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Driving Safety: Today's New Rules
Article Index
Driving Safety: Today's New Rules
Drowsy Driving
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driving-safety-sum07In Ashburn, Ga., you’ll find the world’s largest peanut. Bryant Pond, Maine, has a three-story outhouse. And Ashville, Ohio, is home to the world’s oldest traffic light.

These are the kinds of things you miss on a plane ride.

If you’re heading out on a road-tripping adventure this summer (or just navigating your own zany city streets) William E. Van Tassel, Ph.D., manager of driver draining operations with AAA, has a few tips to keep you safe and sound. And you may be surprised by some of them.


For example, no longer does AAA recommend gripping the steering wheel at 10 and 2. Try 8 and 4, says Van Tassel. “There are a variety of reasons that factor in there, including air bags.”

And the old rule of thumb, steer into a skid? “Forget that,” he says. “Just continue to look and steer where you want to go.”

Good to know. We picked Van Tassel’s brain for a bit more info.

MFD: Tell us about speeding. What’s the big deal?
Driving could be boiled down to three basic elements. First would be perception--seeing what’s going on in your environment. Second, decision--making a decision on what’s going on in your environment. And then taking action, if you need to, based on your decision.

Each one of those takes time, and the faster you go, the less time you have for each one.

MFD: How far should I stay behind the car in front of me?
The current recommendation from AAA is three to four seconds. … The old rule of thumb that we don’t use anymore was one car length for every 10 miles an hour. But people have a hard time judging car lengths ….

You always want to make sure you have an out. You want to have at least one or two places that you can move your car …. So that’s adequate space in the front and to your sides. …

If you’re driving along and there’s another vehicle right next to you driving at the same speed, it’s far better to ease off the gas a little bit and let them move one or two positions ahead of you so that that space to the side opens up ….

Drivers should realize that it’s OK to change lanes in emergency situations if it’s clear. That can actually be accomplished in some cases faster than braking. Most drivers probably underutilize the space to their sides.

MFD: How does all this change in rain?
Generally, in rain, the traction available for most cars decreases by approximately 30 percent …. So drivers would want to reduce their speed by approximately a third. So we start moving toward maybe a six- or even an eight-second following distance in the rain. …

Sometimes in the media you’ll see phrases like, “The vehicle lost control,” or, “These crashes are blamed on the weather.” No, no, no, no. … Weather doesn’t cause crashes. Failure to adapt to weather conditions do.

MFD: If I get sleepy on the road, should I just pull over on the shoulder and take a nap?
Pulling over on the shoulder involves a higher degree of risk, of course, than, say, if you pulled off at a rest area—especially one that has 24-hour security. That would probably be optimal.

Next best would be probably a 24-hour convenience store or somewhere where there’s other people—in terms of personal security, and, as well, you’re probably less likely to be run into by another vehicle if you’re in a rest stop or a parking lot as opposed to right alongside the road. If somebody eased out of their lane just a couple of feet and they’re driving right at you at 70 miles an hour, that could be a very bad situation.


Before your road trip, check out to chart out the zaniest roadside attractions along your route.

A Stonehenge replica made of junked cars in Alliance, Neb.
Photo courtesy

MFD: What if I just keep driving and don’t stop?
Drowsy-driving crashes tend to occur at higher velocity. The injuries tend to be worse than, say, alcohol-related crashes.

And if you think that through, it’s like, if I’m driving and I’ve got alcohol in my system, my eyes are probably still open. … I might not be good at decision or action but I might at least have a chance of perceiving something’s ahead of me …. If my eyes are shut … I’m on cruise control at 70 miles an hour, and full speed ahead--right into other vehicles or stationary objects.

For people driving even during the day, sleep can creep up on you. Half the sleep-related crashes, the driver doesn’t perceive any warning signs--yawning, having a hard time keeping your eyes open, that sort of thing.

MFD: Really? So they just fall asleep?
Mm-hm. They just fall asleep without warning. So I think the point is there that we can’t be guaranteed that our body will send us signals that, “Hey, you’re tired.” In about half the cases it just shuts down.

MFD: What should you do to prevent that?
Before you’re starting on your summer trip, get a good night’s rest. … In many cases, the family’s packing up, and they stay up until 11, 12, 1 a.m., cramming all the stuff in the car ….

And you also, second, want to make sure that you drive during the times of day when you’re normally awake. … So starting out at 10 p.m. and driving through the night—while it might be convenient, it can be very risky.

And third, you want to watch out for that afternoon dip in energy. Anywhere between 1 and 4 usually, most people have about a two-hour period where their circadian rhythm kind of takes a little dip and sleep is more likely. So statistically we see a spike in drowsy-driving crashes in the afternoon--not nearly as high as, say, midnight to 1 a.m. to 5 or 6 a.m., but you have that spike in the afternoon.

MFD: Is there anything else you want to add?
A key point that we make is you always just want to get better. You may be a fantastic driver, but there are a lot of drivers on the road who aren’t, and so you need to be even better than you are to avoid problems that other drivers might cause.

AAA offers driver-improvement training programs in certain areas. Visit for more information.

Last updated and/or approved: October 2007.
Original article appeared in summer 2007 issue.

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