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How to Be a Better Driver

Americans drive an average of 12,000 miles each year -- so much that we hardly give it a thought anymore. But we make all kinds of mistakes on the road, from not inflating our tires enough to driving too close to other cars, and the results could be tragic.

On average, six children were killed and more then 700 were injured in car accidents on each day in 2001. The following are some of the most common and risky mistakes we make as drivers and how to avoid them.

Let's be honest: Who hasn't driven while exhausted? As a nation, our on-the-go lifestyle leaves us sleep deprived, with one-third of us getting by on less than six hours of sleep a night. As a result, driving while drowsy is a serious problem that accounts for an estimated 100,000 crashes each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 62 percent of adults surveyed reported driving while drowsy and 27 percent admitted to actually dozing off at the wheel during the past year. Some experts claim driving while tired is no different from driving under the influence of alcohol -- like alcohol, sleepiness slows reaction time and impairs judgment.

What to do

Certainly, new moms and pregnant women are at a disadvantage -- our lives are so busy that we often stay up late to accomplish household tasks, like cleaning or paying bills. Marcia Stein, spokesperson for the National Sleep Foundation, insists that you make sleep a priority. It takes a lifestyle change, but if we regularly got eight hours of sleep a night, we wouldn't be drowsy at the wheel. When you're truly tired, don't drive. There are always other options, even if it means calling a friend or a cab.

The kids are arguing, the baby is crying, you're adjusting the radio, and your cell phone is ringing. Any one of these is enough to distract a driver and cause an accident. Driver distraction is a contributing factor in 20 to 30 percent of crashes, according to NHTSA. One of the biggest problems is cell phone use, which is coming under close scrutiny. At any given time, half a million drivers are talking on handheld cell phones. Women driving minivans and SUVs have the highest use rates.

Many communities have passed legislation banning the use of handheld cell phones while driving, but enforcement is spotty, and some experts claim it's not the act of dialing or holding the phone that makes it dangerous, but the distraction of being immersed in the conversation itself.

What to do

Pay attention! Get voice mail so you can turn off your phone, check your messages, and return imperative calls at your next stop. If the kids are misbehaving, causing you to lose focus, don't just threaten to pull over -- actually do it as soon as you reach a safe place.

When was the last time you checked the air pressure or tread of your tires? If you're like most of us, other than eyeballing them occasionally, probably never. Such neglect results in more than one-quarter of cars being driven with at least one substantially underinflated tire and nine percent with at least one bald tire. Improper inflation and worn treads lead to blowouts, tread separation, and crashes.

What to do

Purchase a tire gauge (it costs about a dollar and is small enough to keep in the glove compartment) and check tire pressure monthly and before any long trip. Inflate your tires to the amount recommended in your car manual or on the sticker on your doorjamb. Don't rely on the pressure indicator on air pumps at service stations, as many are inaccurate. To examine the tread, look for the tire's built-in treadwear indicator, which looks like raised bumps spaced intermittently in the bottom of the tire's grooves. If the bumps are even with the outside of the tread, it's time for new tires. Or, try the penny check: Insert a penny into the tread vertically, with Lincoln's head down. If you can still see the top of his head, you need to replace your tires. Be sure to rotate tires every 6,000 to 7,000 miles for even wear.

Back when many of us took driver's ed, we were taught to turn into a skid to retain control and to pump the brakes to stop on slick roads. Thanks to front-wheel- and four-wheel-drive vehicles and antilock brakes, the advice has changed somewhat.

What to do

Don't turn into a skid, because such overmaneuvering often results in skidding the other way, increasing the risk of rollover -- especially in minivans and SUVs. Don't panic or slam on the brakes, advises Bella Dinh-Zarr, director of traffic safety policy at the American Automobile Association. Take your foot off the gas, pick a point in the road straight ahead, and steer toward that, making a more modest steering adjustment. To stop, apply brakes steadily; do not pump them. Cars with antilock breaks do the pumping themselves. You'll feel the vibration when this kicks in. If you don't have antilock brakes, brake steadily until you feel them start to lock, then ease up slightly and brake again, but don't completely release the brake.

You need to be at least two or three seconds behind the car in front of you, which will give you just enough time to stop or change lanes to avoid a collision if the other car suddenly brakes, gets a flat tire, or has another problem.

What to do

Pick a landmark along the road and when the car ahead of you passes it, begin counting. If you reach the landmark in less than two or three seconds, slow down and back off, says Dinh-Zarr. If you are in rain, fog, or other poor conditions, you need to be six to nine seconds behind the car in front of you. Shake a tailgater by moving to the far right lane, or consider pulling off to the side of the road so he can pass.

It will take just a second to run in and pick up the dry cleaning or grab a cup of coffee. It's okay to leave the kids buckled and locked in as long as you can see them the whole time, right? Absolutely not, according to Kids 'N Cars, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating injuries and deaths of children in non-traffic, car-related accidents.

It's illegal in many states simply because too many things can happen. In just one year, more than 9,100 emergency room visits and 112 deaths were caused by children left unattended in and around cars, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children have started the engine or put the car in gear and crashed, strangled themselves while playing with the power windows, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, died from heat stroke, and been abducted during car thefts. In addition, 58 children died in 2002 from being backed over in driveways.

What to do

Keep your car locked and off limits. Don't let your child play in any vehicle, even in your own driveway, and never leave them alone in the car. It's always dangerous to leave your kids in the car, but if it's running or the keys are there, you triple the risk of something bad happening, says Janette Fennell, executive director of Kids 'N Cars.

No one wants to think about being in a car accident. The good news is that by following these suggestions, you can lessen your risk and keep your most precious cargo safe.