Do you know that within the next 24 hours, nearly 5000 Australians will be involved in a road accident? Over 500 of these people will be seriously injured and 4 will die as a result of the crash. While news reports tend to focus on automobile fatalities, the national injury toll is also worth noting: since 1990, we’ve been averaging 30,000 serious injuries from car accidents each year1.
But how many of us worry when we climb behind the wheel of our car? It’s such an automatic part of our lives that we don’t really give it a second thought – despite the fact that driving is statistically one of the most dangerous things we do in the course of a typical day. So, if you’re getting on a plane to travel to Bolivia for some white-water rafting followed by a bit of swimming in piranha-infested waters, you can tell your concerned family and friends not to worry about your ‘dangerous adventure’ – because the car trip to the airport is more likely to kill you than the plane journey, the rafting or those hungry schools of fish.
When it comes to safety in and around vehicles, all of us can use as much sensible advice as we can get. So here are some useful car safety tips to help keep you out of trouble on the road:
Common driving mistakes
Every day, Australians in large numbers do the wrong thing while driving, posing a threat to themselves and others in the process. Here are 10 of the worst safety culprits:
- Not wearing a seat belt
In view of all the overwhelming statistics showing that seat belts save lives, it’s rather surprising that there are still people out there who don’t bother to strap themselves in before they get rolling. There’s really no logical excuse for this. Fortunately, many newer vehicles come with mildly annoying alarms that warn you if you’ve failed to click on your seatbelt before taking off.
- Going too fast
This comes down to basic physics. The quicker you’re driving down the road, the nastier the impact will be when you hit something. The road is safer when drivers travel at roughly the same speed; when someone is in too much of a hurry (or going too slow for normal traffic flow), that’s when the danger levels increase for everybody.
- Driving when tired
It’s a myth that you can somehow ‘control’ your level of tiredness while driving by gulping coffee, rolling down the windows for more air, cranking up the volume on the radio or getting equally exhausted passengers to ‘keep you awake by talking’. There’s only one known cure for tiredness, and that’s sleep. Drivers who fall asleep at the wheel (2 or 3 seconds is plenty) are incapable of slowing down or avoiding a crash. A drowsy driver is just as dangerous as an inebriated one, so stop and get some sleep – before it’s too late.
- Distractions, distractions
Behind the wheel of a moving car is no place to check text messages, fix your make-up, wolf down a late breakfast, sip hot coffee or have a conversation on your phone. Driving is a complex skill that requires 100% of your concentration, so when you’re driving, just drive.
- Failing to give right of way
Ignoring red lights and stop signs is dangerous. Failure to understand how to give way when merging into freeway traffic is also dangerous. It’s vital to know who has right of way in every driving situation.
- Not planning ahead
We’ve all encountered them: drivers who signal to turn at the last possible moment, try to change lanes in the middle of a roundabout or decide to cross four lanes of traffic in 5 seconds because they have no idea where they’re going. These sorts of unexpected moves lead to accidents. Plan ahead.
- Alcohol and drugs
Alcohol and drugs affect a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle safely. Reaction times slow right down and basic decision-making becomes impaired. If you’re heading out on the town for a good time, take a taxi or nominate a designated driver so you make it back home safely.
- Following too closely
Tailgating is more than just plain rude – it’s also extremely dangerous. There should always be a 2-second gap (minimum) between you and the car in front, at any speed. The key to defensive driving is constant awareness of the amount of room between you and the vehicles closest to you. Always try to give yourself ample room to escape a dangerous situation.
- Underestimating how weather affects driving
Have you noticed that there are always more traffic accidents when it rains? That’s because wetter roads are more treacherous and visibility is lessened during weather events (like hail, heavy rain or snow). Slow down in bad weather; be careful on curved roads and approach stop signs a little bit earlier than normal for a safe, smooth stop. If the weather gets really bad, find a safe place to stop and pull over.
- Excessive lane changing
Constantly changing lanes in order to shave a few seconds off a journey here and there is downright silly – but you still see a lot of drivers doing it. In heavy traffic with limited room, this incessant weaving is extremely dangerous to everyone on the road. The funny thing is that when you pull up to a traffic light 5 kilometres up the road, you often see these same drivers stuck at the same lights as you are – their ‘clever’ lane changing hasn’t saved them any time at all.
Is your car safe to drive?
Keeping your car in tip-top shape has several advantages: you’ll be able to pass an official Roadworthy Test for registration renewal (or if you want to sell your vehicle), you’ll have a safer car to drive and you’ll save money on fines. Police can fine you for all sorts of maintenance infractions: broken taillights, obscured license plates, bald tyres, etc. It’s better to spend your money on maintenance than on infringement fines!
If you’re after a roadworthiness certificate, you’ll need to visit an authorised vehicle tester. They’ll look your car over for things like brake defects, faulty lights, tyre condition, leaks, excessive engine noise or smoke, radiator condition, seat belt security and other details that affect your car’s fitness for use on the road.
There is plenty you can do yourself to keep your car in good shape. Regularly check for leaks: oil, radiator coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid, battery water levels, etc. Leaks not only reduce your car’s performance, but are often an indicator of a bigger issue that might wreck your engine if left untreated.
A tyre blowout while you’re cruising down the freeway at 100 kilometres per hour is not a fun experience. Ensure your tyres have enough tread and the correct amount of air pressure.There is nothing more frustrating than a faulty windscreen wiper when the weather turns on you. It’s vital to have clear visibility through the windscreen, especially directly in front of the driver Some tyre tread types give better grip on wet roads, so ask your tyre retailer for advice. It doesn’t hurt to keep a small tyre pressure gauge in the glove box, either.
There is nothing more frustrating than a faulty windscreen wiper when the weather turns on you. It’s vital to have clear visibility through the windscreen, especially directly in front of the driver.
Keep a pristine rag in your car to clean the inside of the windows if they get dirty or fogged up, and repair any chips or cracks in your windscreen as soon as possible. If they can’t be repaired, have the entire windscreen replaced. If you can’t see properly, you can’t drive properly.
Get a friend to walk around your car while you test to make sure all the lights are in working order: headlights, parking lights, turn indicators, brake lights and any others that you have. Check the horn at the same time, and have a good look at the car interior to make sure seat belts are all in good shape.
Remove anything from your car that might become a dangerous projectile if you have to stop suddenly. There are several items that can come in handy in the car. A small first aid kit for the glove box is sensible, as is a sturdy torch and spare batteries. Have a couple of rags at the ready – a clean one for wiping the inside of the windscreen if it gets dirty or fogged up, and a dirty one for engine oil top-ups, removing radiator caps and other grimy jobs. If you don’t have a GPS installed, a map reference book should be carried so you can find streets you’re not familiar with.
Each state has its own specifications in regard to roadworthy checks, so check beforehand so you know what to expect. Looking after your car makes it last longer and provides a safer driving experience for you and your passengers. Try to get into the habit of briefly checking your car once a week for the basics: oil/water/fluids, tyres, electrics and tyres.
Drive smart, drive safe
There’s not a lot you can do about the skill levels of other drivers, but you can certainly improve your own – if you make the choice to do so. Here are some simple tips to help you become a better driver so every car trip you take becomes safer:
- Take a Defensive Driving Course
A defensive driving course is a good idea for drivers of all levels of experience. They make you think a bit more about road safety from the other driver’s perspective (instead of just yours), mixing practical and theoretical skills to deliver on-road safety skills that help you minimise risk and make you a more alert, proactive driver. These driving courses focus on improving your ability to look ahead to identify potential hazards while understanding the relationship between speed, reaction time and stopping distances. You’ll learn practical interpretation of road laws, the dynamics of what causes vehicle instability and skids, and the crucial importance of keeping your distance from other cars.
- Turn off your phone while you’re driving
Using you mobile phone while driving not only increases your risk of a crash, but can result in a hefty penalty (4 demerit points and a fine of over $400 in Victoria, for example). Research shows that mobile phone use in a car slows reaction times, reduces focus and leads to dangerous visual distraction. Did you know that when you’re travelling at 50 km/h and take your eyes off the road for just 2 seconds, you are essentially driving blind for 27 metres2. If you need to make or receive a call, pull over, park and turn off the engine first. Don’t send or read text messages, look up phone numbers or do anything with your phone at all while you’re behind the wheel of a car. These days, there are even apps that prevent you from being distracted from your phone while driving. A quarter of a century ago (before the mobile phone age kicked in), people managed to drive quite happily without having phone conversations at the same time. You should do the same today – it’ll definitely keep you and other drivers safer.
Did you know that when you’re travelling at 50 km/h and take your eyes off the road for just 2 seconds, you are essentially driving blind for 27 metres?
- Keep your hands on the wheel
Both hands should be on the steering wheel when you’re driving. If they’re not, you’re going to have much more trouble coming to an emergency stop or swerving to avoid an obstacle in the road up ahead. If you want to reach for that pair of sunglasses that’s fallen down somewhere in the car, wait until you’ve stopped.
- Know how to pass (and allow passing) safely
Overtaking another vehicle always involves some risk. So before you do it, ask yourself these questions: (a) do I really need to overtake at all, (b) do I have a clear view of approaching traffic, (c) is there a straight stretch of road up ahead, (d) is the road wide enough, (e) are there are any side streets where traffic can interfere with passing and (f) are there posted overtaking signs? A lot of people seem to believe it’s legally permissible to briefly speed up past the speed limit when passing the car in front of you. Not true – you must never go above the posted limit at any time. If you’re being passed, maintain your speed, stay within your lane and allow reasonable space for the car to overtake. The practice of speeding up when someone is trying to pass you is not only childish, but a great way to have an accident yourself.
- Know where you’re going
A lot of accidents happen because people are stressed out by being lost or they’re fiddling with their in-car GPS, trying to read a map or crawling along looking for street names or house numbers, completely oblivious to the traffic piling up behind them. Have your route planned beforehand. Google Maps is a handy resource for learning the best way to get from A to B. Geographically confused drivers are dangerous drivers, so give yourself plenty of extra time to reach destinations you’re not familiar with.
- Watch your speed
According to the Office of Road Safety in Western Australia, between 2004 and 20013 an average of 14% of serious accidents correlated with speeding, with males in the 17-39 age groups most at risk from speed-related crashes3. The stopping distance for a car travelling at 100 km/h is 97 metres, and that’s under ideal driving conditions. Add some wet weather, driver fatigue or alcohol consumption to the mix and your ability to stop is further decreased. A head-on collision at 110 km/h generally means huge damage to the dashboard and foot well areas and destruction of the front passenger compartment. At that sort of speed you’re looking at serious injuries and the risk of death.
- Adjust your mirrors and seat position
To be able to drive safely, your seat should be adjusted so the foot and brake pedals are easily reached and aligned with driving position and steering wheel. And if you’ve got to lean over (even slightly) to look in your rear view mirrors, they need adjusting. Even with perfectly positioned mirrors, you should look back and double-check behind you when changing lanes or making any other major manoeuvre (especially a U-turn).
- If you’re not alert, don’t drive
All sorts of external factors can affect your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely: drugs, alcohol, stress, mental distractions, sleepiness and general fatigue. The bottom line is: don’t drink and drive, don’t drive under the influence of drugs (prescription or not), stop for a rest or a sleep if you need to and don’t get in the car if you’re not at your best, mentally or emotionally. Driving requires your full concentration, so anything that detracts from that is a serious safety issue.
Your personal safety
You should always have a pen and paper, a torch and emergency numbers in your car. If you break down, leave your car in a safe, well-lit area, turn on your hazard lights and put your bonnet up. Always keep your doors locked while inside your car. You’re safer from the threat of assault or carjacking if your doors are locked. If you think someone is following you, remain calm, drive normally and proceed to the closest police station or brightly-lit store or service station. Don’t exit your car until you’re sure it’s safe. If a stranger stops to assist, advise them of your situation and ask them to ring for assistance. Don’t get into a stranger’s car.
Always keep your doors locked while inside your car. You’re safer from the threat of assault or carjacking if your doors are locked. If you think someone is following you, remain calm, drive normally and proceed to the closest police station or brightly-lit store or service station. Don’t exit your car until you’re sure it’s safe.
While it’s illegal to use your mobile phone while driving, carrying a mobile phone or personal alarm is advisable, especially when driving alone. Even a whistle is better than nothing for attracting attention.
Driver courtesy helps everybody
It can be a rude world out there. Road rage is a reality, selfish drivers are a fact of life and there are more cars on the road than ever. But that’s all the more reason to show basic decency and consideration on the roads. Try to be forgiving of other drivers’ mistakes, no matter how frustrating they might be. Don’t engage with obviously angry drivers (whether they’re angry at you specifically or the world in general), and don’t use rude gestures. Concentrate fully on your own safe driving – you can’t control the behaviour of others.
Your horn is meant to be used as a warning, not as an expression of anger or frustration. And yes, the police can and will book you for using your horn inappropriately. The safest driver is a confident, alert and relaxed driver – not a cranky one.
Be conscious of the needs of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, and remember that a heavy vehicle like a truck may need more warning to slow down or stop than smaller vehicles. If someone lets you into traffic or does something courteous for you, acknowledge their kindness with a friendly wave.
Select your car insurance carefully
Sometimes even the safest drivers have accidents, so make sure you have quality car insurance that covers you for the unexpected. Look for policy benefits that meet your specific needs, whether you opt for Comprehensive, Third Party or Third Party Fire and Theft cover. It’s easy to compare prices and policies online, so do your homework and don’t stop looking until you find the cover you want at a price you can afford.