10 Ways to Become a Better Driver
by Basem Wasef
Whether you’ve been driving for 5 days or 50 years, there’s always room for improvement. If you firmly believe you've got stellar skills behind the wheel, keep in mind that even the world's most talented auto racers are constantly training and sharpening their driving techniques. Pretty humbling, right?
Here are a few simple ways to hone your skills and improve your driving; they may not transform you into the next Michael Schumacher, but there's no harm in trying!
Know the rules of the road.
Here's an obvious yet surprisingly effective way to become a better driver: re-acquaint yourself with the DMV Driver Handbook. It may sound like a dull homework assignment, but downloading the Driver's Handbook PDF from your state's DMV website will shed light on those murky rules of the road; it will also bring you up to speed on new laws that may have been enacted since you took your driver's exam in 1982.
Keep your system clean.
How can you expect to make the most of your natural driving talents if they're impaired by drugs or alcohol? Maximize your abilities by choosing not to mix drugs or booze with driving; that way, you'll be able to access 100 percent of your reflexes and decision making for accident avoidance. Bonus? You'll never have to deal with the devastating effects of a DUI.
Take a driving course.
The next time you're feeling talented, take a look at your mantle: are there any auto racing trophies there? Most of us think we're better drivers than we actually are, and the easiest remedy is to learn techniques from trained professionals, many of whom will quickly dispel your delusions. Driving schools offer all manner of curricula, from general performance driving to snow, or even rally-specific instruction – and it’s all done in a safe environment, which means you can correct any problems on the track instead of finding out too late what you’re doing wrong.
Take the multimedia route.
If driving schools are beyond your budget, there are a plethora of instructional multimedia options out there, from audiobooks to DVDs. Catering to everyone from new drivers looking for interactive education to people who simply want to get around a racetrack faster, multimedia instruction is the next best thing to a live instructor giving you tips in person. A DVD or book can't offer the checks and balances of someone being there to correct your mistakes, but if you're diligent about following instructions, there's still plenty to learn from one of these sources.
"Fast drivers have slow hands" is an oft-quoted maxim at racing schools, and that counterintuitive statement goes a long way towards explaining why being smooth and gentle with your controls will help coax the most out of your car. Think ahead when you're driving, and avoid jerky or abrupt inputs. "Drive as if you've got a cup of hot coffee on the dash and an egg under the pedals," opines Matt Edmonds of The Tire Rack.
Look where you want to go.
Humans have an instinct to go where their eyes are looking, a tendency which can have disastrous effects on the road. Add target fixation to the mix, and it's no wonder so many cars wind up plowing into telephone poles. Practice scanning your visual field when you're driving, and you'll keep your brain focused not only on key pieces of information like traffic lights and cross-traffic, but potential issues like that wavering station wagon in the left lane, or the pedestrian that just stepped off the curb.
Maintain a safety cushion.
Situations unfold quickly when the flow of traffic is interrupted, and the best way to be prepared for sudden changes is by keeping a safe distance from the cars ahead. One easy trick is to add a car length for every 10 mph of speed; for example, if you're going 50 mph, try to keep a five car length distance from the vehicle in front of you. Similarly, make sure you're constantly aware of what's going on in surrounding lanes. That way, if you need to brake suddenly to avoid an obstacle, you'll immediately know if it's safe to swerve into an adjacent lane.
Know your limits.
Since it's always better to be familiar with the devil you know, make it your personal mission to take an honest inventory of your strengths, as well as your weaknesses, as a driver. Do you hesitate while merging? Are you a tailgater? Do you habitually exceed the speed limit? Recognizing the errors of your ways is the first step towards self-improvement. If you've ever accidentally discovered the limits of your car, you've likely experienced a small taste of terror; avoid that feeling by signing up for an autocross competition. Organized by groups like the Sports Car Club of America, autocrossing enables you compete in solo time trials using your own car; not only will you safely explore your car's limits, you'll also have fun.
Drowsiness can have an eerie way of creeping up, especially on long drives when the rhythmic patterns of the road lull you into torpor. Fight that tendency by keeping aware of your slipping attention span. Pull over for a coffee break or a nap if you're feeling fatigued; the rest will do you good, and it might even save your life.
Cut the distractions.
"Think about the lack of distraction a race car driver has," suggests Edmonds. "No radio, no cell phone, no passengers, no cupholders… maybe we just need a driving cockpit in every vehicle?" Edmonds may be joking, but distracted driving is such a serious problem that it was responsible for 20 percent of crash injuries in 2009, according to NHSTA. Can't live without talking on your cell while you're on the road? Invest in an earpiece, which is legally mandated in most states anyway.