Thanksgiving Break: Driving Home from College? Safety First!

thanksgiving break driving home from collegeBy Ross A. Kennedy

In college, the Thanksgiving holiday means stressful exams, eating too much, and hearing your Aunt Jean (after imbibing a bit too much) tell your new girlfriend how chubby you were as a baby. But your greatest risk over the break isn’t choking on a turkey bone, or the verbal floggings you’ll receive when your parents hear you’ve failed physics 101, it’s the drive home.

In 1996, I was a distracted driver who ended up putting my brother into a 10-day coma and forever changing the lives of a half dozen family members and passersby. Now, nearly 17 years later, I realize the simple changes that could have given us all a new and better path forward.

According to the National Safety Council, car crashes are the leading cause of fatalities and long-term injury to young drivers aged 17 to 24. There were more than 19,000 fatal crashes by young adults in the last four years in the U.S. More staggering is the fact that young drivers are 2.5 times more likely to injure or kill their passenger(s) than virtually any other demographic. But why is this group more prone to collision? 

Primary Causes of Accidents by Young Drivers

Although you’d be right to assume that texting while driving is the leading cause of accidents among college students, you might be surprised to learn that nearly 57 percent of all driving collisions are caused by three basic failures when it comes to defensive driving strategies.

In a 2011 report by the AAA Auto Group, driving while distracted (inattention), driving at speeds in excess of what the conditions allowed for, and failure to comply with basic road rules (such as yielding the right-of-way) caused the majority of teen and young-person accidents — which numbered more than 300,000 in 2010 alone.

How Distracted Are You When Driving?

Most drivers, regardless of age or experience, often have a distorted sense of their abilities behind the wheel. We sadly overestimate our abilities and underestimate road dangers. As Jason Fried points out in his groundbreaking book Rework, “humans are just plain bad at estimating. . .” and driving is no exception. So to give yourself a better sense of your abilities behind the wheel, we invite you to try three basic experiments for yourself.

Experiment One: A driver’s attention to the road can be measured by how often one or (frighteningly enough) both hands leave the steering wheel. From texting to adjusting the radio, the temptation to perform other tasks while driving is powerful. To see how susceptible you are to this behavior, try holding a $1 bill between the palm of your hand and the steering wheel. (Note: I’d say a $10 or a $20, but let’s be honest, you won’t have one of those again until you’re home with the folks during the holidays). If you make it to your destination without dropping the bill, congratulations, you may not be a complete danger to yourself and others. Not entirely anyway.

texting while drivingExperiment Two: Understanding your surroundings is a key function to defensive driving. Your space cushion — the distance between your vehicle and other vehicles in every direction — greatly determines your ability to avoid unforeseen incidents.

In a recent experiment of unsuspecting college students, Defensive Driving Online For Dummies, an online driver safety course provider, marked each student’s rearview mirror with a unique number. After taking a short drive together, the drivers were asked whether they had noticed the digits marked on their mirrors and if so, could they recite them. An astonishing 75 percent of the students were completely unaware that their mirrors had been marked. For more than 8 miles each, those young drivers had failed to use their mirrors even once.

To see how limited your rearview mirror use is, try angling the mirror away from you the next time you finish driving somewhere. If you find yourself well into your next drive before you realize it’s not positioned correctly, you could definitely practice greater mirror use to improve your safe driving habits.

Experiment Three: Texting is a lot like any bad habit, such as smoking. It becomes an auto-response. A reflex of sorts. Given a moment of silence, most Americans reach for a device to help fill in the quiet gaps. Try putting all devices with an on/off switch out of reach from the driver’s seat. Whether it’s a phone, an iPad, or an Easy-Bake Oven, they all offer momentary distractions from the road. If you find yourself aimlessly groping into the backseat to find said devices, do not pass go, do not collect $200 — you have at least one unsafe driving habit, and it’s a doozie.

Strategies for Safe Driving

Okay, sure, reading about defensive driving is about as painful as waiting for Grandma to finish her plate of food so that it’s socially acceptable to go get dessert. (Seriously, how can anyone eat that slowly?) But staying alive is important! So, before you hop behind the wheel in a craze to make it home for your annual debate with your father on how you plan to make a career out of a Liberal Arts degree, consider these defensive driving strategies.

Relearn the Rules

Most new drivers forget the basic rules of the road before the laminate on their license hardens. Defensive driving online courses offer a self-paced way for you to renew your understanding of the road. Is taking defensive driving fun? No. But they can, and do, make a difference.

Prepare the Driver’s Side

A common trait among the planet’s most successful entrepreneurs, athletes, and leaders is preparedness. The same is true for great drivers. By clearing the driver’s side of all the usual distractions and setting up your mirrors, music, and seat ahead of time, you can avoid making costly mistakes while the vehicle is moving.

Drive in the Right Conditions

Night glare, ice, and unfamiliar streets account for a considerable chunk of driver-related errors on the road. While older drivers frequently find themselves saying, “I’d rather not drive at night,” many younger drivers are less averse to the dark. By simply thinking of the commute conditions ahead of time, drivers are better able to set a plan that keeps them safe.

Photos: dnigh mrJasonWeaver


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