Why do we need courses like this, especially for drivers who are already licensed and know the rules? The answer is simple, but a bit discouraging as well. There are many kinds of driving; some of them are not what you want to learn because they are downright dangerous. For this part of the course, we will focus on driving styles and methods that you want to avoid at all costs.
You won’t have to think too hard about the kinds of driving you want to avoid – it’s all in the name: Distracted, Impaired, Reckless, Aggressive. How is it that any responsible person would even think of having one of these labels associated with their driving? The fact is responsible people will not associate themselves with these kinds of driving in most cases. But even responsible drivers can make honest mistakes. And as you’ll learn, it only takes a second for something to happen that results in life changing consequences. So with that said, we’ll now examine major contributors to unsafe, even reckless driving habits.
Driving while impaired used to have a fairly narrow meaning. If you were impaired, you were probably drunk. Sadly, in today’s world, if someone is guilty of driving while impaired, a normal question that might follow is, “Impaired by what?” Drugs? Pills? Alcohol? Marijuana? Prescription Drugs? Glue? Cough Medicine?
Substance abuse is a very serious concern that ruins the lives of countless Americans each year – if it doesn’t end them. And this is before any victim even decides to get behind the wheel. There are many reasons that seemingly intelligent people end up addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some of those reasons are valid. After surgery, an individual can take legally prescribed pain medication and end up becoming addicted to it. If that individual took the medication as directed, it’s hard to lay blame there. But what about the person who thinks, “Hey, if two pills are enough, four are better.”? What do we do about people who will pop a pill just for the high? The same goes for alcohol or sniffing glue or take your choice.
Most medications are critical to the health of thousands of people. In many cases, there are medications that actually help to keep people alive. That said, medications help the body do something it cannot do naturally – so they must make some kind of change in the bodily systems or functions. Again, the end result is relief for sufferers of any number of conditions and diseases. The problems start to occur when an individual builds up a tolerance to a particular drug. Now, that person must take more to gain the positive effects they experienced in the past. But when is more too much? Is the drug still helping the individual or does the person think they need to continue with a medication when they really no longer need it? Now think about individuals who take those same drugs, not out of need, but out of a search for a quick high. One pill and they feel great. Soon it’s two pills and then three. Next thing you know, someone is hooked, and they need a steady supply. And if they don’t get a dose of whatever, they suffer.
The situation is not much different with alcohol, except people don’t start consuming it out of need – that comes later when alcoholism becomes a very serious concern. As with anything, though, the question remains, “How much alcohol is too much?” You can go out, planning to have only a drink or two. As the effects of alcohol kick in, though, your good judgment and decision making skills begin to suffer. Now, “just on more” doesn’t seem like a big deal until you have “just one more” four or five times. At this point, unless someone is there to stop you, you’ll probably get into your vehicle and attempt to drive. The biggest tragedy in this scenario is that you may not be the only one to suffer in a crash. You have the protection of your moving vehicle, unless of course, you hit a wall. Someone walking along the side of the road has no protection from your vehicle. “Just one more” can change their life forever.
At different times in your life, you may take some kind of prescription medicine.
This, not only with a doctor’s approval but possibly at the insistence of a doctor. If this is ever the case, the doctor probably believes that you need whatever medication to cure you of some condition or to minimize pain or some other condition you are experiencing. But just because the doctor prescribes a medication for you, does not mean it is OK to drive. And that is one of the first things you should ask any time you are given prescription medication to take. With any luck, your doctor may inform you that you should not drive, but if not, ask. If you forget to ask, consult the pharmacist when you pick up the medicine. Read the label! One of the most common warnings on medicine labels is “may cause drowsiness or dizziness.” How do you think that fits in with driving? Another common warning on labels is “Do not operate heavy equipment.” Is there any chance your car falls into that category?
If you are not supposed to drive when taking a certain medication, then don’t. See if you can get an alternate medicine that has no side effects. Check with your doctor to see if you can alter the schedule of when you must take the medicine. Work it around driving if you know you’ll need to drive somewhere on a regular basis. If you are taking the medication only temporarily, see if someone can drive you where you need to go. The bottom line is, you can still be cited for driving while impaired even if under the influence of a legal prescription. Impaired is impaired. Injured is injured. Fatal is fatal. How you or somebody else ends up that way does not matter.
If you are still having trouble understanding why drugs, alcohol, and driving don’t mix, consider the various effects that foreign substances can have on a driver:
Which of these could you live with if you’re driving? How about if you have a vehicle full of friends or family members? The only way to completely avoid driving while impaired is to decide not to drive before you partake of any substance that might impair you. Remember, you do not have to be falling down drunk to be cited for DUI. If alcohol, or again, drugs, have any effect on your driving, then you are impaired. In most states, a BAC – Blood Alcohol Content – of 0.08% is the legal limit before you are deemed to be under the influence. But again, if one drinks alters your reflexes in the slightest and you miss the light or drift over a double yellow line, your BAC may not matter. And taking into consideration the younger target audience for this course, you need a BAC of 0.00%. Why? There is a good chance you cannot legally possess or drink alcohol. NO trace in your system is allowed. If this is you, you’ll have more to worry about than the penalties associated with driving.
ANY foreign substance that affects your body affects your driving. Technically, a slight buzz is just as serious as being severely impaired – especially when injury or property damage are involved. When you become a licensed driver you accept an awesome responsibility. A big part of that responsibility is knowing when you are fit – or not – to drive. We discussed this at the beginning of the course. You are the most important part of your vehicle. If you’re not working properly, your driving will most certainly be negatively impacted. What happens from there is anyone’s guess. Never put yourself in a situation where you can end up driving while impaired. Don’t succumb to temptation or peer pressure. Don’t be afraid to consult your doctor or a pharmacist. If you are a young driver, don’t think your age will get you a break if you mess up. Finally, don’t forget the implied consent law. Once you become licensed, you agree to submit to testing for drugs or alcohol if requested by law enforcement. You won’t be able to hide your condition even if you think you have up to the point where you’ve been pulled over.
Distracted driving, like driving while impaired, kills thousands of people each year. Most distractions can and should be avoided as soon as you begin to drive. But there is a catch. Not all distractions are necessarily preventable and are controlled by your natural reflexes. We’ll discuss those in a bit, but for now, we’ll get into the distractions you can prevent by avoiding certain behaviors. Would you care to guess which one is first on the list?
Smartphone technology will probably go down as one of the biggest scientific advances in the history of mankind. You can talk to other people; you can order food … or anything; you can find your way if you are lost; you can take pictures and videos; you can do your banking or trade stocks; and the list literally can go on and on and on. Regardless of all these benefits, there is a time and place to use your smartphone, and while you are driving is not one of them. It does not matter how adept you are while handling your phone. Maybe you can hold the phone with one hand and dial with your toes or your nose while steering with your other hand – an impressive trick, but not while you are moving in a very heavy vehicle; remember those laws of physics we discussed very early in the course.
When you are driving, both hands should be on the steering wheel at the three and nine o’clock positions. You may have learned “ten and two” but “three and nine” is gaining ground because it provides more protection to you against wrist injuries should your airbags deploy. No matter, though. You need to have a good grip on the wheel. If you must use one hand to adjust controls in the vehicle, get it back to the wheel as soon as you can.
Unless you have a hands free setup in your vehicle, you will need one hand to use your mobile device, even if just to hold it. In most places, this is now against the law. If you are dialing, you are focused on the phone and not on the road. If you are picking up or hanging up, same thing. And here’s something else that might surprise you: when you are talking to someone on a smartphone, a good deal of your attention is pulled from your driving and directed to your conversation. This is especially true if you hit an area with poor reception where conversations begin to break up. While you are straining to hear what is coming through your phone, even less of your focus is now on your driving. This particular problem – and it is a problem – can even occur even if you do in fact have a hands free device.
Be aware of the mobile device laws in any state where you plan to drive. Most places are making cell phone use illegal for everyone, not just teen drivers. In some states where you think it might be legal, there is still a chance that newer, younger drivers are prohibited from using electronic devices. There are a couple of exceptions to these laws, and again, this can vary by state: You can use your phone while driving if you are calling 911 to report an emergency. You can also use it as a GPS device as long as you do not program it while you are in motion. Consider this, though: do these exceptions make using your device while driving less dangerous? NO! If a call is so important that you cannot miss it (or not make it), safely pull off the road in an appropriate spot and take care of business. Then proceed on your way. Also remember this: “In motion” may include stopped at a red light with your foot on the brake. While your vehicle may not be moving at that instant, legally, you are “in motion” for the purposes of this newer law.
In a general sense, texting falls under the umbrella of smartphone use. Let’s face it, though, this activity deserves some coverage of its own. You simply cannot send a text message with two thumbs while holding the steering wheel with your knees, the side of your hands, or the back of your knuckles. And even if you do have that dexterity (impressive) you are absolutely not in full control of your vehicle. Now add to that the amount of time you need to divert your eyes to your masterpiece of a text message and away from the road and you have a recipe for disaster. It is impossible to stress this enough! Do not send or attempt to read text messages when you are driving. Any message so important can be dealt with when you are safely pulled off the road and stopped. As a matter of fact, if you want to do something that takes some guts, let friends or family know that you will be out of touch temporarily because you’ll be driving. Care to take a guess at how much comfort that will give to your parents if they hear that and know you mean it? You may even set an admirable example for friends and other family members who happen to respect you and your opinions. “A couple of seconds” looking at your phone is enough for many bad things to happen. You should already know that at this point in the course. And while you may be tired of our repeating it, some of those bad things will change your life and possibly that of others for good. If you are driving, stay off the phone.
Remaining fully attentive and in control of your focus is probably one of the most, if not the most challenging part of driving. There is certainly plenty for you to be aware of the second you put your vehicle in drive. The challenge is, though, that there are countless other things that you may notice or experience, and they all share a common thread: they pull your attention away from your driving and towards the distraction whatever it may be. Consider these very common sources of distraction that can put you and your passengers at risk in a moment’s time:
It should be clear to you that anything on this list can take your focus away from driving safely. Physical problems, emotional problems, and curiosity are all things that can consume us – if we let them. Never forget that you are in control from start to finish. You determine how safe you will drive and how a trip will go, even if another driver’s careless behavior puts you at risk. But you won’t be able to do any of that effectively if you don’t learn how to curb your emotions and get an immediate grip when you sense you are starting to “lose it.” There may be times when you find yourself fighting off strong emotions; that in itself is a distraction. When you take on the responsibility of becoming a licensed driver, part of that entails knowing the risks of losing focus. If you understand that from the beginning you’ll learn to avoid these predictable distractions and deal with them once your vehicle is stopped. Only then will you guarantee a safe trip for you and your passengers.
With everything you must think about while you operate a motor vehicle, there is always one rule of thumb that should stay with you: expect the unexpected. That’s pretty obvious when you consider the loose cat that runs out in front of you or the driver who drifts into your lane. But this rule can also pertain to certain distractions that are not in your power to avoid – unless you have the reflexes of Superman. Think about these situations, all of which it is reasonable to expect that you will encounter at some point in your driving career:
How do you ever fight this stuff? You can be the most responsible driver on the block, but in situations like this, you need to react to something that is said or done, realize you and your passengers are not in imminent danger, and continue your routine all while hoping you did not take your eyes from the road long enough to get into trouble. Now the human mind works a lot faster when thinking than when reading the explanations we just presented. But you still need to act fast and decisively. This might include asking what’s wrong if the problem is coming from the back seat or recognizing there is something wrong – or nothing wrong – by checking your surroundings. Even if this entire scenario plays out in seconds, it’s enough for you to find your self in an emergency if you take your eyes off the road for too long. Unfortunately, there is no textbook that teaches you how to get through situations like the ones we just presented. Just never forget to expect the unexpected. Learn how to assess the situation around you and identify immediate threats. Also learn when you are dealing with a “false alarm.” And as the driver and the individual in control, you may want to let the guilty party understand the potential risk they posed to everyone. Of course, their reactions were probably also reflexive. This particular part of driving does not come with any easy answers. Even having experience can only take you so far.
If driving while impaired is one of the most irresponsible things you can do as a driver, aggressive driving and road rage are close seconds. Actually, they may be in a tie. Your vehicle is NOT a weapon. Never use it as a means to express your anger or to get a driver in front of you to increase their speed. In situations where you have aggressive driving and road rage, think of everything you will have working against you – and this is before you may be caught and cited for a very serious offense:
If any driver does something that angers you so much that you participate in aggressive driving, call the police instead. Let them deal with someone who poses a threat to the rest of us on the roads. Even if the other driver clearly cuts you off, forcing you to slam on your brakes, the instant you begin driving aggressively towards that driver YOU are the guilty party; they are the victim. With any luck, the other driver will do their best to steer clear of you after recognizing your anger. That’s if you lay off following them after you’ve calmed down a bit.
But this is where things can get messy. What if the other driver gets enraged by your behavior? What if they pull over to have a “chat” with you” What if you pull over because you’d like to have that chat? Now you’re in road rage territory and road rage incidents can turn very deadly very quickly. Other than the fact that you know the other individual is a lousy driver, what else do you know? Are they carrying a legal firearm? Are they carrying an illegal firearm? Do they go to the gym nine times a week and could snap you in half like a twig?
If you pull off with another driver who enraged you or who you enraged, you’ll engage in anything but a chat. The best case scenario is a shouting match where one or both of you realizes someone has probably called the police already. You get back in your vehicles and go on your “merry” ways. The worst case scenario involves physical violence with the possibility of weapons entering into the picture. If someone is injured or worse, the original infraction will probably seem very minor compared to possible court time and jail time – that if you weren’t on the wrong side of the weapon.
Don’t ever be fooled by aggressive driving laws. In many states, you are considered driving aggressively if you break a number of laws within a certain amount of time. If you are extremely angry, this is not at all difficult to do. All of the infractions you would commit put you and drivers around you in danger. Think about the consequences of exceeding the speed limit or following another vehicle too closely. What about changing lanes without signaling, crossing solid lines, or running stop signs? Any of these on their own can lead to a crash. Now consider a combination of those along with a driver who is seeing red – and not much else. What kind of satisfaction could you ever get out of this? We have law enforcement for a reason. If someone poses such a danger that you would risk everything by using your car as a weapon, call the police. You may very well be saving the driver the irresponsible driver cuts off ten minutes from now and a few miles away.