Six Driving Tips from a Summer Spent on the American Road

This summer, I’ve driven more than 5,000 miles, from the Great Lakes to New England to Florida and beyond. Operating my car for more than 150 hours in about six weeks doesn’t make me a professional driver, but it certainly has exposed me to heaps of stupidity on America’s highways, interstates and surface roads. With my summer’s experience, I respectfully submit the best six ways you can be a better driver by this evening’s commute.

Keep an open mind: Driving is a lot like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: Everyone thinks they’re above average behind the wheel. Sadly, the real world doesn’t work like radio, and statistically half of people are worse than average drivers. As Tom Vanderbilt points out in his phenomenal book Traffic, it’s not really anyone’s fault: psychology, society and plain old habit conspire to make driving one of the most difficult undertakings of our daily lives, even if it seems natural. Admitting that you may not be the world’s best driver paves the way to the second most important thing you can do…

Pay attention: A great number of car crashes could be avoided if drivers were simply paying attention. It’s not easy! Radio, cup holders, cell phones, iPods, kids, pets and navigation gizmos all vie for our attention in the cockpit. But good drivers banish distraction and watch the road–in front of them, beside them and behind them. It takes more mental energy and you’ll feel a little silly constantly checking your surroundings but at least you won’t be reading the newspaper behind the wheel. (I’ve seen it happen.)

Cruise carefully: The thing about cruise control is that it doesn’t actually drive the car for you: It’s up to the operator to actually slow and steer the vehicle. But that’s changing with adaptive cruise control, a feature I have in the Explorer that Ford’s loaned me this summer. (Other carmakers are starting to add the feature, too.) Rather than simply plow ahead at a constant speed, this new cruise system adjusts the throttle and brakes to keep a minimum distance between my vehicle and the one in front of me. Safer, yes, but still not autopilot.

Respect truckers: The idea that truckers are out to crush all four-wheeled cars is as outmoded as tail fins. But pros in big rigs have, by virtue of their size, a harder time accelerating and braking than those of us in passenger cars, meaning it often feels threatening to be around fully loaded trucks. By giving these drivers a wider berth, you’ll make their day and your day a little bit easier–not to mention safer.

Press the pedals: In an attempt to drive more safely, drivers often don’t push their machines anywhere near their mechanical limits. Driving on a race track earlier this summer gave me a better appreciation for my vehicle’s capabilities. Defensive driving or race training courses can help train you to trust your car to do its job at high speeds, under stressful driving conditions–leaving you to think and react rather than scream in terror.

Don’t drink and drive: This advice sounds obvious, but more than 10,000 people were killed in accidents involving alcohol in 2009. Driving drunk is wildly dangerous–and it’s unnecessary. Think a cab ride home at the end of the night is too expensive? How much are court costs, lost employment and possibly much worse? In one case, more than $5,000.