we face special risks. Here's how to stay safe - behind the wheel and in the parking lot

In more than 30 years of driving, Marlene Mackenzie has faced her share of hazards. She’s been stranded for four hours after a collision with a deer, been followed late at night down country roads, and even had a knife pulled on her when she agreed to give a friend’s son a lift home. Yet for all the mishaps, Mackenzie still loves driving and the open road. “It’s my freedom,” says the single, 50-year-old secretary from Chatham, Ont., who’s crossed North America in her 1978 Monte Carlo and 1985 Oldsmobile Delta Eighty-eight.

Society is finally waking up to the truth about women and cars: we drive them, we buy them, we love them. For many women, the car is an extension of who we are, the means for getting where we want to go, on the road and in our lives. But like Marlene Mackenzie, we know there’s a darker side to driving: concern for personal safety, both behind the wheel and in the parking lot.

Statistically, traffic accidents are a greater threat to our health than roadside crazies. Every year, thousands of men and women die or are injured on Canadian roads. But as women at a recent Chatelaine focus group pointed out, female drivers have special concerns when it comes to personal safety. The case of university student Lynda Shaw, who stopped to change a tire by the side of a busy Ontario highway in 1990 and was brutally murdered, is a haunting reminder of how vulnerable we can be.

But that doesn’t mean we drive in fear. Knowing our risk-and taking steps to minimize it-is the best route to safe driving.

A reliable well-maintained vehicle is your best insurance against roadside trouble. Keep your car in good condition, with regular under-the-hood checks, scheduled maintenance, plenty of gas and lots of windshield washer fluid. Match your tires to road conditions. Keep your battery charged and your spare tire at the right pressure.

Stock your car with standard safety equipment. Emergency-kit basics include a Call Police sign, booster cables, a flashlight, a blanket, flares, first aid supplies and basic tools. Invest in a cell phone; keep the batteries charged, and have emergency numbers ready.

Before traveling to another city, make sure you have clear directions and a good map. Keep track of exits you pass so you can pinpoint your location in case of car trouble. Avoid traveling alone at night or in bad weather. Let someone know your route and expected arrival time.

Although carjackings are still rare in Canada, more than a few women have had the unhappy experience of being shadowed by strangers. If you’re being followed, don’t drive home. Head to a police station or public place and honk your horn to draw attention. Always drive with your doors locked.

Consider joining a roadside assistance club. The annual membership fee (about $50-but benefits vary widely) can pay off in prompt service and peace of mind.

To minimize your risk, park in a well-lit area as close to your destination as possible and have the car key ready when you return. Look under your car as you approach, and check the seats before getting in. If you can’t avoid parking in an underground lot, watch as you enter to make sure another car hasn’t followed you. Circle the lot until you’re familiar with the layout and exits. Back in to your spot. Some employers, malls and schools offer escorts to parking lots; if they don’t, ask. Forget about looking “silly”-staying safe is just plain smart.

Even well-maintained cars can suffer engine trouble or a flat. If you can, drive to the side of the road away from traffic. Use your judgment; if you’re confident about carrying out basic repairs and it’s safe to do them, go for it. Otherwise, stay in the car with the doors locked and the windows closed. If you don’t have a Call Police sign or cell phone, open your window a couple of centimetres to speak if a stranger stops to help. Ask the person to call police or a tow truck.

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