"The node that could save your life..."
It seems that everyone thinks they are an above average driver. Unfortunately this is not true (it is in fact statistically impossible). Proof of this can be seen at most intersections in the form of black skidmarks, and in
wrecking yards as smashed vehicles.
As humans are not perfect, accidents are inevitable but there are ways of maximising your chances of avoiding one. Here I
will focus on the basic aspects of driving a road car in a way that is safe. Anyone wanting a crash course in race
driving should look elsewhere.
You and the car:
Firstly, think about how you sit in the driver's seat. What would happen if you were hit on the left or right? Although much
better than older models, the bucket seats in modern cars aren't ideal for emergency situations. The need to compromise
between various body shapes and sizes means that you don't get optimum support in the case of side impacts.
To maximize your protection, sit with your bum right back in the "bucket", fairly upright with shoulders relaxed. When
driving don't lean foward over the steering wheel. The wheel is there as a control, not an armrest. Stay snuggly back
in the seat, this way you become an extension of the car and the added feel helps you stay in control.
You may have heard that the best place to hold the wheel is in the "10 O'clock / 2 O'clock" position (as in when you look at a
clock face). This belief comes from race car drivers who usually never have to turn the wheel more than about half lock. A
better position in a road car is more like "9 / 3 O'clock" (hands on the sides of the wheel). This helps to keep your
shoulders relaxed while still allowing for the control of the previous technique.
Your feet should be able to rest on the footrest or floor without fully extending (ie still be slightly bent). This allows you to
push yourself back into the seat when braking hard or in an emergency - giving you better support.
Ok you're positioned correctly in the seat, now it's time to get on the road and practice a few techniques that could save
Perhaps the most obvious way to avoid an accident is to stop before you have it. Many people make the mistake of
stomping on the brakes, thinking that this will stop them the fastest. Wrong. Unless your car has ABS this will
just cause the wheels to lock up and skid - right into the obstruction you were trying to avoid. To ensure that you react
correctly in a emergency you should practice the following:
- Apply pressure with your left foot on the footrest (If you are driving a manual there may not be a footrest - in this case it is ok to push in the clutch pedal and brace on it for emergency stops). This will prevent all of your weight from pushing down on the brake
pedal, meaning that you will have more control over the braking pressure (and also provides a good argument against left
foot braking where bracing is impossible).
- Don't grip the steering wheel too hard. Remember it is a control, not a handle. Squeezing it will only tense your
muscles more than is ideal and you will probably want to use it to steer anyway.
- Gently apply pressure to the brake pedal then progressively increase it - this can be done quickly as long as the action
is smooth and not a sudden stab. If the wheels lock, reduce pressure on the pedal (this is easy as long as you are still
bracing with your left foot).
With practice you should be able to knock several metres of your stopping distance from 100kph. While this doesn't sound
like much just remember that it's about an extra car length. The 5 metres you save could be the difference between a collision
and a minor scare.
Many single car accidents occur on corners, for obvious reasons. The truth is that a car is at it's most unsettled when
it is in the middle of a corner. The act of cornering can be broken down into 4 parts: Approach, Entry, Apex and
Exit. The basic actions involved should be as follows:
- Approach: Decide on the correct speed and gear for the corner (don't get caught changing gears mid-corner as it
further unsettles the car). At this point you should be subconciously bracing yourself with your left leg again.
Progressively apply brakes and change gears to get to the required speed.
- Entry: Smoothly begin to turn the wheel into the corner while reducing brake pressure (you should be at about the
desired speed by now). Look through the corner to the exit and steer the car there - don't lean into the corner as it
will give you a skewed perspective, if you are being pushed towards the outside of the corner simply brace yourself harder
with your foot.
- Apex: This is the halfway point of the corner. At this point you should start accelerating (smoothly) and unwinding
the lock on the steering wheel.
- Exit: You should be gaining speed now and back onto the straight. Keep accelerating to the desired cruising
Of course no amount of driving skill will save you from an accident if you don't know what's going on around you. You should always be scanning up both sides of the road (near and far) for possible dangers. Don't worry,or after a while this becomes natural and you won't have to think about it.
Also be aware of your car and it's capabilities. Know what speeds you can safely take corners at, know how good the brakes work and how consistent they are. This intimate knowledge of the vehicle may help you escape a sticky situation and prevent you from starting a secondary accident (a very good thing).
Oh, and don't drive around at stupid speeds - if you want to fully explore your car's performance envelope do it on a race track and leave the streets safe for everyone else. I won't even go into drink driving. Happy motoring!