My 6 rules for safe, defensive driving

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As a member of the fourth estate, the media, I’ve covered my fair share of car accidents — and as a part of the digital portion of the grand institution, I read virtually every report made available to me that involves a fatality crash.

I’ve been in a couple wrecks, too.

One happened with a couple buddies when I was 16, a rollover on a wet road. I was a back seat passenger.

Two happened as a driver in Dallas back in the early 2000s, one my fault and the other not — fender benders both.

One happened three years ago, me as a passenger with my wife at the helm. A likely distracted driver ran a red light and slammed into our side. This was easily the most violent crash I have been involved in, although the same thing happened to my wife in the same intersection (Memorial & Rockwell, OKC) two years later. A guy in his work truck blew through a red light and hit my wife’s SUV. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt.

He was killed.

What I tell my 13-year-old stepdaughter is that driving is a privilege and a huge responsibility. It’s nothing to be scared of regardless of whether you’re driving across a sleepy town or Los Angeles. I’ve done both. I lived in Dallas for more than a decade, and I’ve driven through Houston pretty regularly.There are a few rules I live by. My wife will confirm: I will go out of my way to adhere by these rules.

Most of all: understand what driving defensively means. It means, literally, driving with the mentality that the ‘other guy’ is going to cause you to wreck and doing everything you can to avoid it. Job No. 1 for any driver is to get home safely.

Rule 1: Avoid the unprotected left turn. This mostly applies to city intersections and not residential neighborhoods. It could be turning left from a stop sign onto a busy street, or it could be a green light (not an arrow) at an intersection. Sorry, but unless it’s crystal clear that I’ve got the turn safely, I’m sitting there until it’s red again because think about it – if I turn left into traffic, I’m getting hit on the passenger side. That could be my wife or stepdaughter.

I’m not speculating on this. I’ve read countless accident reports. The unprotected left turn in the city especially is a big risk every time you take it. You’re much better off figuring out how to find a light with an arrow or re-routing yourself to a right-turn-only experience.

Rule 2: Forget the back roads. If I ever hear another country song about “takin’ the back roads,” it’ll be another time too many. Just last night, there was an incident where somebody decided to pass a couple of cars in a no-passing zone on a two-lane highway and they slammed head-on into another vehicle.

You can survive most wrecks, but a head-on crash is tough to survive beyond 40 mph. The back roads present the highest chance of stumbling into one of these. If your GPS leads you to a back road so that you can get to a busier highway, drive super defensively and never ever pass on a two-lane highway without being certain you can make the pass. It’s not even worth the risk.

If you just have that insatiable itch to hit the blue highways, then do it during the day. I get it. I love the country, too.

Rule 3: I (don’t) love the nightlife …
After 10 p.m., especially in a heavily-populated area, presume every driver is buzzed. After midnight, presume they’re drunk. Between 2-6 a.m., presume they’re either hammered or hazy from sleep or lack of caffeine.

There was a recent story about a guy I knew of through a good friend, and the guy dropped his wife off at the airport at 4 a.m. only for him to be killed by a drunken driver, head-on, 30 minutes later — on a 4- or 6-lane highway.

So incredibly tragic.

What could he have done? I have no idea, but I know when I’m driving at night, I try to actively think about what I’d do if a driver sped at me head-on. My thought is that I’d decelerate as much as possible and try to drive off the side of the road or onto the shoulder. I don’t want to just come off as an #olds, but I’d tell any new driver to maybe not be out past midnight. However, I get it. It’s unavoidable lots of the time. But understand that even though you’re stone-cold sober, not everybody is, and that risk goes way up at night.

Rule 4: Don’t pass folks on the right.
Not everything I include here is a perfectly formed rule, meaning that – yes – sometimes I do pass folks on the right. I drove in Dallas for a decade, and I learned how to drive like a madman. However, know that passing somebody on the right increases the odds of them being in your blind spot by a ton. Many of us have signals that tell us when another driver is in our blind spot, but there is nothing that can replace looking over your shoulder and manually making sure. I’ve personally had more near misses trying to change lanes to the right because somebody is passing me on the right.

Stay to the right most of the time and the center if the right lane is too slow. As you might expect I’d say, keep the left-most lane for passing, always. Do not drive leisurely in the left lane. Get over unless you’ve got purpose. Think about it: there’s less ‘passing on the right’ if the slower-driving folks keep out of the left-most lanes.

Rule 5: Slower is not safer.
The most dangerous drivers aren’t the moderately speedy ones. They’re the slow-poke going 15 mph slower than anybody else. It’s because, essentially, that vehicle is a moving obstruction to every other driver.

This doesn’t mean that street racers are safe. Those folks put everybody in danger. But they’re also not on the road 99 percent of the time.

Slow drivers are everywhere. If they’re in the right-most lane, they’re usually harmless. In the middle or left lanes though, they’re the most dangerous driver on the highway.

Adhere to the ‘basic speed rule.’ Go with the flow. If everybody is doing 75 mph in a 65 on a highway, it’s safer to be going 75. If they’re doing that on a side road, then find another side road, lol.

Rule 6: Know everything happening behind you
New drivers get so focused on what’s in front of them that they don’t stay as aware as they should of what’s happening behind them. What’s in front of you is easy to navigate. Slow down or get out of the way. But what if there’s a crazy coming up behind you? Defensive driving means setting your peripheral vision to all angles — to your front, the sides and behind. To me, paying attention to what’s happening behind you is as important as what’s happening in front. Threats emerge from everywhere, and your blindest spots are the riskiest.

Keep an eye on your back side.

Most of all, treat driving like the privilege and responsibility that it is. Don’t drive buzzed or intoxicated or sleepy or even angry. Folks don’t talk about driving angry much, but operating a motor vehicle when you are highly agitated will come through on the road. If you encounter an angry driver, defer or escape. Do not confront or retaliate.

Stay off your phone. Keep your eyes on the road and not on your passengers.

These are basics. But this list of six rules, I hope, will help other parents, adults, teachers explain to kids the elements of driving that are most dangerous. Having read hundreds of accident reports, I can tell you with certainty that following these six rules will greatly increase your safety on the road.

If you have any rules of the road that I should add, please write them in the comments below and I may do a follow-up!

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