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How to Become a Safer Driver

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Think about reckless driving and what image pops into your head? An 18-year-old kid barreling around in a Hummer? Britney driving with her baby on her lap? Obvious targets, yes. But take a minute. Can you honestly say that you -- a parent of young children -- are above reproach? "Most parents would stand in front of a bus if it meant protecting their child from harm. They'll childproof their home. They'll spend money on the safest family car they can find. And yet they'll get behind the wheel of a 2-ton vehicle and put those they love at unimaginable risk," says Paul Burris, president and founder of the Partners for Highway Safety (trafficsafety.net), in Tallahassee, Florida.

According to a 2004 survey funded by Volvo Cars of North America, more than half of parents admit to talking on the cell phone while driving with their children. Nearly 70 percent have never had a trained professional check their child safety seat. And a 2002 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study reports that more than 6 in 10 of us say we take attention off the road in order to contend with children in the backseat.

Why do we take chances? "Crashes aren't an everyday occurrence, and the longer you go without one, the more you believe such a terrible thing can't really happen to you," says John Ulczycki, director of transportation safety for the National Safety Council. Also dulling our sense of risk is the very comfort and safety of the cars we're driving. "You have these nice soft seats, the ride is smooth and quiet, you have your CD or DVD player. It feels like you're traveling around in a living room, when in fact you're hurtling down the highway at 60 miles per hour," Ulczycki says.

How to Avoid Crashes

In an ideal world, everyone would be able to take a safe-driving class like the one offered at the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, outside Phoenix. Even if you can't make it to Arizona, heeding these simple crash-avoidance strategies may save your life:

  • Raise your gaze while driving. "Chances are, if the car in front of you hits the brakes, it's because something is happening in front of him. By keeping your eyes on the car about five vehicles ahead of you, you are buying reaction time and can start slowing down even before the car in front of you does," says Bondurant spokeswoman Alice Collins.
  • Don't slam on the brakes. Suddenly braking may throw the car into a spin. Instead, lift your foot off the gas, steer out of harm's way, then gently put your foot back on the gas.
  • Avoid target fixation. "People tend to stare at the very thing they don't want to drive into. And it's instinctive that your hands will steer you in the direction you are looking," says Collins. Instead, find a safe opening for your car -- the shoulder of the road, a different lane -- and look at that. Your hands will steer you to safety.

"Parents minimize the dangers of multitasking because they say they do it all the time. What they don't understand is that driving isn't like any other time," says Ulczycki. It only takes a second or two to lose control or for traffic to change, and in those few seconds with your attention off the road, you could get into a crash. Some tips for staying focused:

Make snacks easy to handle, hard to spill. Driving expert Kristin Varela, founder of Mother Proof LLC, recommends keeping bite-size, nonmessy snacks like Goldfish and Cheerios in preportioned individual containers. A good choice: Snack Traps, which are hard to spill and easy for kids to handle. Keep these and spillproof drink cups next to you or in a backseat travel organizer that little ones can access on their own. (Go to motherproof.com for product info and stores.) The same rule about keeping things close at hand applies to grown-ups: If you must have that cup of java while driving, make sure it's in a spillproof cup that fits in your cup holder. Sipping sodas through a straw will also help you focus on the road. And rethink the old fast-food drive-through: Instead of handing out french fries on the highway, take a few minutes and eat while parked. It's the same in-car convenience without the on-road chaos.

Put the phone away. Talking on the phone while driving is not safe, even if you have a hands-free setup with a headset or a device you can talk right into like a speakerphone. "Driving and using the cell phone takes your mind off the road, and that increases your risk of a crash," says Ulczycki. Not that you shouldn't have a cell phone in your car -- just don't use it while driving. If you must be accessible to others, keep the phone on but put it away in your purse so you're not tempted to use it. "If the phone rings, and it could be urgent, you can pull over and return the call," Ulczycki says.

Orchestrate entertainment ahead of time. Load the CD or DVD player before you hit the road, even if you don't plan on playing anything immediately. iPod plug-ins, which come in many new cars or can be bought with adapters from catalogs, are a fantastic option because there's no need to fiddle with disks and they can be uploaded with books from the computer, which are great for long rides, Varela says. Keep car-friendly fun -- stuffed animals and other soft items that aren't choking hazards -- at arm's reach in the backseat console or in a pouch that hangs from the back of the front seat. Avoid balls in the car because they're hard to hold on to and can easily disturb the driver. Also keep all heavy toys -- as well as any other hard objects -- properly secured, ideally in the back with a cargo cover or cargo net. Pets, a major source of distraction on the road, should be restrained in the back or in a carrier.

Lay down the ground rules. Right from the start, children need to learn what behaviors are not appropriate for the car. "Tell them that there is no screaming because that makes it dangerous for Mommy to drive," Varela says. And when that fever-pitched crying strikes, breathe deeply, turn up the radio, and wait for a red light to pick lovey up off the floor or to make sure there's nothing truly terrible going on. Lastly, don't be afraid of bribery. If a promised game of Candy Land or the chance to choose what's for lunch encourages a preschooler to stay in line or even entertain the baby, go for it.

Heed Driveway Dangers

It's called "bye-bye" syndrome: Mommy or Daddy walks out of the house and climbs into the car, assuming their toddler is safe inside. Except this time, their little one figures out how to open that front door and runs out to catch Mommy or Daddy, who is unknowingly pulling out of the driveway. Each year at least 100 young children die under the wheels of a car in just this way, according to Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars, which tracks nontraffic auto-related deaths and injuries.

Know where your kids are. Make children move away from your vehicle to a place where they are in full view before moving the car, and know that another adult is properly supervising them. If you are the only adult, and you must move your car from the driveway to the street, buckle the kids into their car seats and move the car with them inside.

Treat driveways like highways. Ideally, make the driveway off-limits as a play area. If that's not possible, place a cone or "children at play" banner at the front of the driveway while it's in use to warn drivers who may try to pull in. When play is over, remove all toys from the driveway so children aren't tempted to run out and get them. Keep unoccupied cars locked at all times, with the emergency brake on. Each year, children playing in and around cars die when they become trapped in the trunk, are asphyxiated by automatic windows, or get caught under the wheels of a vehicle that's been accidentally knocked into gear. "Parents might think it's cute when kids pretend to drive in a parked car, but it sends the wrong message. Teach children early on that cars are not for playing, whether Mommy is there or not," says Fennell.

Beware of your blind zone. "The longer and higher your vehicle is, the more difficult it is to see a child or anything else that's on the ground behind -- or even in front -- of you," says Fennell. Before you go anywhere, walk around your car once to make sure the path is clear. Also consider installing some kind of safety device that can help eliminate blind zones: The most effective options are rear-mounted video cameras that show the driver what is directly behind the car. Less pricey, though not as effective, are backup sensors, which beep when you come close to an obstacle behind the car. Least costly and quite effective, according to Consumer Reports, are special rearview safety lenses -- but they're only effective if the rear glass is completely vertical, as it is on several minivans and SUVs. Visit rearlens.com for more info.

Your Car Care Checklist

___ Check tire pressure every other month: Blowouts on the road can be terrifying and even deadly. Pick up a tire gauge at a hardware store, and ask a service station attendant to show you how to use it. Your vehicle manual will tell you where on your car you'll find the recommended psi for your tires. Many newer cars come with optional tire pressure monitors right on the dash.

___ Keep a first-aid kit on board: Check it once every few months to make sure medications aren't expired and that it's fully stocked. For a list of first-aid kit musts or even preassembled kits, log on to the Red Cross at redcross.org/services/hss.

___ Stock the car: Make sure you have a flashlight on board. "If you crash at night and your lights don't work, or even if you have car trouble, it's crucial," says John A. Brennan, MD, senior vice president of emergency and clinical services at St. Barnabas Health Care System, in West Orange, New Jersey. Keep a supply of dry snacks and bottled water on hand. During cold weather, put a couple of blankets, some mittens, and hats in the car.

Proper Car Seat Installation

Get your car seat professionally installed. Log on to the NHTSA site (nhtsa.gov) to find a certified passenger-safety technician near you. She'll help identify the best seat for your needs and for your car, she'll help you install it, and she'll show you how to use it. All, in most cases, free of charge.

 
Precautions for Changes in Routine

Every year between 30 and 40 young children die after being left in a hot car. In the vast majority of cases, these children aren't abandoned by irresponsible parents who go off to shop or gamble all day, says Janette Fennell, founder and president of Kids and Cars. It seems hard to believe that a parent could strap a child into his car seat and then forget he's there, but it can happen to an exhausted, overwhelmed new parent -- particularly if that child is facing the rear and thus out of immediate sight. Often the tragedy is due to a change in routine: For example a parent who is not typically responsible for daycare drop-off takes charge that day. Instead of doing the drop-off, the parent drives to work, and returns to the car at the end of the day to find the baby still in the backseat, dead from hyperthermia.

To prevent such a terrible occurrence, take every precaution you can: Fennell suggests always putting your purse on the floor in front of the backseat so you'll be forced to look there before leaving. You might also place a stuffed animal in the car seat when it's empty, and move the toy up front as a visual reminder when the baby is in the car. Lastly, "parents with children in daycare should tell the caregiver to always call them if the child has not arrived by a certain time," Fennell says.

Peg Rosen, who writes frequently about car safety, is a certified child passenger safety technician.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2006.