While we wait for autonomous cars, here are 6 ways to be a better human driver

washington dc trafficAP/Jacquelyn Martin, File

There's a pretty good chance we'll have cars that can drive themselves in our lifetimes.

But given the regulatory hurdles, it's unlikely autonomous vehicles will be available to the masses anytime soon. So in the interim, we humans will have to continue to drive ourselves.

Cars are much safer than they used to be, but almost 40,000 people die every year in auto-related incidents in the US alone. You don't want to join that grim statistic, so your best bet, if you do drive, is to get better at it.

Here are six tips:

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6. Know when to hang up your spurs — or put them on less often.

6. Know when to hang up your spurs — or put them on less often.

We are born, we learn to crawl, then we learn to walk, then we learn to drive and the whole walking thing goes away until we drop.

Unfortunately, most drivers think that they'll remain good drivers until death doth part them from the steering wheel. And while older drivers are often better drivers, due to experience and an aversion to risk, they do witness their skills degrade.

The key is to recognize this before it's an issue and reduce time spent driving. You don't have to quit, but going back to walking for short excursions is both healthier and safer.

You'll know when your abilities are weakening because that critical situational awareness we discussed earlier will decline. If you can't manage all that dynamic decision-making space around your car, you should consider dialing back.

5. Know the rules of the road.

5. Know the rules of the road.

The problem with the driver's manuals for most states is that they get studied exactly once in a lifetime — when a 15 or 16 year old is preparing to get a learner's permit.

While most rules of the road are don't change much, they are updated from time to time. And anyway, a periodic refresher is useful. Most state DMVs have online prep courses for new driver. Every year or so, take the test. See how you do. You might need to update your knowledge.

For example, it's almost universally true that pedestrians always have the right of way. You might think that kid with the headphones meandering into the intersection against the light is at fault, and technically, he is violating regulations. But you're the one with the machine weighing several thousands pounds that can end that kid's life in an instant. So YIELD!

4. Develop situational awareness.

4. Develop situational awareness.

You aren't actually driving a car when you drive — you're managing a zone of decision making in multiple dimensions.

Think of your car not just as its immediate physical existence but as a zone that extends out for roughly two cars in all directions. Constantly gather information on this region and plan your decisions accordingly.

For example, is there a motorcycle within two car length of your vehicle in any direction? If so, be constantly aware of where that guy on the bike is. Motorcycle-car collisions are almost always catastrophic for the motorcyclist.

3. Wash your car.

3. Wash your car.

What does keeping your car clean have to do with driving it well?


If you take care of your ride, you're likely to look forward to being in it — to enjoy the process of walking up to it in all its shiny clean-ness, to enjoy buckling into its tidy confines. If you treat it like a rolling garbage can, then it's going to activate some anxieties.

Get it washed and vacuumed once a month!

2. Practice driving.

2. Practice driving.

Most people have come to view their vehicle as a sort of information-enabled transportation appliance. A few enthusiasts value driving for its own sake, but they're in the minority.

You don't have to become an enthusiast or a buy a red Porsche to up your game, however. My advice is to spend 30 minutes per week taking a drive and demanding that you pay close attention to what you're doing.

Are you smoothly accelerating? Are you keeping your eyes moving? Are you paying attention to the speed of the engine and the shifts of the transmission? Can you feel the suspension reacting to turns? What does the steering feel like? Is your braking clean and efficient?

These are all techniques that you would learn and practice at a professional driving school. So when you're out running weekend errands, extend your journey by a few minutes and refresh your skills.

1. Turn off the phone — or hide it.

1. Turn off the phone — or hide it.

Apple's new Do Not Disturb function specifically designed to isolate you from your iPhone in a car is welcome, but as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't go far enough. Texting while driving gets all the negative attention, and rightly so because it is so dangerous.

But really anything that distracts a driver from the very cognitively and physically demanding act of driving is a menace. When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, we were warned about fiddling with an AM/FM car radio while driving. True, we were warned by people who could drive with one hand while extracting a Marlboro from the pack and lighting it with the other, but the point remained.

A smartphone is the car radio exponentially intensified. In a lot of new cars, the smartphone is competing with various infotainment systems, and if you have a CarPlay or Android Auto enabled vehicle, your phone is embedded in the infotainment system. At the extreme, you have Tesla's massive central touchscreen, which actually allows for web browsing on the go.

You really just have to make a sacrifice for safety. Over the last three years, dealing with the state of the art for infotainment, I've come to the conclusion that you have two options. Number one is turn the phone off. Just do it.

Number two is keep the phone off, pair it with the infotainment system, and stow it in a compartment in the vehicle. Do not take it out. Ever. You won't miss any calls, but you won't be interacting with the most distracting technology ever developed by humans.

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