Driving Tips

I spend a good deal of my time on the road, driving on all types of roads, all kinds of situations, all kinds of vehicles, and all kinds of weather. I always have. It’s just the nature of how my life has been. From 1985-1989 I worked for Domino’s Pizza in Nebraska and Wyoming, and I during that time I logged close to half a million miles in every kind of weather and completely wore out three perfectly good vehicles. I was young then, young enough to get myself into and out of situations, and old enough to learn not to get back into them. The nail in the coffin for that “career” was the only accident I’ve ever been in, where I parked a Dodge pickup on the hood of a pretty new Z-28 Camaro, courtesy of a guy who was so drunk he didn’t even know I was there.

The nature of my military career put me thousands of miles from family, who happened to be on every corner of the United States, so I was always driving somewhere, always learning something whether I liked it or not. When I was stationed in Wyoming, we had to drive 120 miles each way to the missile site every three days whether we like it or not (and usually didn’t). The missile sites are all in remote locations, way down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, for good reason. However driving military vehicles down those dirt roads in the middle of a Wyoming winter is nothing to sneeze at. There were lots of incidents and accidents during my four years in the missile field, and we got a true taste of how Interstate 80 in western Nebraska can put people to sleep and make them play bumper cars with other sleeping people, almost always with devastating results.

So yes, I feel somewhat qualified to give you all a little advice that might save someone’s life, or at least make their day a little better. If nothing else, maybe this will plant a seed that will grow into a few better habits here and there. Most of this ISN’T the buloney you’ll hear in driving school:

Driving a vehicle in bad weather is a matter of management. You have to remember you’re in charge, but you also have to remember that driving a vehicle is a lot like riding a horse: Sometimes the vehicle has a mind of its own and you need to know how to deal with that BEFORE it becomes a problem. Essentially you have to take charge, but don’t overdo it. Use your sense of balance to guide you down an icy road. SHUT THE RADIO OFF and LISTEN to your vehicle and the sound the road makes. It will tell you when you need to make adjustments, what’s going right, and what’s about to go wrong. DON’T PANIC!! I know a woman who has put more vehicles in a ditch than most people have owned, and it’s because she panics when things get iffy. Get a feel for what direction your tires are pointing at various steering wheel positions BEFORE you get on the road. Empty parking lots are great for this, because you can slide around a little before you go out and get yourself killed (make sure they’re big and empty, and stay away from the light poles). Then…don’t over correct. If your rear tires try to pass you, just point the front tires where you want to go. Really it doesn’t matter where the rear tires want to go…it’s the front tires that are in charge. People hit the center wall on the freeway because they slip to the right a little, then overcorrect and Kaboom!! I once slid a little Dodge truck sideways down an icy Interstate 80 in Wyoming for 25 miles because the wind was blowing 70 miles an hour and the truck wanted to be in the ditch. I just kept the front wheels pointed where I wanted to go, and everything was fine. You can do this too…with a little know-how and experience!

A vehicle, regardless of its size, has a series of blind spots, mostly behind the driver’s seat, and mostly to the right side. Change the size and configuration of the vehicle and the problem only gets worse. Those of you who think it’s a good idea to ride along beside another vehicle on the freeway are sadly mistaken, and probably not paying attention. While my truck is only slightly bigger than a pickup, I really can’t see people riding along beside me until I’m pretty much on top of them. For a semi-truck driver, this problem is even bigger, about 53 feet bigger to be exact. Do yourself a favor and leave plenty of wiggle room between yourself and other vehicles…and make yourself visible to them.

Trucks have these great signs on the back that say “If you can’t see my mirrors I can’t see you.” That’s good information to have, but it’s a little misleading. It implies that if you CAN see their mirrors then they CAN see you, which is only about 10% true. Mirrors are essentially a tunnel that looks in the direction you aim it. If another vehicle isn’t in that tunnel then it sucks to be them. Spot mirrors are great and help a lot, but it’s still real easy for a little car to disappear next to a truck. You’re better off staying behind a truck, or get past them and stay out of their way.

Way back in the old days, in order to be authorized to ride a motorcycle on military bases, you had to take a motorcycle riders’ course that was endorsed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. In all my years of riding motorcycles, I’ve been lucky enough not to be in life threatening situation, mostly because I made myself visible to other drivers. I always drove with my headlights on, left plenty of space, and made sure people can see me. I apply those same rules even in bigger vehicles.

Get your priorities straight! People just don’t pay attention nowadays, even though they’re driving the deadliest weapon known to man. They somehow think that some other portion of their life is more important than paying attention to all the other people thinking the exact same thing. If you drive down I-96 at any time of day, and pay attention to other drivers and what they’re doing, you’ll scare yourself to death! One time a year or so ago, I took a count of people who at least looked like they might be paying 100% attention to the road over a 50 mile drive to Detroit. Of the hundreds of cars I passed, I think I counted eleven. That’s less than 10% who even seemed to care at least a little bit. So, put down your cell phone, coffee, donut, and makeup brush. All that stuff can be done later. Is putting your makeup on REALLY worth your life?

Snowplows: Yes, I plow snow in the winter too. I’ve plowed roads, parking lots, and driveways. It always amazes me when I’m plowing an empty parking lot with a flashing light on top of the truck, and somebody will drive all the way across that empty lot to suddenly be surprised and honk their horn at me. If they were paying attention and thinking they’d realize I’m working, driving a vehicle with no visibility, and trying to make their life just a little safer…so it’d be a good idea for them to give me plenty of room to make that happen. If you want to get me going at 3 AM, drive right in front of me and honk your horn. If you’re driving along and see a snowplow, let that light above your head come on and leave him a lot of room. You might save yourself a lot of grief later.

Get educated, get some experience. Probably the most dangerous person on the road is a person who just doesn’t know (or care) how to drive under the conditions they’re in, and is intimidated by them. If you’re afraid of freeways, learn how to drive on them BEFORE you get on the freeway. If you’re afraid of driving in the rain at night, stay home! If you don’t know how to drive in the snow, ride with somebody that does.

Now here’s something that might sound a little harsh, but needs to be said: If your wife doesn’t know to drive in the snow, DON’T buy her a Jeep! Investing $40,000 in four wheel drive isn’t going to fix her lack of knowledge or experience. It’ll just make her hit those other vehicles a little harder, go rolling down the freeway a little further, and probably end up killing somebody. If you want to save your wife’s life, get her some real lessons on driving in bad weather, the kind that come with hands-on training. If you have the same problem as your wife, maybe you should join her.

If you’re towing a trailer, learn how to load it. I see a ton of people weaving down the road pulling trailers that are loaded wrong. Too much tongue weight is as a bad as too little. You have to balance your trailer properly or it will kill you.

Be nice! If you want a peaceful ride, don’t drive on any freeway in Southeast Michigan. A great number of people on these roads are rude, angry, and dumb. If you want a peaceful ride, get on the Ohio Turnpike or Interstate 76 across eastern Colorado. The difference will shock you. There’s an air of driving protocol and courtesy that you just won’t find here, and yet the Ohio Turnpike is only a few miles away. I’d be very happy to see that environment come to Michigan.

I wish you all a very safe trip wherever you’re going. Have a great week!