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Fatal Distraction: Lethal Weapons, Too
by Marc Eisenson

Every year in the USA ...

There are close to 6.5 million motor vehicle accidents.
More than 3 million of us get injured in them.
About 40,000 of us will die in crashes. That's a death every 13 minutes.
Cars kill almost three times as many of us as are killed with handguns.
The economic cost is about $140 billion.

You, me, and those we love are candidates for this notorious and unnecessary hit list.

It's Time to Stop this Needless Slaughter

Unless you've just arrived from Mars, you know that alcohol is a factor in far too many fatal crashes. While the drinking/driving issue is finally receiving serious media attention, we think there are a lot of other driving do's and don'ts that deserve more press. To jump-start the process, here are 13 of our tips on how to be a better driver:

1. Keep your eyes and your mind on the road. Over one-third of accidents involve drivers who were taken by surprise. Don't let your last earthly act be reaching for a soda, searching for toll-booth change, dialing a phone, or tuning in those oldies but goodies. Next time you put the key in the ignition, remember that the person most likely to get hurt or killed in a car accident is the driver.

2. Always wear your seat belt. Always! Click that seat belt around you, even if you're just zipping to the convenience store for some milk or Ben & Jerry's. After all, three out of four crashes occur within 25 miles of home, at 45 miles an hour or less ... which reminds me of one of my truly shining moments.

As soon as I brought my first car home, some 34 years ago, I installed seat belts (yup, that was long before they were standard equipment). Back then, I had no statistics to prove that seat belts would reduce the likelihood of a fatal or serious injury by a whopping 40% to 55%, but I was convinced they'd help.

And over the years, in my less shining moments, those belts have been lifesavers. Still, with all the warnings, less than half of us buckle up for every ride. Do it!

3. Keep your distance. Don't tailgate ... or let someone drive too close to you. Rear-end collisions account for 1.75 million crashes a year.Without a cushion of safety, you could end up a back seat driver ... in someone else's car!

4. Play by the rules. Over 23,000 Americans die every year because they don't obey a basic rule of the road. They drift into another lane, roll past a stop sign, or neglect to yield the right of way. Even when you have the right of way, forfeit it to an aggressive driver. Being second to cross the intersection sure beats becoming a fatality.

5.Watch your left. Left turns are particularly dangerous, accounting for over a million of 1994's accidents. Be patient, and look for a BIG gap on both sides before making your move.

Important: If you have to wait for traffic to clear before making a left ... be sure to keep your wheels straight ... not turned into the intersection. Otherwise, if you get hit from behind, you could be pushed into oncoming traffic.

Special warning: Teens are five times as likely as their elders to get into left-turn accidents, so it's especially important for young drivers to watch out when they head left (behind the wheel, at least).

6. Caution: Slippery when wet. Accidents increase by about 40% when roads are wet. Go slow, but be fast to replace worn out windshield wiper blades. Make sure you have decent (beyond just "legal" tires that are properly inflated, reliable brakes, working lights, etc.

7. Star light, star bright. Try not to drive directly from day into night, especially after doing a lot of daylight traveling. As nightfall approaches, remember to take your sunglasses off and slow down. Fatal accidents are twice as likely after dark -- the deadliest times being the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday -- midnight to 3 AM.

8. Buy light. Next time you buy a car, choose a light colored one. They're safer. Why? Because they reflect light in the dark. They're also cooler in the summer, which cuts down on the need for air conditioning and saves on gas.

9. Just plain slow down! While most drivers regularly disregard the posted speed limits, the potential cost far outweighs the benefits. First and foremost, one-third of all fatal crashes are speed related.

If you do 66 mph in a 55 zone ... even if you manage to evade a speeding ticket ... you'll save a puny 3 minutes and 36 seconds on a 20 mile trip. Sooner or later, you will get tagged ... and arrive late anyway.

What's more, it's going to cost you. Depending on the state where you get caught, and the speed you were doing, a ticket will run you anywhere from $5 to $200, plus "points" ... which may add several hundred dollars to your insurance premium ... and perhaps cost you your license. All in all, it's a pretty high price to pay for saving a few minutes.

Nancy and I try to drive at about the speed limit, conditions permitting. But without meaning to, we've often found ourselves truckin' along at a hefty clip. Fortunately, our newest vehicles, an '84 Olds and an '87 Chevy, both have cruise control -- which cuts our driving costs, stress levels, and risks.

10. Rest up. You've probably heard that on long hauls, drivers should take a break once every 2 hours to protect against highway hypnosis. Even on short trips, rest stops make sense.

When our friend Mary Ann Coyle is stuck in traffic, or waiting for a green light, she uses that time to rest. Relaxing is far better for your health than getting mad, complaining, leaning on the horn, or revving the engine ... none of which will help anyway.

11. If you're sleepy, STOP! More than 30% of all single vehicle accidents occur because the driver nodded off. Sleeping drivers kill many others, too.

One of Nancy's favorite childhood buddies, Ellen "Spot" Winikoff, was killed when she was in her early 20's, by someone who simply dozed off behind the wheel. You never really come to terms with a loss like that.

If you find your eyes closing, put yourself in high gear immediately -- and find a well-lit place where you feel safe. Stop, and rest up.

Afraid that once you doze off, you'll sleep too long? Follow this advice from Stephanie Faul, of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety: Take along a travel alarm clock, and set it for a half hour nap.

Important: While coffee or tea may help with drowsiness (not drunkenness), they can't work miracles. Neither can loud radios, sheer determination, or open car windows. So if you're really tired, please don't drive, or your nap may be eternal, and we want to keep you around for many years to come.

12. Take a defensive driving course. Nancy and I just did. It took 6 hours, may save our lives, and will cut 10% off of our insurance premium. That's a big pocket's worth of change that we'd rather invest elsewhere!

To find out about defensive driving courses in your area, check with a local community college, your insurance broker, or the National Safety Council (800-621-7619).

13. Take a cab. Start a program. Remember to designate a driver when you're even the slightest bit tipsy, or too tired to drive safely.

Nancy's nephew Ben and her niece Rachel, volunteer in a great "safe rides" program. Every community should have one.

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Reprinted from The Pocket Change Investor© 1996, Marc Eisenson & Nancy Castleman

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