By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Everyone has an opinion about “good” vs. “bad” driving — but here are some things we should be able to agree on:
Crowding the car ahead of you massively increases the chances you’ll smash into him if its driver should suddenly brake. If you are too close, you will hit him. And it will be your fault, legally speaking. Always. There is no excuse for tailgating. It’s dangerous — and it’s obnoxious. No one likes having another car inches off their rear bumper.
Remember the “three second rule” — when the vehicle ahead of you passes a fixed object such as a tree or telephone pole, slowly count “one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand.” If you reach the object before completing the count, you’re following too closely. Double this in poor weather.
If the guy ahead of you is going to slow for your tastes, pass him when you get the chance. If you’re the slow-moving driver, you can defuse the situation by pulling off to the side to let the other car get by.
Failure to use turn signals
Like following too closely, failing to signal your intentions to other motorists is dangerous — and rude. There’s no good reason not to signal — and several good reason to do so. Other drives are not psychic; they can’t guess that you are planning on making a right turn or about to move into the next lane. Signaling is especially important for the safety of motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. If they are in your blind spot and you just assume no one’s there and execute a maneuver without signaling first, these folks will get no advance warning and will suffer the most if you strike them.
And if you do, it will be your fault.
Impeding the flow of traffic
Driving too slowly can be more dangerous than driving a little faster than the posted limit. In a high-density situation, with many others vehicles sharing the road, a dawdler creates what amounts to a rolling roadblock. Traffic snarls; motorists jockey for position — the smooth flow of cars is interrupted.
The dawdler — often an elderly or timid driver — is less culpable than the tailgater or the person who doesn’t use his turn signals. They are simply uncomfortable driving faster than a certain speed. But that doesn’t make doing 42 mph in a 55 mph zone any less safe — for them or for other motorists.
Elderly drivers — and those who feel uncomfortable keeping up with traffic — can do things such as pull off the road to let the cars stacking up behind them get by.
Or stick to the right lane on the freeway.
Driving an overloaded vehicle (or driving with an improperly secured load)
Ever see a guy trundling down the road with a refrigerator partially hanging out of the trunk of his compact car? Or a truck with a bed full of junk that’s clearly not tied down and looks like it’s about to fly out at any moment — possibly right through your windshield?
Many of us are probably guilty of trying to haul something oversized or unwieldy home (or to the junkyard) is a car not built to handle or it — or not properly secured. It’s tempting — but it’s really foolish and could end up causing a serious injury to someone else, or a dangerous hazard for other motorists. You could be ticketed — and if someone has an accident or gets hurt because the junk in your trunk flew all over the road — you could also be sued.
So, don’t overload your vehicle — and use proper tie-downs/come-alongs to secure your load.
Ok. But how about “technical fouls” – stuff that’s illegal, but not necessarily dangerous?
Let’s look at some examples:
There’s a big difference between driving faster than the posted limit — and driving too fast for conditions, your skill set, and so on.
But our system focuses almost exclusively on driving faster than the posted limit — the definition of “speeding” — even though doing so may not be unsafe.
Speed limits are often set too low — mainly in order to make it easier to gin up money for local government via traffic tickets. If you have trouble believing this, consider the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit, which reduced previously lawful highway maximums from 70-75 to 55 mph. For more than 20 years, it was the law of the land — and routinely violated by almost everyone.
Motorists were just as routinely ticketed.
But in 1995, the NMSL was repealed by Congress and most highway speed limits are now set at or close to what they were before the 55 mph maximum was imposed — with 65-70 mph being typical.
What was illegal “speeding” yesterday is once again perfectly legal today. Common sense tells us that driving 65 or 70 mph didn’t magically become safe simply because the law was changed. Driving at those speeds was just as safe prior to 1995; but you risked a ticket if you did.
Right on red
Sometimes, the prohibition against making a right turn at a red light is there for good reason — such as poor visibility. But sometimes, laws against making a right on red are the result of over-caution and assume a very low level of competence for the typical motorist — which may be justified. But a competent motorist may be able to accurately judge the speed of oncoming traffic and safely make the turn. Often, there is no oncoming traffic at all — and making the turn is thus obviously safe — even if it is also illegal.
Like “speeding,” this is another example of a gray area in traffic law; if you receive a ticket, you may have broken the law — but you may also have done nothing that’s genuinely unsafe.
The “California stop”
Here, all you did was fail to come to a complete stop at an intersection with a “stop” sign before proceeding through the intersection. Always illegal, it’s not always unsafe.
For example, you come to a deserted intersection and it’s clear there’s no one around for miles. Or, you’re driving in a snowstorm and are trying to make it up a slippery hill with a stop sign at the top. Maintaining momentum can be crucial to avoid getting stuck and it might be safer to creep through without coming to a complete top — assuming your way is clear. It’s arguably more dangerous to lose your momentum and get stuck, blocking other cars — or worse, sliding back down the hill and possibly into another car.
This is another area of nuance — one where judgment and the specific circumstances ought to be taken into account as much as the “violation” itself.