Driving Hints and Tips

Your powers of observation

Many professional drivers believe that you can avoid just about any incident so long as your vision and anticipation of the road are good enough. This doesn’t mean driving with your eyes out on stalks or your chin welded to the steering wheel. Rather it means being fully aware of what’s going on around you at all times. Not just in front of you but behind, to the sides, in your mirrors, using your ears as well as your eyes to remove as many surprises from your driving as possible. The reality is that there are almost endless potential hazards to be aware of, and to calmly avoid, whether you’re driving at 20mph in a busy town or 50mph on a quiet back road. It’s worth remembering that you are potentially one of these hazards unless you are driving well. So, keep your distance not just from other drivers, but cyclists and pedestrians, work out where the surprises could spring from, and anticipate how to deal with them before they happen. Do this and even the most everyday journey through the rush-hour or along a country lane can be compelling and enjoyable.

Steering wheel check

As you perform your cockpit drill, remember it’s not only your seat that can be adjusted for the best driving position. Most vehicles today now have telescopic steering wheels that can be adjusted to your preferred height and reach. Ideally, your steering wheel should be as low as possible without obstructing your view of the driving instruments. It should be pointed at your chest, rather than your face. For safety, it’s best that your chest is at least 25cm (around 10 inches) from the steering wheel. If you’re any closer, you could be risking injury should the airbag deploy. If you extend your arms fully, the heels of your hands should sit on the top of the steering wheel. This means that when your hands are at the correct hand position for driving, either the classic ‘ten to two’ or the more contemporary ‘quarter to three’, your arms should be slightly bent but giving you full control of your car.

Double life of a street light

While we all take street lights for granted, as a driver, they play a doubly important role. Did you know that they also indicate the speed limit when no other signs are visible? Any road that has a series of street lights every 200 yards (182 metres) or less is classed as a 30mph zone unless there are signs saying otherwise. In some places, the lights may only be on one side of the road, so don’t get caught out and think the speed limit does not apply. Again, on some roads the speed limit could drop from 60 or 70mph to 30mph without any signs being present, other than the distance between street lights becoming closer. If you notice the gap between the street lights narrowing, this is an immediate signal to lower your speed. Street lights can be as close as 32 yards (30 metres) apart where there are multiple hazards such as junctions, tight corners, roundabouts or pedestrian crossings. If you get caught out, claiming that there were no speed limit signs won’t help. The Highway Code makes it your responsibility to know the rules and the onus is on you to be aware of the spacing between street lights.

Slip road courtesy

As you become familiar with motorway driving, you are likely to see gantries displaying the phrase ‘stay left unless overtaking’. However, some drivers take this too literally especially around motorway slip roads. All too often, you will observe drivers who remain planted in the inside lane and don’t move over, when they can, to allow other drivers to merge from a slip road. It’s courteous and often safest to move across to the next lane, briefly, and allow this traffic to merge. While vehicles already on the motorway have the right of way, a competent driver will note the signs for a slip road ahead, anticipate there will be joining traffic, and be ready to help it merge safely with a short lane change. If moving to the middle lane isn’t an option, just slowing slightly and increasing your following gap will give joining traffic enough space to merge easily. This basic motorway etiquette is often overlooked. Anything we can do to work together and smooth the flow will help keep things moving safely.

Passing horses safely

Sooner or later, you’ll encounter a horse and rider on the road. Horses are powerful creatures with heightened senses, so passing them needs to be done carefully. If you’re approaching a horse from behind, slow down and hold back at least three car lengths and don’t edge into this space. It’s essential that the horse stays calm and the rider in control, so avoid spooking it by engine revving or playing loud music. Most riders will be in hi-vis, so you should be able to slow down in good time, however, in rural areas they could be around any corner. When the road ahead is clear and it’s safe to overtake, leave at least a car’s width to pass the horse. Remember always pass ‘wide and slow’ and stick to 15mph or under. Often when you see two riders side-by-side it’s for safety reasons. This could be an inexperienced rider or nervous horse, so be patient and give them time and space. As you pass, accelerate gently and opt for a higher gear to reduce engine noise. If a horse is approaching on the opposite side of the road, slow down and consider putting on your hazard warning lights to alert drivers behind you. Better still, if it’s safe to do so, stop to let the horse pass and do your part in sharing the road space safely.

How to read traffic lights

As you learn the rules of the road, don’t neglect the common ones. Take traffic lights, you probably assume you know what they mean, but they can still catch you out. As they play a vital role in controlling traffic and preventing accidents, they must be properly understood. The basic sequence of lights follows four phases, each with a separate meaning. Red signals stop; red and amber means prepare to pull away; flashing amber means give way to pedestrians, but go if it’s safe to do so; green means go; and amber means stop unless it’s not safe to do so, and the sequence repeats. When faced with a red light, you must stop before the solid white line. As the lights turn red and amber, prepare to go, but importantly, do not pull off or creep forward. Moving away at this point makes you a hazard for other road users. Only when the lights turn green, can you move off, but watch the car in front in case it pulls away overly slowly. As you approach a steady amber light you should stop. According to the Highway Code, the only exceptions are if you’ve already crossed the white line at the junction, or if you’re so close to the line that stopping would cause an accident. You’re responsible for making this final judgement and it’s a decision you’ll have to make quickly. What’s clear is that an amber light is not a cue to start speeding up. The best advice as you approach any traffic light is to anticipate it changing. If they’re not working, nobody has priority. In this instance look for traffic coming from every direction before entering the junction, then once you’ve seen it’s safe, proceed with caution.

An upside to mistakes

A glitch here, a miscalculation there: making mistakes as you learn to drive is inevitable. Whether you’re a learner or a seasoned driver, nobody’s immune to slipping up now and then. The question is: how to get over these mistakes and stop feeling bad about them? The best thing you can do is learn from them. Accept that you did something incorrectly, realise exactly what it was, and put a plan in place to stop it happening again. That way, your error will serve a purpose and help you to become a better driver in the long run. For example, if someone beeps as you change lanes because you inadvertently cut them up, you’ll probably get a scare. However, you will realise that you didn’t see them because, although you looked in your mirrors, you neglected to check your blind spot. Your near-miss will hopefully serve as a wake-up call. Next time, you’re far more likely to remember to glance over your shoulder before completing a similar manoeuvre. As a result, everyone around you will be safer and that’s exactly how to turn a mistake into a positive outcome. While you might continue to dwell on your mistake, it’s likely that anyone who witnessed it will forget about the incident in moments. Perhaps you’ve been held up because someone got in the wrong lane at a roundabout or forgot to indicate in good time. How did you react? You may have inwardly cursed them, but then you simply moved on with your day.

Prime yourself for potholes

You will need to be extra vigilant as temperatures rise and previously frozen Tarmac breaks up, creating new and unwelcome potholes. Unfortunately, some can be difficult to spot and can lead to damaged suspension, tyres, wheels, exhausts and repair bills. The way you drive, however, can minimise the potential damage. A key thing to remember is never put your foot on the brake as you hit a pothole. This is because when you brake, your car nosedives forwards, compressing the suspension. If your car is already lurching forward as you hit the pothole, there’s little play left in the suspension to absorb further impact and braking could increase the damage. Instead, come off the brakes, keep a firm grip of the wheel and aim straight ahead – making sure you stop, when it’s safe to do so, to check your car. Tyres are particularly prone to punctures when they hit a pothole, so keeping your tyre pressures at the correct levels can help limit this damage. Bear in mind that the ambient air temperature affects the pressure inside the tyre and there’s a potential swing of about 4PSI when we go from cold to warm weather. Again, to minimise wheel and exhaust damage, don’t turn your steering wheel as you head into a pothole as this can place extra stress on steering and suspension components. One driving technique you should never use is swerving on to the wrong side of the road to dodge a pothole. While it’s tempting to do so, on the on the flip-side, you don’t want to be confronted with a driver heading towards you with half their car on your side of the road.

How to handle stalling

As you learn to drive, it’s inevitable that you will stall at some point, and this always happens just when you don’t want it to. Of course, it’s instinctive to get out of your stall as quickly as possible, but as you scramble to do so, you’re likely to throw observation out the window and make further mistakes. For instance, you may try pulling away still in third gear and stall again, only to worry about holding up other motorists. If you can feel yourself getting ruffled, particularly if you stall at a junction or roundabout, the best thing you can do is put your clutch down, put your handbrake on and put the gearstick into neutral. It’s a baseline from which you do everything, and it will give your brain a chance to get itself in order. Although stalling makes you an unpredictable hazard to other drivers, if you’re stopped, people will negotiate their way around you and appreciate there is a problem. Even experienced drivers stall occasionally, so the next time, simply depress your clutch, put your handbrake on, get into neutral then carry on.

How to drive safely after dark

Driving at night is usually unavoidable, and because it’s more hazardous than driving in daylight, you should know the reasons why. As the light fades, our visibility is gradually reduced. It’s a big design flaw in humans and we’ve tried to get around it with reflective road markings, cats eyes and LED headlights. However, even modern car headlights can only light up around 120 metres ahead of you, so if your headlights shine on a sharp bend when you’re travelling at 50mph, you’ll have just four seconds to react. For this reason, you must be able to stop in the distance your lights reach, so never speed up at night. In the dark, you’re also more at risk of being distracted by drowsiness. You could find yourself ‘micro-sleeping’ at the wheel and accidentally taking tiny naps of anything from a fraction of a second to 30 seconds. At 70mph, you would travel more than 150 metres in the five seconds you nodded off. It’s also tempting to take risks on an open road when there are fewer people about. It calls to everyone, and may seem harmless to accelerate a little, but if you’re not expecting hazards, you’re not prepared to react. At higher speeds, that lack of expectation and awareness is dangerous, and couple that with the possibility of passing a driver who could be tired, drunk or high. If anything, you should be driving more carefully at night, not less.