Driving Techniques to Avoid the Hazards of the Open Road

While preparing to pass your driver's license test, you'll learn about all the hazards drivers face. Once you get your license, though, you'll encounter these challenges in person and will have to make decisions in real-time.

Fortunately, there are tips and driving techniques you can learn to master the most common hazards. 

The following glossary discusses some of the most common hazards you'll encounter on the road and the driving techniques you can use to stay safe — even in potentially dangerous situations.

Getting Ready to Drive: Some Basic Tasks

Before you hit the road, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Always be aware of your surroundings before getting in the car. Check for potential obstacles, like a bicycle on the ground behind your car. Be alert for pets, children, nearby pedestrians, and any unusual traffic conditions. You want to note approaching traffic that may enter the blind spot on either side of your vehicle once you start driving. 

  2. Make sure your windshield is clean and clear. Remove snow and ice thoroughly with a scraper — don't forget to check the side mirrors — and dust off the roof so that snow doesn't fall on the windshield while you're driving.  

  3. Adjust your seat and headrest if necessary, then adjust both your rearview and side-view mirrors to maximize visibility. 

  4. Before starting the ignition, check to see that your passengers are secure, especially if you are transporting young children. 

Tips on Making Turns

Making turns can be scary when you're just starting out, so keep these tricks in mind to make the experience easier.

  • When about to turn, use your signal even when your destination seems obvious. Begin signaling the moment your turn is near when exiting a roadway. If switching lanes on a freeway, signal to make other drivers aware of your intention.

  • Slow down as the turn approaches. This is true both when exiting a roadway and when negotiating a sharp turn on the highway. Do not wait, then brake suddenly. That could be quite dangerous. 

  • Move into the correct turning lane before you near an intersection. If you must change lanes at the last minute, signal and check for traffic before moving. 

  • When making a right turn at an intersection, make sure there are no bikes or pedestrians about to cross the street. Never turn without stopping first unless you have a green arrow and are moving with the flow of traffic.

One-Hand Steering

When you're cruising along the open road, it might be tempting to eat food, check your phone, check the map (if you're an old-school driver), or make changes on your dash. But when you steer with one hand — especially when distracted — you have less control over the vehicle.

The only time it is okay to drive with one hand is when you are shifting gears or making quick dashboard adjustments. You also may need to take one hand off the wheel when you look over your shoulder to back up. All other times, you should have both hands on the wheel, preferably at the 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock position.

Entering a Freeway and Merging into Traffic

One of the rookie mistakes people make when entering a freeway is not accelerating enough on the entrance ramp.

The truth is, you are much safer if you accelerate to meet the approximate speed of drivers traveling in the right-hand lane. For one thing, you can avoid a rear-end collision with an impatient driver behind you on the ramp. That said, don't go over the ramp speed limit until you're ready to merge.

As you approach the end of the ramp, check your left-hand mirror for a gap in traffic and put on your turn signal. Only stop if traffic conditions leave you no other option. You can slow down a bit — take your foot off the accelerator without braking — in order to wait for a gap while you're in the merging lane. As soon as a gap appears, move into the right-hand lane.

Keep in mind, on-ramps aren't always level. They can sometimes go uphill or downhill depending on where you enter. One final tip: always check to make sure there are no "Do Not Enter" or "Wrong Way" signs — if you see these, stop and turn around right away once it is safe.

Freeway Emergencies

When you're driving on the highway, always be alert for unexpected circumstances, such as objects on the road and traffic coming to a sudden standstill ahead. If you see hazards on the road ahead, flash your brake lights and headlights to warn the vehicles behind you.

Do not tailgate trucks. Not only will you be in their blind spot, but also, their tires can shed rocks and gravel that may crack your windshield. Be especially wary of trucks with a loaded cargo bed. If an object falls from a truck right in front of you, you may not have time to stop or get out of the way.

If your car breaks down on the freeway, don't panic. Instead, follow these guidelines:

  • Use your brake lights and turn indicators to warn others.

  • Pull your vehicle to the shoulder — off the roadway is even better, if possible. Do not use the shoulder next to the center divider unless necessary.

  • Use your hazard lights when parked on the shoulder to warn approaching traffic.

  • Call for help and have your vehicle towed off the freeway as soon as possible.

Driving Safely in Heavy Traffic

In congested or gridlocked traffic, two things are important: 

  1. You need to maintain a safe distance between your car and the car in front of you. Remain alert to the probability that impatient drivers will cut into that space until the flow of traffic speeds up, and be prepared to adjust your speed accordingly. 

  2. You should resist the impulse to check your phone, even when traffic is at a standstill. It's against the law in nearly every state to use a handheld device while driving, for one thing, and it leaves you far more vulnerable to a rear-end collision.

Passing Lanes and Oncoming Vehicles

Some highways restrict drivers from cruising in the left lane of a four-lane highway unless they are passing, while others have laws that forbid slower-moving drivers from using the left lane at all. If you are caught driving under the posted speed limit in one of those states, you could face a steep fine. 

When a vehicle passes you — especially if they are passing on a two-lane highway — the best thing you can do is take your foot off the accelerator so that they have ample time to get around you. Remember: it's hard to judge the speed of an oncoming car from more than a third of a mile away. Speeding up when someone is passing on the left can cause a deadly collision.

You also want to move the right when a car passes you to avoid being unsettled by the wind turbulence created when a car moves alongside you at a high speed. This turbulence may pull you toward the car and could, potentially, cause a collision. 

Sharing the Road with Bicyclists

Although they are bound by the same rules of the road as motorists, cyclists are far more vulnerable, and a collision with them can be deadly. For that reason, states like California have legislation mandating that cars give bikes at least three feet of space when they pass. Motorists must also yield to bikes when they make a righthand turn at an intersection. If your state doesn't have similar laws, it's a good idea to adopt these safety measures regardless. 

In particular, it's important to realize that bikes can enter a vehicle's blind spot when they come up on the righthand side of a car as it approaches the intersection. Always use your signal so that any approaching cyclists know you are going to make a turn, and never turn without first double-checking to see if a bike is there.

Special Hazards of Highway Driving

If you're driving long distances at high speeds, you may experience either one of the following phenomena: velocitation or "highway hypnosis." 

Velocitation occurs when you adjust to a high rate of speed over time. The danger comes when you exit the freeway. It will be a lot more difficult to adjust to lower speed limits, so this is something you need to be aware of.

"Highway hypnosis" occurs mainly on rural roads where there are few challenges or distractions. You may start to feel almost drugged and very tired. To avoid falling asleep at the wheel, stop frequently to catnap in the car or, better still, get out and take a brisk short walk. 

Driving Techniques for Rural Areas

  • Livestock. The livestock you'll encounter will be herd animals. If they are crossing the road, stop at a safe distance. Instinct tells them to stay with the herd and avoid you. If you get too close, you may cause them to behave erratically. For the same reason, do not exit your car to take pictures.

  • Corduroy roads. Technically speaking, a corduroy road is a series of logs placed over a wet area. The logs provide traction and allow logging vehicles to pass. In many places, gravel roads are designed in a similar way, with grooved striping. These roads are unpleasant to navigate at slow speeds; you feel every bump. The best way to travel on a gravel road with striping is to go the designated speed limit. You will have a much smoother ride. 

  • Dirt and unstriped gravel roads. Unpaved rural roads may not be regularly maintained. They are subject to washouts, potholes, and rocks. Drive slowly, avoid traveling after dark and pay close attention to the road ahead. Hills and sharp turns can be especially hazardous because of low visibility. Stay as close to the right as you can in case a car is approaching.

  • Wild animals. Many wild animals travel in groups, so be aware that a straggler could suddenly rush out of the woods to follow the others. This is especially true of deer. Moose and bison are two potentially dangerous animals because they could actually charge your car. Keep a wide berth and do not slow down to look at them if they are near the road.

The Road Can Be Tricky. DriversEd.com Helps Keep You Safe

Whether you are getting your driver's license for the first time, or you need to attend traffic school, DriversEd.com has you covered. We offer state-approved online driver's ed courses, learner's permit study guides, in-person driving instruction, and defensive driving courses. It's our goal to keep you safe out there.

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