Driving Hints and Tips

Say what you see

Many advanced drivers use a technique called ‘commentary driving’, which involves scanning the road ahead and saying out loud what they see, what they’re planning and what they’re thinking. Emergency services, for example, use this technique while training and in the course of pursuit. Essentially, it trains you to focus and stay alert as your brain is occupied with processing what you’re observing. You may be thinking does it really make much difference whether you’re speaking out loud or just thinking? But as a learner driver you’ll discover that commentary driving cuts off any non-relevant thoughts, including those that make you nervous, and helps you to concentrate on the road. It helps to sharpen your observational skills so that using your eyes properly becomes a natural part of your driving, and it improves your anticipation of what other road users are doing. If your instructor has not suggested this approach, ask if you can try. It is a learning process and takes practice, so start slowly by mentioning significant things and build from there. Even if you don’t like the thought of speaking out loud, give it a go and see how you get on. Initially your instructor will be doing the commentary for you, but as you progress in the learning process you’ll be able to verbally commentate on the driving routines you’ve been taught along with what hazards you see and what course of action you intend to take which all contribute to making you a safer driver.

Too close for comfort

Most drivers have an opinion on how to treat tailgaters. But what is the correct way to deal safely and sensibly with those who follow too close behind? Tailgating is not only annoying, it can be dangerous, so stay calm and don’t speed up under the pressure you may feel. How you shake-off a tailgater depends on whether he or she is of the ‘passive’ or ‘aggressive’ variety. An aggressive tailgater has the clear intention of passing you. They will actively drive up your rear in a fashion that says ‘Get out of my way’. A passive tailgater is different. Normally, they have no real intention of passing you but simply drive too close. This is most likely an unconscious choice as they’re probably not concentrating and thinking about leaving a safe braking distance. Each type requires a different approach. With an aggressive tailgater, keep a constant speed and as soon as it’s safe to do so, pull over to let them pass, that’s it. You may feel this is rewarding bullying behaviour, but it’s not worth risking your safety. With a passive tailgater, always leave plenty of space in front of you. Don’t be tempted to brake sharply. Flashing your brake lights isn’t going make your tailgater back off as it will lose impact. It’s better to just ease off your accelerator, then, if you do need to brake suddenly, the brake light should prompt your tailgater to take evasive action. It may be tempting to put some distance between you and the car behind, but don’t as you’re likely to create the same situation for the car in front. And if they brake suddenly, you could become an unwitting ‘sandwich’. To ensure you never tailgate, always maintain at least 2-3 seconds of distance behind the car in front of you and by doing so, you’ll be able to stop safely if necessary.

Autumn leaves alert

The colours may look majestic, but when leaves fall and accumulate on the road they become wet and extremely slippery making driving conditions similar to driving on black ice, especially on country roads and leafy avenues. Every autumn wet leaves pose a significant traction problem. As they fall, they tend to accumulate near gutters, then get soaked and stick together, effectively blocking drains and preventing water running away. A combination of mushed up leaves and water quickly builds to create a skid area. If the temperature drops below freezing, wet leaves turn icy. Besides reducing your car’s traction, causing skidding, leaves fall covering important painted road markings, making it more difficult to read the road and spot potholes and bumps. When you park always give the leaves a quick kick to check you’re not accidentally on double yellow lines. Also, make sure your windscreen is leaf-free especially the gully where the windscreen meets the bonnet to avoid blockage and remove all fallen leaves from your car to prevent staining and paintwork damage as they decompose. Darker autumn mornings and early evenings will make it harder to spot this sodden hazard. The best advice is to treat leaves with caution and be ready to slow down as you drive through them, especially on bends as you need to be certain what you are driving on.

Be mindful, don’t idle

You could be waiting in your car to pick up a friend or collect children from school and as it’s just for ‘a short while’ be tempted to leave your engine running. According to a study by Renault, a surprising 60 per cent of drivers are unaware that it is illegal to leave your car’s engine idling while you wait, even for a few minutes. Rule 123 of the Highway Code clearly states ‘You must not leave a vehicle’s engine running unnecessarily while that vehicle is stationary on a public road.’ By doing so, and ignoring the detrimental impact this has on emissions, you can receive a fixed penalty of between £20-80. You may want to keep your motor running simply for convenience, for example, if parking is difficult or to keep your heating or air-con on, but by leaving your engine idling for just 10 seconds, you waste more fuel than restarting it. Renault’s study also claims that every minute a car is idling it produces enough emissions to fill 150 balloons. The best advice for all new drivers is be mindful, and steer clear of the idling habit.

Time to go Dutch

Car dooring is a problem which shouldn’t really exist. A quick check before you exit your car should stop you accidentally opening your door on to a passing cyclist, motorcyclist or even pedestrian. If you’re not already familiar with the Dutch Reach, it’s a safety technique designed to quickly become a good habit. It simply involves using the hand furthest from the car door to open it – the left hand if you’re the driver, and the right if you’re a passenger. In doing so, you automatically turn your body, forcing your head to look directly to the side and towards the rear of your vehicle, eliminating the blind spot and giving you full visibility of the immediate area and any cyclist. By using the opposite hand, you’re also less likely to swing the door open widely, further reducing the risk. By adopting this habit, it also means that if you’re in a rush or distracted by conversation, for example, you don’t have to actively remember to check as you’ll automatically be opening your door safely. This useful technique has been Dutch common sense since the 1960s, and today new drivers in the Netherlands are taught the movement as part of the driving test. If you need a further cue, attach a ribbon, sticker or even rubber band near your door handle to remind you.

Reasons to reverse park

The next time you’re in a car park, ask yourself the question do you drive into your parking space forwards and reverse out, or reverse in and drive straight out? There’s no doubt it’s easier and more convenient to drive in forwards, especially if you are loading shopping into the boot, but there are good reasons to reverse park instead. It does demand a greater measure of skill, but it’s safer to reverse into the relative shelter of a parking space than to reverse out into the hazard that a line of moving traffic presents. Again, your view is more restricted through the rear windows if you reverse out, compared to your front windscreen and side windows. Most drivers find it easier to control a car going forwards than backwards, even with modern parking assist systems, and by exiting a parking space driving forwards you have better acceleration, improved vision and avoid a potentially high risk reversing manoeuvre. Furthermore, if anything happens to your engine, such as a flat battery, you have easier access to the bonnet if you reverse park. In an emergency, it’s also quicker to drive straight out. The next time you park, make a point of reversing into that space. It’s worth noting that an increasing number of companies have a mandatory ‘Reverse Park Only’ policy in their car parks to comply with health and safety at work. Another reason to get the reversing habit.

Why leave your car in gear?

Hill parking by Lyle Hastie
It’s a cautionary tale for every driver: leaving your car parked on a slope only to return and find it has rolled away. And, the road doesn’t need to be especially steep for this to happen, a slight incline is sufficient. In the first instance, when you park on a slope your handbrake should be firmly applied to prevent any rolling, but it makes good sense to have backup. This is where your gears come into play. Leaving your car in gear acts as a failsafe, preventing it from moving if your handbrake doesn’t work for some reason. For peace of mind, once you’ve applied your handbrake, select a gear. If you are facing uphill select first gear to prevent your car rolling backwards and turn your steering wheel away from the kerb. Do this so that if your car does roll, the wheels hit the kerb and the car stops. Conversely, if the front of your car is pointing downhill, select reverse gear to stop it rolling forward and turn your wheel towards the kerb. By putting your car in gear, the engine prevents the wheels from rolling as it counteracts the effects of gravity. If you’re driving an automatic make sure it’s in ‘park’. Get into the habit of leaving your car in gear when you park, even on the flat, so you’re likely to remember when it really counts. Just be sure to check your car is in neutral when you start the engine. As this should be part of your cockpit drill each time you drive, this should come naturally.

Thunder and lightning

Generally, driving during a thunderstorm is not a good idea. Thunderstorms can bring a risk of sudden gusty winds and heavy rain, making driving more hazardous with possible flooded or muddy roads and debris. However, if you are caught out in thunder and lightning, the Met Office advises that you wind up the windows and stay inside your car. If in doubt, pull off to the side of the road in a safe manner, turn on your hazard lights, switch off the engine and wait out the storm with your hands in your lap to avoid touching any metal objects in the car. Many drivers believe they are safe in the car due to their rubber tyres, however this is not the case. You’re safe in a car because the lightning will travel around the surface of your vehicle and pass to the ground. Most cars are made with a metal roof and frame (with the exception of convertibles and fibreglass cars), allowing the frame to act as a conductive Faraday cage. The concept was discovered in 1836 by Michael Faraday, a British physicist who found that a metal cage being a good conductor, effectively shields objects inside it from external electric fields, such as lightning, allowing the current to travel around the outside of your car then exiting to the ground.

Reasons to shine bright

The more you drive, the more you are likely to notice a number of cars with only one headlight working. This is an offence and dangerous in two ways. Firstly, you can’t see properly in an unlit road with only half the usual light available, and secondly, other road users will have difficulty spotting you and identifying what it is you’re driving, especially in dark and wintery conditions. In a rear mirror, your ‘one eyed monster’ could be mistaken for a motorbike. And at an urban ‘pinch point’, where you are trying to negotiate parked vehicles, it will be difficult to gauge the width of an oncoming car with one headlight not working, increasing the possibility of a low speed scrape. If you are pulled over by the police for a faulty headlight, you are likely to receive a £100 fine and three points on your licence. Defective headlights are not the only issue, lights not functioning at the back of your car also present a hazard. A brake light not working makes a rear-end shunt more likely as the driver behind takes longer to realise that you’re stopping or slowing down. Usually, you don’t know when a light has gone so frequent checking is essential. To do so, switch your headlights on when it’s dark and face your car towards a wall, or if you’re in slow moving traffic study your reflection off the car in front. Alternatively, just walk around your vehicle regularly to make sure all lights are bright and working, and to double-check your rear lights, ask someone to watch as you test them.

Legal and illegal speeding

The only drivers exempt from speed limits are those driving vehicles used by the fire brigade, ambulance and police while responding to an emergency. For everyone else, speed limits are a maximum, not a target. For this reason, it’s important to understand the difference between legal and illegal speeding. Illegal speeding is when you drive above the posted limit, while legal speeding is driving at a speed, within the legal limit, but too fast for the road conditions. For example, many rural roads have a national speed limit of 60 mph but frequently a safe speed could be as low as 40mph or even 20mph, especially with bends, overgrown verges and concealed entrances. Legal speeding may be within the law, but can easily be unsafe and dangerous. As you gain experience, you will recognise what a safe speed is. Drivers involved in an incident often say, ‘But I wasn’t speeding’, meaning ‘I wasn’t exceeding the posted speed limit.’ However, it’s clear they were speeding in the sense of driving too fast for the road, traffic or weather conditions. Choosing a safe speed is your responsibility, you cannot delegate it to a speed limit.