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Driving Etiquette – the Art of Doing the Right Thing

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Driving Etiquette – the Art of Doing the Right Thing

Courtesy isn’t a luxury in life – it’s a necessity for a healthy, functioning society.

This applies on our roads as much as anywhere else.

Polite driving etiquette and a solid understanding of road rules make life less stressful for everyone, and in rapidly-growing parts of the country where traffic volume is high, it’s more important than ever.

The rise of road rage

According to recent surveys, road rage is increasing in Australia, with close to 90% of us reporting that we’ve been victims of a road rage incident at least once. Rude gestures make up the bulk of incidents, with aggressive tailgating and verbal abuse also common.

According to recent surveys, road rage is increasing in Australia, with close to 90% of us reporting that we’ve been victims of a road rage incident at least once. Rude gestures make up the bulk of incidents, with aggressive tailgating and verbal abuse also common.

Nearly a quarter of Aussie drivers have also reported they’ve been followed by an angry driver after a real or perceived affront out on the roads. 10% of us have even been driven off the road in an anger-fuelled driving incident1.

Road rage can be triggered by personal factors (drugs, alcohol, immaturity or personality issues), aggravating situations (congestion, noise, slow-moving traffic) or cultural issues (acceptance of violence or vengeance as permissible behaviours). Being in control of a car is a unique human situation that can lead to feelings of anonymity, protection of ‘territory’, frustration at not being able to communicate with other drivers or the illusion of being ‘free to do what you want’ in your own vehicle. Most road rage events are precipitated by a specific incident, but this doesn’t excuse any road rage perpetrator from their actions, either legally or ethically.
The sense of anonymity that some people feel in their cars is certainly a factor in these incidents. After all, how often do you see pedestrians fly off the handle if a random stranger accidentally walks in front of them or strolls along the footpath a little too slowly for their liking? In a car, all it takes for some people is some frustrating traffic, an ugly mood or a tight schedule to tip them over the edge into irrational behaviour. Unfortunately, road rage can result in much more than just increased stress – it occasionally causes serious injuries and fatalities as well.

Know your road rules

The first step in being a courteous driver is to know the road rules in your state. Roundabouts confuse a lot of drivers, who aren’t completely certain if or when to signal when exiting a roundabout, or what the laws are when driving in a dual lane roundabout. Other drivers don’t understand the correct way to pass a vehicle ahead (or allow someone behind them to pass safely). Others may not be aware of the details of what is and isn’t permissable when it comes to mobile phone use, carrying pets in the car or other scenarios.

It’s important to remember that road rules change all the time, from state to state. New laws might come into effect that make a previously acceptable driving practice suddenly illegal. It’s every driver’s responsibility to know the applicable road rules and obey them. Here are just a few that can get you into trouble if you’re unaware of them:

  • It’s illegal to drive with a child or a pet on your lap. Children must be in a seat or child carrier suitable for their age, and all pets must be appropriately restrained within the vehicle. A loose dog running free in the back of your ute is also a no-no.
  • Fog lights can only be used in low-visibility conditions (rain, fog, smoke, dust, etc.), and when conditions clear you’re legally required to turn them off.
  • While it’s common courtesy to give way to a funeral procession, in many places it’s also the law. You’ll be fined if you ‘interfere with or interrupt an authorised procession’.
  • Road rules stipulate that license plates must be clearly visible at all times. If the light above your rego plate is broken or the plate itself is so covered in grime that it’s unreadable, you can be fined.
  • You are not allowed to stop your vehicle within a metre of a fire hydrant, fire plug indicator of fire hydrant indicator. And unless you’re very quickly putting something in the post box or dropping off a passenger, you’re not permitted to stop within 3 metres of a public post box either.
  • If your high beam headlights are on, you are required to switch to low beam as soon as an approaching car is within 200 metres.
  • Horns are meant to be used to warn other drivers of the approach of your vehicle or to provide a warning to animals on the road. Improper use of your horn (like leaning on it when you’re frustrated by the traffic or another driver’s actions) can get you fined.
  • The once-common practice of flashing your lights at oncoming traffic to warn them of a police radar trap behind you is illegal pretty much everywhere in Australia these days. Whether or not you think the rule is unfair, it still applies and you’ll be fined.
  • Different parts of Australia have different takes on the ‘window gap rule’, which basically states that if you’re over 3 metres from your car, the engine must be off, ignition key removed and windows rolled up with no more than a 5 centimetre gap.

Lots of drivers aren’t too sure exactly what’s permitted when it comes to using a mobile phone or GPS unit in a car. Each state and territory has its own rules about the specifics, but the important thing to know is that using a hand-held mobile phone while driving is illegal in every Australian state. Research shows that regardless of whether you’re using your phone hands-free or hand-held, mobile phone use in cars has a negative effect on speed control, attention spans and reaction times. Your crash risk quadruples and the risk of driver death is 4-9 times greater than when a mobile is not being used in the car2.

The safest way to avoid these problems is to completely ignore your phone while driving. Wait until you’ve stopped and parked (some states also require that you turn the engine off) before checking messages or returning a missed call.

In NSW, if you’re nabbed using a hand-held mobile within a school zone you’re up for a penalty of 4 demerit points and a $397 fine3.

Go to any school zone at the beginning or end of a school day and you’ll see cars parked within 10 metres of an intersection (illegal unless signed otherwise), up on the nature strip (illegal), within a metre of the car in front or behind them (illegal) or in a bus zone (very illegal).

Everywhere in Australia there are all sorts of rules about mobile phone and GPS use in cars, but they exist for a reason – the statistics show that mobile phone use of any kind and for any purpose in a vehicle increases risks to both the user and other motorists.

Not understanding parking rules is a problem for many drivers. Go to any school zone at the beginning or end of a school day and you’ll see cars parked within 10 metres of an intersection (illegal unless signed otherwise), up on the nature strip (illegal), within a metre of the car in front or behind them (illegal) or in a bus zone (very illegal). Not being aware of basic parking rules can be quite detrimental to your bank balance!

Polite driving is easy

Basic courtesy doesn’t cost anything, but it can buy a lot of good will and respect out on the road. One of the things you always hear police and road safety experts say is “Drive for the conditions.” This means if it’s raining heavily and visibility drops, slow down a little. If it’s rush hour, take extra care with impatient drivers (and don’t become one of them). If there’s road construction in progress along your route, be alert to new speed limits and keep an eye out for unusual road hazards.

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One of the most dangerous habits for drivers to get into to is indiscriminate and unnecessary lane changing. The faulty reasoning is: ‘If I keep changing lanes 14 times in the next 5 minutes, I may just shave half a minute off my driving time.’ Weaving in and out of traffic is a sure sign of a selfish and irresponsible driver. Stay in your lane unless you have a good reason to change, and prepare for lane changes well ahead of time.

Keep to posted speed limits. Going too slow can be just as dangerous as going too fast, and is incredibly frustrating for the line of cars behind you. Know where you’re going and how to get there before you get in the car. Creeping along looking for street names and house numbers can cause trouble for those trying to travel at normal speeds around you.

Turn signals are not optional. They signify your immediate intentions to nearby motorists and are a crucial part of safe driving. Failure to signal can result in a fine of over $250, and is a common reason for getting rear-ended. Give other drivers plenty of warning before turning or making a lane change. Also, don’t be one of those drivers who has only a vague idea of how to use their blinkers when negotiating a roundabout. If in doubt, find out.

Avoid distractions. Anything that takes your mind off the safe operation of your vehicle can lead to an accident – text messaging, arguing with someone in the back seat, reading a map instead of looking at the road, creating the perfect hairstyle or trying to juggle a steering wheel, box of takeaway chicken, hot chips and beverage simultaneously. If music relaxes you in the car, turn on the radio. If it’s so loud that it drowns out all other sounds, the radio can inhibit your ability to drive safely and should be turned down.

If someone does something nice for you out on the road (lets you in front of them in heavy traffic, makes way for you to safely overtake them, etc.), a friendly smile and a wave of thanks is in order. This simple acknowledgement is positive reinforcement that encourages all drivers to be more courteous to each other. And it doesn’t hurt at all.

Tailgating isn’t just rude and dangerous to you and all the cars in your vicinity – it’s illegal.Tailgating isn’t just rude and dangerous to you and all the cars in your vicinity – it’s illegal.

Drivers are required to stay far enough behind the vehicle in front to allow them to stop in time to avoid a collision. In ideal weather and road conditions, you should pass the same object at least 3 full seconds after the car in front has passed it. Defensive driving is all about keeping yourself out of dangerous situations, and foremost among these are scenarios where you’re too close to the car in front or the car in back of you, especially at higher speeds. Fines for tailgating can cost offenders around $300.

Never allow yourself to get into a position where you’re blocking an intersection. Not only does this create a hazard for other vehicles, but you may be fined if there are police around at the time. If you’re turning right from a side street onto a main road, you’re required to get as close as practical to the middle of the street while you’re waiting, to allow left-hand turners maximum room to make their turns.

Merging onto a freeway is a skill that not all drivers have mastered. The merging vehicle must give way at all times to existing traffic on the freeway, but merging is different from yielding: with merging, you’re (ideally) entering the traffic smoothly without stopping. Yielding means letting the traffic pass and entering the road when all is clear.

You should never speed up while being overtaken. When you’re on a two-way road and the car behind you has crossed the divided line to pass, the law says you’re not allowed to increase speed until the passing vehicle has overtaken you and is safely back in the correct lane.

If you’re already cruising down the highway and it’s perfectly safe to do so, think about moving out of the left lane as a merge spot approaches. You’re not legally required to do so, but it can take some of the stress out of your driving experience and that of merging vehicles if you give them a little additional room to enter the traffic flow.

You should never speed up while being overtaken. When you’re on a two-way road and the car behind you has crossed the divided line to pass, the law says you’re not allowed to increase speed until the passing vehicle has overtaken you and is safely back in the correct lane.

Parking: a spot of bother

Few examples of appalling driver behaviour are as widely condemned or inexcusable as when able-bodied people park illegally in spaces specifically reserved for the disabled. To park in such spots, drivers must possess an official disability parking permit. Around 800,000 people throughout Australia have such permits. Fines for parking without a permit in these spaces reflect the seriousness of the offence ($519 in NSW4 and possible demerit point penalties). The age-old excuse of “But I’ll only be here for a minute” doesn’t cut it, either.

With over 17 million registered vehicles currently on the roads in Australia5, finding a parking space is getting harder all the time. Whether you’re parking at the edge of the road, in an outdoor lot or in an underground parking garage, here are a few tips for doing the right thing when parking:

  • In a heavy-use parking lot, getting a park often comes down to waiting for someone else to leave. Correct etiquette is to wait your turn, get close (while leaving plenty of room for them to back out and exit) and use your turn signal to indicate to other drivers that you intend to grab that spot. An empty car park goes to the first one there who is waiting and signalling their intention. Don’t get into fights over parking spaces – it’s not worth it.
  • Don’t try to cram your massive 4WD into a space for ‘compact cars’. Not only do you risk damaging your own vehicle, but cars to the left and right of you may not have enough room to open their doors.

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  • Park straight and in the middle of the designated space. If you’re too close to the lines, there’s a good chance someone’s car is going to end up with a chip in the paint because of limited room to open doors. If you don’t get it right the first time, back out (carefully!) and correct your positioning with a second go.
  • Be considerate when parking on the street. If there’s room for two vehicles between a couple of driveways, don’t hog the whole area by parking right in the middle of the space – move up a bit so there’s enough room for a second car to park behind you.
  • When you pull into a parking space, make sure you pull in far enough so your back end isn’t sticking out any further than the other cars around you. If your car is tiny, you might not want to pull in quite as far as a larger vehicle would; being ‘too far in’ could make people think the space is unoccupied. A good rule is to line your back end up with the rest of the cars in the row.

1 http://www.caradvice.com.au/130279/road-rage-on-the-rise-australian-drivers-becoming-more-aggressive/
2 http://www.youngdriverfactbase.com/the-issues/restrictions2/
3 http://www.autovision.com.au/files/Cradles.pdf
4 http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/demerit-points-to-disable-lowlife-parking-spot-cheats/story-fni0cx12-1227095520868?nk=1f9742a2d658b6a12d1d6eeed2da811f
5 http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/9309.0
Originally posted on Thu May 28 2015.