When it comes to driving safely, there are really only two basic approaches you can take as an individual: one is to use safer vehicles (e.g., driving safer cars with side airbags, ESC, and winter tires in cold weather), and the other is to drive more safely (e.g., by following the speed limit or avoiding rural roads). Or as I’ve put it elsewhere, you can either avoid driving entirely, drive as little as possible, or drive the safest vehicles you can justify. It’s really that simple. But let’s go into the details, because it’s never that simple.
I talk a lot about safe vehicle choices because for most people, choosing a safer vehicle is easier than adjusting driving habits. However, it’s important to note that you can get the same safety benefits from changing how you interact with the roadway and your vehicle as you do from the vehicle you choose. In fact, you’ve probably heard it before, but the most important driver safety feature is the part between your ears. Now this doesn’t mean that you should go off and ride a motorcycle or drive a car made in the 80s (or older) as long as you do so carefully; I always advocate at least a few basic safety features no matter how careful you are as a driver (e.g., Safety Level 1, or ideally Safety Level 2). However, once you’ve got a reasonably safe vehicle, it’s worth taking a long look at how and why you drive, as the more behavioral changes you can put into place, the safer you and your loved ones will be whenever you get into a vehicle.
What’s most important from my end as a driver?
Looking at the 80 / 20 rule, there are a few big changes you can make as a driver that make the lion’s share of a difference in your safety as a driver and in the safety of your passengers. Driving sober (i.e., without a drop of alcohol or other drugs in your body), driving restrained (and making sure every other occupant is also restrained), driving without a cell phone (not even the hands-free kind), and driving at or below the speed limit 100% of the time will automatically make you a safer driver than 99% of other drivers on the road, because 99% of other drivers on the road break at least one of those rules every single time they drive. You’ll be a safer driver than nearly everyone else on the road because speeding, alcohol or drugs, distracted driving, or a lack of seat belt use are implicated in nearly every fatal crash on our roadways. If you aren’t doing any of these things, you’re far ahead of the game.
But what about everyone else on the road?
Now, you can’t control what other drivers are doing, and given the information above, it doesn’t sound like they’re doing good things at all. But you can control what you’re doing in your car and how safely you’re driving. And that goes much, much farther than you might think. In fact, a full 50% of fatal crashes occur due to drivers leaving the roadway and crashing completely by themselves without any other vehicles involved. What does this mean for a careful driver?
It means that if you can follow the instructions above, along with a few others (e.g., using winter tires whenever temperatures are under 40 degrees), your chances of being involved in a single vehicle crash drop to almost zero. I won’t tell you that you’re guaranteed not to crash, because that’s not a guarantee any human can make. But I can tell you that your odds of being involved in a fatal crash by driving off the road or into a tree or telephone pole or house or cement barrier or off a bridge will be effectively zero, because it’s very hard to kill yourself while driving if you’re alert, attentive, sober, buckled in, and following the speed limit every single time you drive.
What about animals in the road, or medical conditions, or falling trees, or…?
It’s true that there are always random and tragic deaths that affect people each year while driving, even in single vehicle crash situations. I once profiled a case where an unfortunate lady was killed by a loose trailer tire from a passing vehicle in a different lane that happened to bounce her way and crashed through her windshield. The only way such a death could have been prevented (besides by the driver not being in that precise and unfortunate location at that instant) would have been by the trailer tire having been affixed more securely to its axle. However, statistically, these kinds of events are quite rare, and while it’s impossible to insure against every possibility, the steps above do still come into play for reducing your risks of death while driving in a wide range of situations.
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