Taking your car out on the highway is much different from practicing in your driveway or in a safe venue like an empty parking lot. Leave the nest behind and all kinds of things can happen. You’re subjected to stimuli from all sides. You realize that there’s real traffic out there. You have to navigate while steering and your eyes are doing the jitterbug trying to see everything at once and your Dad is mumbling under his breath and your stress level just went through the roof and you’d tear out your hair if your fingers weren’t melded to the wheel from the force of your grip and, and…
It doesn’t have to be this way. Highway driving is just the next step in the skill set that all drivers acquire. Admittedly it’s a big step, but you’ve laid a solid foundation. Now you’ll build on it. Here’s some of what you need to know when you first practice highway driving.
• Understand all vehicles aren’t created equal. For example, if you’ve been learning in a car with an automatic transmission but plan to start driving a 5-speed pickup on the road, familiarize yourself with its operation in a controlled environment before heading out. Confusion and uncertainty could result in an accident.
• Make sure you’ve studied and understand the section in your driver’s manual pertaining to highway driving, including knowing what all those signs and lines mean.
• Use a map and your knowledge of your home town to find a secluded, low-traffic rural road to begin your driving adventure. There’s less danger of running into (figuratively or literally) another driver. Schedule practice for driving on both paved and gravel roads. Your car will handle differently on dirt or gravel than on asphalt.
• If you can avoid traffic in the first stages of learning, do so. You’ll be more relaxed, at ease, and able to concentrate on mastering the first skills you’ll need – steering, and keeping the vehicle between the lines.
• Drive at, or a little below, the speed limit. Obey all traffic signs. Remember to signal before turning.
• Come to a full stop at all intersections. Look left, right, and then left again before proceeding. Don’t fall victim to the “rolling stop”, drifting through a stop sign without fully stopping. Nip this habit in the bud before acquiring it.
• Take your time at intersections. If you’re behind another car stopped at a stop sign or a light, be particularly alert. Don’t assume the driver ahead is going to turn until he actually makes a commitment. Accidents can happen when the driver in front of you starts to turn, and then changes his mind at the last minute. You’re in a hurry, snap a quick glance left and hit the gas – and the fellow ahead of you has decided he can’t make the turn, so suddenly stops. WHAM! You’re in his trunk. Wait till he clears the intersection before you turn.
• Coming to an unhurried, complete stop can help you avoid one of the most tragic and avoidable accidents – hitting a motorcyclist, biker or pedestrian. Stop completely and, with your foot on the brake, look carefully both ways. If you assume a motorcycle or bicyclist is coming, you have the right mind set. Passenger cars and trucks create a big profile. A two-wheeled vehicle may get lost in the clutter. You have to really look for them.
• Slow down on residential streets, especially where cars are parallel parked along the curbs. Kids sometimes run out from between parked cars.
• Stop at all railroad crossings. Never try to drive around a railroad gate that’s down. Trains are moving faster than you think they are, and their speed and position relative to the intersection is impossible to judge accurately. You will not win an encounter with a train!
• Four-way stops are inherently confusing. The first car to stop at the intersection has the right-of-way – but don’t assume anything (except that other drivers will do the unexpected). If you reach the 4-way stop simultaneously with other vehicles, one car should cautiously proceed through the intersection. Then it’s a counter-clockwise rotation from there – the next car to the right goes, then the next one, etc.
• Emergency vehicles have the right-of-way. Carefully slow down and pull to the side or shoulder of the road when an ambulance, fire truck or law enforcement vehicle approaches. You’ll usually have plenty of time to get out of the way, so don’t panic. Keep control at all times. After the emergency vehicle has passed, check for oncoming traffic before re-entering the road.
• Watch for buses, especially school buses. They sometimes make sudden, frequent stops. Passengers and kids have been known to walk around the bus and cross the street, or run out into the road to catch the bus, so stay alert, even after the bus has started moving again.
• Suspend belief to a certain extent regarding other driver’s actions. Never assume that another driver is going to take a certain action. Some people are notorious for changing their minds at the last minute. For example, if you’re waiting to turn left at an intersection and an oncoming driver has his right turn signal on, think twice about pulling out in front of him, believing he’s really going to turn left. Nine times out of ten he will; it’s that tenth time that will get you.
• Be particularly alert when merging into a center left-turn lane, or “suicide lane”, as it’s sometimes called. A lot of folks don’t know how to use this lane. Some treat it as an acceleration lane or a passing lane. The big problem is you may want to turn left while the fellow in the oncoming lane may also want to turn left, and you both merge at the same time. This creates an interesting situation, so be alert. Plan ahead before you enter the lane, slow down appropriately, use proper signaling, and make sure the lane ahead is clear before merging. Actually, center left-turn lanes are fairly safe. Accidents, if any, will usually be low-speed.
Learning to drive on the highway takes you a long way towards driving independence and the freedom that comes with a driver’s license. From this point on, most of your student driving will be on highways. Your hard-earned confidence, however, could get you into a situation you’ve not practiced for and can’t handle. You’ll need to take your skills to the next level. The highway will throw you a lot of curves, but you can prepare for them by practicing critical driving scenarios.