Every time you get behind the wheel, you're operating a very dangerous piece of machinery. Whether you're an experienced driver or you've just finished driver's ed class, there's always room for improvement when it comes to driving. Here are ten things you can do to hone your safe, smart driving skills.
10. Take a Defensive Driving Course
Not only can online driving courses save you money on your car insurance or take points off your driving record, they're actually pretty good refresher courses for anyone who's been driving for a while and the answers to those driver's license tests are just a hazy memory. Do you know how to eyeball how far ahead the vehicle in front of you should be based on your speed? Know the difference between a DUI and a DWI and how many drinks can impair you for each? Stuff like that is covered in these courses, usually around $35.
9. Park with Precision
Parking is (usually) easy once you get the hang of it, but in tight spots or when you're new to driving backward, it helps to know a few tricks. Here's an infographic on parallel, reverse, and forward parking; and step-by-step directions for parallel parking. If you'd like even more help when parking, consider these DIY sonic sensors for your car.
8. Keep Your Hands on the Wheel at the Proper Positions
For decades, driving instructors taught students to keep their hands on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 positions on the clock. In the last few years, those guidelines have changed, so you're now supposed to keep your hands lower, at either 9 and 3 or 8 and 4. This gives you more control and stability when driving, and is also the most ergonomic position to hold your hands for long periods of time. Muscles more relaxed and having more control over your vehicle? Instantly, you're a better driver.
7. Adjust Your Mirrors to Cover Your Blind Spots
Similar to the above, there's a better way to position your mirrors than you might have been taught: Adjust the side mirrors so far outward so they're just overlapping your rearview mirror. Here's an illustration.
6. Don't Drive When You're Sleepy (or Otherwise Not Alert)
We all know the dangers of driving after drinking, but a serious lack of sleep could also impair you just as much (some people even sleep drive!)—and one out of every six fatal crashes involved a drowsy driver, according to a study in 2010. Any time your mental facilities could be compromised—whether from alcohol, poor sleep, new medication, or even having a horrible cold—is a time to stay off the road or find an alternative to driving.
5. Don't Bother Speeding
We all want to get to our destinations sooner, but all speeding really does is increase your risk of getting into an accident or getting a speeding ticket, it turns out. Here's the math behind it, and why you're better off just driving at or below the recommended speeds.
4. Know the Best Way to Merge in Traffic
Inefficient lane merging causes traffic, road rage, and accidents. Some people are aggressive lane cutters, while others politely take their place in a lane long before an exit. The best, most efficient solution for all of us is to stay calm and zipper merge, each one taking our turn. (It was worth a try. At the very least, when merging or when others are trying to merge, be patient but also don't be that guy holding up a whole lane. We can work together to improve traffic for all.)
3. Handle Tough Driving Conditions Like a Boss
Even the most experienced drivers can get thrown off by hazardous conditions. Here's how to drive in extreme winter weather (including steering through slippery snow), how to see better while driving at night, how to safely pass a car on a two-lane road, and why you should wear sunglasses but not use cruise control while it's raining.
2. Ditch the Distractions and Know Where You're Going
By now, we all know texting while driving is both dangerous and against the law. It's possible to drive safely while using your cell phone, but you're better off just turning it off and sticking it in your bag if you don't need it for navigating. Your cell phone isn't the only problem, though. If you eat while you drive, fiddle with the radio, or have a too-talkative passenger, you won't be able to drive as well. The danger of texting while driving is rightfully getting a lot of attention, but distracted driving, in general, is the main issue.
Related to this: the distraction of not knowing where you are or exactly how to get where you want to go. Even with your phone's or car's navigation system, you could find yourself saying, "Wait, which highway am I supposed to get on?" and in a panic make a sudden, dangerous move. Try to scope out your route as much as possible before you start driving—even using Google Street view so you're used to the landmarks and tricky intersections before you get in your car.
Finally, as the fine folks at Jalopnik point out in their driver skills article, the top way to becoming a better driver is to drive more—conscienciously, of course, keeping the above in mind. It is, after all, a skill—one we shouldn't take too much for granted.