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Avoid holiday driving dangers

By Robert Thomson

Traffic experts and experienced drivers recommend that people make their holiday escapes at off hours. I also recommend this, as you can see in my Thinking of Thanksgiving travel posting today. But to do that safely, there are several issues to consider.

Drowsy driving
A study called Asleep at the Wheel released today by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that crashes during late-night and early morning hours were nearly five times as likely as crashes at other times to have involved a drowsy driver. See Post story on drowsy driving by Ashley Halsey III.

Why worry about this for the holidays? Many people will be taking my advice and traveling overnight, or getting a very early start in the morning. Some will be driving when their bodies tell them they should be asleep. Some will be driving after only a short nap. Some will be getting up from a Thanksgiving meal that included alcoholic beverages and getting in cars for long trips home.

You can do things to prevent drowsy driving:
-- If you are going to drive at off hours, be aware of the risk of driving drowsy and get at least six hours of sleep.
-- Plan on taking a break every couple of hours. Schedule your breaks for the sake of safety, rather than for the sake of filling your gas tank.
-- When you get sleepy, stop driving. That's the only cure for drowsy driving. It's not a double espresso, not four open windows, not the last four minutes of the William Tell Overture on the car stereo.
-- Travel with somebody and make the passenger stay awake for you, even if you have to exchange life stories. The safety foundation study found that drivers who were traveling alone when they were involved in crashes were 81 percent more likely than drivers with passengers to have been drowsy.
-- Recognize the symptoms of driving drowsy: You're studying the instrument panel rather than the road ahead, varying your speed for no reason, drifting from the lane or tailgating, frequently yawning, missing signs and disorientation.
-- While I cited the overnight crash statistic from the study, remember that drowsiness can occur at any time you're behind the wheel.
-- Don't drink and drive. If you do drink, have a friend drive, or call a cab.

Distracted driving
Laws against texting while driving are all the rage right now, and that's fine. But I'm concerned that as the older generation clubs the younger generation over texting, many of us will forget that distractions come in a variety of old-fashioned forms, like reading a map while steering.
-- If you're driving alone, check the map before you leave or when you're pulled over at a rest stop. (And don't try to read those Google Map or Mapquest directions while you're driving, that's impossible.) If you've got a traveling partner, make that person do the navigating, and don't argue.
-- Crank up the voice on your GPS and just listen, don't look.
-- Make sure the kids in the back have enough to entertain them. If you need to crush a rebellion, pull over first.
-- Do a checklist before you start, so you don't have to ponder whether you really brought the tooth brush.
-- If you want to know what the funny noise is on the outside of the car, pull into a parking lot and check it. Don't try a visual inspection while you're driving on the highway.
-- Don't proclaim, "I can quit anytime," and leave the BlackBerry on the passenger seat. Stow it where you can't get to it while driving.
-- On a long trip, you're bound to pass in and out of range on radio stations. Don't obsess over it. You can be alone with your thoughts for a few minutes.

It's so tempting during a holiday getaway. You want to get there before dark, and it's getting dark so early now. You want to get there before you get sleepy. You can't stand having everybody cooped up in the car for that many hours. You hate being stuck in the knot of traffic.
-- Think about what you're doing and whom you're putting at risk.
-- Speeding and aggressive driving tend to go together. Are you following too close, weaving in and out of lanes to gain a car length, trying to beat lights, trying to teach other drivers a lesson?
-- On a long-distance holiday trip, many people will be using roads that may be unfamiliar, or that may have changed since the last trip. Watch for speed limit signs and work zone warnings. It will give you something to do and keep your eyes focused on the road.
-- Remember that Maryland has speed cameras in some highway work zones.
-- Remember that not everyone on the road with you has read all this fine advice, so give them some room to make the mistakes that you'll avoid.

By Robert Thomson  | November 9, 2010; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  Getaways, Traffic Safety  | Tags:  Dr. Gridlock, travel tips  
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