Driving a car becomes so automatic after a while, it's easy to let safety fall through the cracks. But even if you've never been in an accident before, you shouldn't lull yourself into a false sense of security, failing to perform basic safety precautions that could save your own life, or those of your passengers, in a collision. These car safety tips can reduce your risk of getting into an accident and help you manage small emergencies like a flat tire.
1. Wear your seat belt properly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 15,000 lives are saved every year because drivers and passengers are wearing seat belts when they get into an accident. Seat belts keep the vehicle's occupants inside the car during a collision, restrain the strongest parts of the body, spread out force from the collision, protect the brain and spinal cord and help the body slow down after impact, reducing injuries.
In order for a seat belt to be effective, however, it must be worn properly. Ensure that the shoulder belt rests across your chest and shoulders — never across your neck. Don't place the seat belt under your arms or behind your back. The lap belt should fit snugly over the hips. Seat belt extenders can be purchased for larger-sized drivers and passengers that maintain safety while increasing comfort.
2. Ensure that car seats and boosters are properly installed. Children and babies need special protection in the car to prevent serious injuries and fatalities in an auto collision. The NHTSA recommends that children be securely buckled into a car seat that is appropriate for the child's age, height and weight. From birth to 12 months, babies should always ride in a rear-facing car seat; children aged 1-3 years should remain rear-facing until they reach the top height or weight limit allowed by car seat manufacturers. From ages 4-7 years, children should be strapped into a forward-facing car seat with a harness until they outgrow it, and then move up to a booster seat until they are grown enough to safely use an adult seat belt. Keep children in the backseat at least through age 12.
Always refer to the car seat manufacturer's instructions to install a car seat, or better yet, have it properly installed at your local fire station. You can find additional child car seat inspection stations at the NHTSA website.
3. Never text while driving. How dangerous is it to be distracted by the act of composing, sending or reading text messages while behind the wheel? Car and Driver magazine conducted a test that evaluated drivers' reaction times to brake lights while attempting to text on their cell phones, and compared them to those of driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent, the legal driving limit. Driving 70 miles per hour in a straight line, it took an unimpaired driver .54 seconds to brake while a legally drunk driver needed an additional four feet. But when the driver was sending a text, an additional 70 feet were needed to come to a stop. Another study found that texting while driving was the likely cause of more than 16,000 road fatalities between 2002 and 2007.
4. Don't try to multitask - put down the food, makeup and other distractions while driving. While text messages have a dramatic effect on a driver's ability to stay safe on the road, other distractions take their toll as well. Talking on a cell phone, eating, use of in-vehicle technologies like navigation systems and other visual, manual and cognitive distractions take the driver's eyes, hands and attention from the task of driving. Try to perform activities like setting your vehicle's route, selecting music and making cell phone calls before you begin to drive, and pull over to handle distractions like fights between children.
5. Be aware of pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. Roads aren't just for four-wheeled motor vehicles; even in remote rural areas, there may be pedestrians and bicyclists that aren't visible to drivers until they get too close. Always maintain safe speeds and take extra caution when going around blind curves or over hills. Be watchful for pedestrians crossing the road at intersections, especially when turning right, and give cyclists at least half a car's width when passing.
Because motorcycles don't have seat belts, it's all too easy for motorcycle drivers and passengers to be severely injured or killed in a crash. Motorcycle drivers should avoid the blind spots of trucks and be extra cautious of other vehicles on the road. Of course, helmets are a necessity for motorcycle drivers and passengers. Drivers of other vehicles should never pass a motorcycle too close, as a blast of air from the car can cause a motorcycle to lose stability.
6. Pack a climate-appropriate emergency kit. Roadside emergencies can happen at any time, and drivers should be prepared with supplies that can aid in getting help, making minor repairs and signaling your vehicle's presence to other drivers. Consumer Reports recommends a basic kit containing a cell phone, first-aid kit, fire extinguisher, hazard triangle, tire gauge, jack and lug wrench, foam tire sealant or plug kit, spare fuses, jumper cables, flashlight, gloves, rags, pen and paper, disposable flash camera, $20 in small bills and change and an auto-club or roadside assistance card.
You may also want to consider extra clothing, water and nonperishable emergency food. In cold, snowy conditions, a windshield scraper, tire chains and tow strap, blanket, chemical hand warmers, small folding shovel and a bag of cat litter (for traction on slick surfaces) can come in handy. You can purchase pre-assembled roadside safety kits and augment them with items that suit your needs.