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Clean your windscreen and take breaks: The basic rules that'll make anyone a safer driver

Stay alert and comfortable behind the wheel with these expert driving tips.

Image: Shutterstock/Daniel Jedzura

“PEOPLE CAN GET complacent, but you should treat every road as if it’s one you’ve never been on before. It’s important to stay alert.”

Advanced driving instructor Gerry Buckley of Drive2Arrive works with experienced road users of all kinds, from everyday drivers to emergency service employees, helping them to tackle the most challenging of situations.

“The line I always return to is ‘be safe, be seen.’ But over time, people can develop bad driving habits, so they may not be driving as safely as they think they are.”

When drivers are tired, distracted or bored – as can often happen at night or on a longer journey than they’re used to, for example – they can slip into what Gerry calls “switched off mode”, and end up making seriously harmful mistakes. Tiredness-related collisions are three times more likely to be fatal or result in a serious injury, according to the Road Safety Authority.

So how can you ensure you’re as safe as possible behind the wheel – and that you don’t put other road users in danger? Here’s Gerry’s advice for three common scenarios where “switched off mode” tends to sometimes take over…

1. When driving at night…

shutterstock_221823721 Source: Shutterstock/ambrozinio

Avoid your fog lamps unless the weather calls for it: “Some people have a habit of putting on fog lamps any time they want some extra light on the road,” says Gerry, “but by regulation you should only use them in dense fog or falling snow, not in clear weather.” Sticking to your dipped headlights, or your full headlights when it’s safe to use them and you’re not meeting oncoming traffic, is a smarter tactic.

You always want to avoid hindering other people’s vision or dazzling them as they’re coming toward you.

Get into the routine of giving the car in front extra space: “At night, your reaction times are slower. It’s harder to make out what’s happening around you, and you may also be more tired than you would be during the day,” says Gerry. To mitigate that risk, make it a rule to maintain a greater following distance from the vehicle in front of you than you would in daylight.

Make sure your windscreen and wiper blades are clean: Having a windscreen that’s free of streaks or grime is vital in low light conditions. “Streaks on the window will magnify when the lights of oncoming cars hit them, which will really compromise your vision,” says Gerry. “Sometimes your wiper blades can leave streaks behind, so be aware of that too.” 

2. On a longer journey than usual…

shutterstock_550611316 Source: Shutterstock/Nahlik

Cross-country road trips are out of the question right now, but you don’t need to be in the car for hours on end for problems to arise or for distraction to set in. Gerry shares some guidelines that’ll be helpful any time you’re starting a longer journey than usual.

Always do a cockpit drill before you set off: When you’re getting into your car, think like a pilot, says Gerry. “A pilot doesn’t just turn the plane’s engine on and fly off. They have a system. They check everything.” In a car, your “cockpit drill” should confirm the basics: that there’s enough fuel in the tank, that the wheels have no punctures, that lights are in working order, and so on.

Plan your breaks into your route: If you’re feeling tired on the road, always, always pull in for a break. In an ideal world, you’ll have planned your stops so that you’re not trying to find a place to pull in when you’re already low on energy, says Gerry:

Make sure you’re well rested before you set off, and get to know your route so that you know where the service stations or rest stops are.

3. When driving a road you know really well…

shutterstock_1759330706 Source: Shutterstock/Den Rozhnovsky

Be aware of ‘driver fatigue’, even if you’re not feeling tired: Familiar roads are where “switched off mode” can really do its damage. “There’s that common thing of people arriving home and not remembering the journey, because they’re so used to driving it,” says Gerry.

When people become complacent, they can misjudge the level of risk in a situation.

And remember that hazards can come out of nowhere: You may know every hard bend and speed bump on a road, but that doesn’t make you any more prepared for unexpected events. “Hazards aren’t always the things you meet over and over on a road, they’re the one-off things like a pedestrian walking late at night. Don’t take anything for granted.”

Whether you’re new enough to driving or have had your full licence for decades, there’s always room for improvement. “No one driver knows everything, and there’s always room to learn. I’m still learning new things every day.”

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