How to be a better driver

If you’re a driving instructor or work in the traffic safety industry, no doubt you’ve run up against the specter of Grand Apathy.

Just how on earth do you motivate people to be actually interested in driving safely? Keep improving at it? It’s one thing to teach driving as a mechanical series of prudent procedures, visual scanning, and dry traffic rules, but entirely another to change people’s behavior and bad habits at its root causes.

If you work as a driving instructor, never underestimate your role as a positive teacher and mentor. Often you are the first and only line of defense in terms of actual road training, because unfortunately Americans generally don’t get driver training after their teen years. And what you teach—and how you frame it—may literally someday save a life.

That’s a heavy responsibility, but it’s also an exciting challenge, and a great opportunity that should not be missed. I cannot tell you the number of times when I have talked with people about their formative driving experiences, that they have told me about a single thing their instructor told them that formed an ah-ha moment, an epiphany, that they have remembered ever since.

How to Be a Better Driver

One of my interests is exploring what truly motivates people. One strategy is to give them something they can apply to other parts of their life. And I have a dangerous idea. What if you could teach driving as self-help? It’s an $11 billion industry in America alone!

After all, the skills to make you a better driver make you a better person.

Driving is truly a metaphor for how we go through life.

And if you don’t believe me, just go to Costco on a Saturday morning and you’ll see an exact microcosm of what’s on the street—the dawdlers, the left-lane hoggers, the people yakking on their cell phones slowing down in the aisles, the speeders-around-the-corner, the ones who are situationally aware and courteous about letting you go by, and the ones who are just plumb oblivious.

How to Be a Better Driver

It’s no secret that we drive exactly as our personalities, character traits, and habits dictate.

There are numerous published and academic studies quantifying this, and it’s a foundation for the GDE Matrix (Goals for Driver Education), which was pioneered in Finland and is used in driving curricula in Sweden and other European countries. For more information on the GDE and its context, see these links:

Part of the foundation behind GDE is that a person’s own life goals and values profoundly affect their level of risk-taking and ability on the road, as well as their ability to be situationally aware and honestly self-assess.

We drive exactly how we are as people, in terms of our personality, ego, habits, life values, ability to plan, confidence levels, social skills, and general outlook. People who are bad at planning in their personal and work life are often not good at anticipating situations on the road.

People who feel very confident, feel entitled, and are used to getting their way tend to speed, take more risks, and cut off others. And drivers who are more prudent, careful, and good in relationship-building tend to be more courteous to other road users.

  • So here are some skills for the road … and for life.
  • How to Be a Better Driver
  • Looking up far ahead.

Of the many different types of driving—street, high-performance, evasive, autocross, racing, offroad, rally—the one technique they all share is that their drivers must look ahead as far as possible to scan upcoming situations.

If drivers look only at the spaces directly in front of them, they don’t see the big picture; they get “behind” and catching up may be difficult or downright dangerous.

Looking up far ahead is crucial to see hazards, assess risk, and have the space and time to plan for evolving or unexpected situations. The same thing is true for life—for exactly the same reasons.

How to Be a Better Driver

Learn to let go.

Too many of us feel our hackles go up when a thoughtless driver cuts us off, drifts while yakking on a cell phone, or gives us a provocative finger gesture. And what’s our first reaction? We feel hurt and violated, and boy do we want to show them, dispense a little revenge.

A lot of what happens on the road really has nothing to do with us—other drivers may have had arguments with their boss or spouse, and they just happen to be taking it out on others in the anonymity of their vehicles.

They may be on drugs, medication, or alcohol. They may be running late or under other stress.

They might even be confused tourists just trying to find their way around, or plain unaware that they got in someone’s way or did a doe-headed thing.

And it doesn’t mean that we should act out in turn. In fact, in this age of drugs, guns, and mind-altering antidepressants, retaliating these days can be very dangerous indeed. It’s just not worth it.

People waste a lot of time getting wrapped up in things that really don’t matter. They are easily threatened and they take things way too personally. They feel the need to bolster their ego by defending themselves offensively. And this happens not just on the road, but at work and at home with the family, spouses, friends, and colleagues.

In both driving and in life, there’s huge value in learning to relax, letting a lot of battles go, being constructive about dealing with conflict, not becoming combative, and also not getting caught up in the drama that others want to suck us into. It’s not our responsibility.

There’s a saying: “Expectation equals premeditated resentment.” When you lower your expectations, life really does get a whole lot easier and less stressful.

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59 tips, hints, and tricks to being a better driver

Driving isn't a right–it's a privilege.

We don't always treat it that way, though. All too often, we forget the basic courtesies, the finer points of driving.

Don't worry. It happens to all of us. Need some help? Then bone up on this conclusive list of everything you need to know to be a better driver.

Before you read, know this isn't the same advice you'd get from typically useless American driver's education. This is real-world, 21st-century stuff that recognizes you use your car as more than entertainment, more than transportation.

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You car is a job, a life, a home, a weapon, a buddy. The new rules of the road for driving, owning, parking, and using your car have to reflect that, not some pat rule about following five car lengths behind the vehicle in front of you.

Here's how to make sure you don't make a mess of that somewhat co-dependent relationship.

How to Be a Better Driver

Streaming video rearview mirror from the 2016 Cadillac CT6

Getting set up

Adjust your mirrors, seat, and controls before you put it in gear. Of course, this is where to start. The new angle? Set a memory position if you have one, as many cars now do. And spend some time getting the perfect angle for the rearview and sideview mirrors, because soon they'll all be replaced by cameras, and you'll miss them.

Keep your insurance card up to date, in your car or on your phone. Many car-insurance carriers now offer electronic identification. Download their app, keep it updated.

Check to see if it overrides your passcode in an emergency — or if you're totes paranoid, set your lock screen to a picture of your policy card.

If none of this sounds familiar, make sure you keep the latest, active version of the printed card on your person and not in the car.

Keep your license plate mounted and clear of debris. This is for the rest of us, so we can report you when we need to. But it also will keep you from getting pulled over by the cop who can't see it, and therefore thinks you have something to hide.

Sit up straight and set the proper driving position. This isn't your living room couch. Hands on the wheel, chest at least a foot away from the airbag module, with the gauges framed by the wheel and a clear line of sight to traffic lights from below the windshield frame. 

Prep your workstation. Plug in your phone, and put it and your wallet in a convenient storage bin. You might need them at a stop.

Take an advanced car-control driving school. You're not doing it for the hours, or to get your provisional license. You're doing it so you can respond quickly and correctly when the three cars ahead of you decide to get intimately acquainted with each other.

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How to Be a Better Driver

Turn signal mirror

Basic courtesy and safety

Use turn signals. You paid for them, use them so we know what's going on, and can prepare for what's about to happen. Side note: it also makes you think more deliberately about what you're doing and what may be in the way.

Pay attention to traffic lights and when they change. Quit with the radio fiddling and talking to your passengers and even dancing or reading. We're all waiting to get through this light, and the chances we'll have to gun through a yellow go up exponentially when you're an engaged driver.

Be aware of elderly drivers that might need a little encouragement. It will be you one day. Be kind.

Don't get up in our grille just because you're late getting home. Your problem becomes our problem when you turn into an aggressive driver with a time-management issue. So you're late: the world will not stop rotating. If it's a true emergency, call 911.

Don't use your SUV or truck to block the view of traffic for normal-size cars. Normal's a tricky word with today's fleet of trucky wagons, but remember, you may be sitting three feet over and ahead of a vehicle simply trying to make a legal turn.

If you're driving an SUV, a truck, or a tall van, pay even more attention. You're responsible for a larger mass and a higher head count than other vehicles. Make sure that matters to you.

Practice installing, and use, your child car or booster seat. Because those kids are your future chauffeurs.

EVERYONE GETS A SEATBELT. This is non-negotiable.

How to Be a Better Driver

Uber driver (photo by Uber)


Basic technique

Drive smoothly. This applies to all but emergency circumstances. You can accelerate smoothly without being slow. Steer with purpose, don't just drift around. When you need to brake, do it assertively, not abruptly. Remember: You're piloting a two-ton missile.

Drive with both hands on the wheel, at 9 and 3 o'clock. The proper driving position is not slouched over the wheel, or behind it, with one wandering hand at high noon. Don't pretend you heard something else somewhere else, because you didn't and they were wrong.

Don't pump the brakes if your vehicle has anti-lock control. Or you're missing the point.

Don't drop your clutch at a stoplight or use launch control at a stoplight or stop sign. Those things have a place and time, and that place and time is obviously at Cars & Coffee.

Leave the stability control on. If you're an expert and know when you need yaw and wheelspin, you should probably be on a closed circuit.

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A quick flash of the lights or light horn beep are acceptable, nothing more. Do not treat them as you would an Aldis lamp or a wood instrument. You're not trying to stun the driver into doing your will; you're gently nudging them into participating.

Stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, and pretty much everywhere else too. You don't need a lawsuit from the jackass who decides he needs to toddle across five lanes of traffic, and you don't want to be quoted in a newspaper or a police report.

Give bikes and motorcycles a wider berth than you would other vehicles.

How to Be a Better Driver

  1. 1

    Obey traffic light signals. Traffic lights can be super frustrating, especially when you’re running behind. However, running a red light is very dangerous because other drivers are expecting you to stop. Go when the traffic light is green, slow down when it’s yellow, or stop if it’s red.[1]

    • It’s tempting to speed up for a yellow light, but it’s very dangerous to do so. If you cross the intersection after the light turns red, oncoming cars won’t be expecting you and may enter the intersection, as well. However, don't slow down for a yellow light if you're already at the intersection. Doing so may keep you in the intersection longer.

    Variation: Traffic signals vary in different countries. Follow the traffic signal laws in your area.

  2. 2

    Drive at or below the posted speed limit. You might be tempted to speed to get to your destination faster, but it’s not worth the risk. Speed limits are in place to protect you and the other cars on the road. Make sure you always drive at or below the posted speed limit.[2]

    • Some areas have minimum speed limits, as well. Typically, these will be posted on the speed limit sign. If you see a minimum speed limit, drive at least that fast.
    • At times, traffic may be moving at a different speed than the posted speed limit. For instance, it may be moving slower if there’s congestion. In this case, match your speed to the traffic.

    Tip: If the conditions are poor, slow down your car. For instance, reduce your speed below the speed limit if it’s rainy or foggy.

  3. 3

    Use your turn signals when you’re turning or changing lanes. Your turn signal alerts other drivers that you’re going to make a move. Turn on your blinker at least 3 seconds before you change lanes or turn. Leave it on until you complete your move.[3]

    • If you’re going to be turning left at an intersection that doesn’t have a protected left, it’s best to turn on your blinker as you approach the intersection. This allows the traffic behind you time to change lanes.


While we wait for autonomous cars, here are 6 ways to be a better human driver

There's a pretty good chance we'll have cars that can drive themselves in our lifetimes.

But given the regulatory hurdles, it's unlikely autonomous vehicles will be available to the masses anytime soon. So in the interim, we humans will have to continue to drive ourselves.

Cars are much safer than they used to be, but almost 40,000 people die every year in auto-related incidents in the US alone. You don't want to join that grim statistic, so your best bet, if you do drive, is to get better at it.

Here are six tips:

A driver uses her mobile phone while sitting in traffic Wednesday, June 22, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. AP/Rich Pedroncelli

Apple's new Do Not Disturb function specifically designed to isolate you from your iPhone in a car is welcome, but as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't go far enough. Texting while driving gets all the negative attention, and rightly so because it is so dangerous. 

But really anything that distracts a driver from the very cognitively and physically demanding act of driving is a menace.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, we were warned about fiddling with an AM/FM car radio while driving.

True, we were warned by people who could drive with one hand while extracting a Marlboro from the pack and lighting it with the other, but the point remained.

A smartphone is the car radio exponentially intensified. In a lot of new cars, the smartphone is competing with various infotainment systems, and if you have a CarPlay or Android Auto enabled vehicle, your phone is embedded in the infotainment system. At the extreme, you have Tesla's massive central touchscreen, which actually allows for web browsing on the go.

You really just have to make a sacrifice for safety. Over the last three years, dealing with the state of the art for infotainment, I've come to the conclusion that you have two options. Number one is turn the phone off. Just do it. 

Number two is keep the phone off, pair it with the infotainment system, and stow it in a compartment in the vehicle. Do not take it out. Ever. You won't miss any calls, but you won't be interacting with the most distracting technology ever developed by humans.

AP/Eric Risberg

The problem with the driver's manuals for most states is that they get studied exactly once in a lifetime — when a 15 or 16 year old is preparing to get a learner's permit. 

While most rules of the road are don't change much, they are updated from time to time. And anyway, a periodic refresher is useful. Most state DMVs have online prep courses for new driver. Every year or so, take the test. See how you do. You might need to update your knowledge.

For example, it's almost universally true that pedestrians always have the right of way. You might think that kid with the headphones meandering into the intersection against the light is at fault, and technically, he is violating regulations. But you're the one with the machine weighing several thousands pounds that can end that kid's life in an instant. So YIELD!

Cowboys round up buffalo in Custer State Park in South Dakota, September 27, 2010. Ron Fry/Reuters

We are born, we learn to crawl, then we learn to walk, then we learn to drive and the whole walking thing goes away until we drop.

Unfortunately, most drivers think that they'll remain good drivers until death doth part them from the steering wheel. And while older drivers are often better drivers, due to experience and an aversion to risk, they do witness their skills degrade. 

The key is to recognize this before it's an issue and reduce time spent driving. You don't have to quit, but going back to walking for short excursions is both healthier and safer. 

You'll know when your abilities are weakening because that critical situational awareness we discussed earlier will decline. If you can't manage all that dynamic decision-making space around your car, you should consider dialing back.

More: Features Driving Cars Safety It indicates an expandable section or menu, or sometimes previous / next navigation options.

How to Be a Better Driver

A Guide to Mastering Your World

When we think about the things we do every day—driving, working, parenting—we realize that even with tasks we are generally good at, there is always room for improvement. Luckily, scientists are on the case. Visit this column in every issue to find tips for acing life.

The Editors

#1 Take up meditation. Driving is the ultimate multitasking activity.

Your brain constantly switches among actions—looking for brake lights ahead, checking the mirrors, watching for pedestrians, listening for horns and sirens, glancing at the speedometer (and watching for cops in the rearview mirror if you're speeding).

A recent study at the University of Washington found that people who trained in mindfulness meditation two hours a week for eight weeks were better able to focus during multitasking tests than those who never meditated.

The training appeared to help them notice interruptions (in the study, a computer alert) without totally losing focus on the task at hand. Although these findings cannot be directly extrapolated to the open road, improving your brain's ability to be focused and nimble is bound to help.

#2 Put your cell phone in the trunk. You already know texting while driving is deadly, but chances are you feel pretty safe using a hands-free cell to chat. After all, it's legal.

But those policies are misguided and deceptive, says Paul Atchley, a psychologist in the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Kansas.

“All the studies that have been done by cognitive psychologists or that have looked at phone records have found that hands-free and handheld [phone use] lead to the same amount of risk while driving.” It's the conversation, not the act of manipulating a phone, that distracts the brain, Atchley explains.

(In-person conversations are much less problematic because the passengers are usually tuned in to driving conditions and able to hold their tongue if necessary.) “It's very difficult for your brain to ignore social input,” Atchley says—we are wired to attend closely to messages coming in from our peers.

That's why he recommends you put your phone in the trunk (or turn it off): “If it's within arm's reach, you're going to go for it. Even if the phone's in the glove box. I've seen people engage in all sorts of acrobatics.” You're better off if you just can't hear it.

#3 Drive more. Any complicated activity requires your prefrontal cortex, a high-level control area of the brain, to understand the task's rules and to prioritize information. “Training has a big effect on that,” Atchley says.

Younger adults and other less experienced drivers, for instance, are not as good at deciding where to place their attention—they may spend too much time staring at the bumper in front of them instead of looking several cars ahead to anticipate slowing or sudden stops.

Frequent driving trains the brain to focus on the right things, Atchley explains. If your experience is lacking, logging some hours behind the wheel will help you sharpen your skills.

#4 Do some downward dog. Good drivers rely on their keen visual perception to avoid sudden obstacles in the roadway and react to shifts in traffic. As strange as it may sound, several studies in India have found that yoga practice may improve exactly that type of visual acuity. In one such report, published in the Journal of Modern Optics

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