Other Traffic Laws
Essential Rules for Dangerous Driving Situations

Essential Rules for Dangerous Traffic Situations: Minimizing Driving Risks

Updated Oct. 20, 2020

During your time as a driver, you will frequently encounter situations where you are exposed to a greater-than-usual level of risk. This could be as a result of other road users, the conditions of the roadway, bad weather or all the above! Whether the increase in risk is minor or significant, you will need to adjust your driving behavior to keep yourself and other road users safe.

Later in the course we will explore these dangerous driving situations and teach you how to manage the risks they present. Here, we provide a basic introduction to these issues and discuss some of the safe driving rules you must obey. Let’s start with highway driving dangers.

Highway driving risks

Multi-lane, high-speed roadways may be referred to as highways, freeways expressways, toll roads, turnpikes or limited access roads. These busy arterial roads allow drivers to travel between different communities, cities and states quickly and with relative ease. Our highway transportation system could not survive without this type of road.

Motorists can travel faster on highways, as access to these roads from connecting, minor roadways is limited. Only at designated interchanges can drivers enter an expressway. Without conventional same-level intersections to contend with, drivers using a limited-access highway can continue traveling at speed while other drivers enter and exit.

In many ways, highways are among the safest roadways in the United States. Unfortunately, “high-speed” in itself equates to “high-risk”. Despite all that has been done to protect motorists using these roadways, traveling at high-speed increases certain dangers. For instance, driving at a high speed will:

  • Make spotting potential hazards more difficult
  • Increase the time it takes for a driver to stop and the distance covered in that time
  • Increase the severity of any collisions or accidents which occur

The danger of using high-speed limited access roads is further increased by the fact that vehicles are generally “sandwiched” between lanes of moving traffic; if something goes wrong, you may not have space to avoid a collision.

Safe highway driving rules

Planning your trip in advance is one of the best ways to ensure your highway journey goes smoothly. If you know exactly where you are going and when you must exit, you will be able to focus on vehicle control, monitoring your speed and scanning the roadway for dangers. You must also know the correct procedure for entering and exiting highways, how to avoid “highway hypnosis” and various other high-risk highway driving practices.

Entering a highway

Drivers who are entering a highway are legally required to yield the right-of-way to vehicles already traveling on the highway. You must use the acceleration lane to match the speed of existing highway traffic, merging onto the highway only when there is a safe gap between cars.

Picking a lane on a highway

Motorists must choose which lane on the highway to drive in based on how fast they intend to travel. The fastest traffic should occupy the left-hand lane and the slowest traffic should occupy the right-hand lane. Most of the time it is safer to avoid the right-hand lane unless you must drive much slower than other traffic or you are entering or exiting the expressway.

Where possible, merge into the center lane to make room for new vehicles entering the expressway in the right-hand lane. If another vehicle is coming up behind you fast or is tailgating, merge right to allow them to pass you. If it is not safe to merge right, hold your course and speed. Do not speed up.

Exiting a highway

When exiting a limited-access highway, nothing is more important than advanced preparation. Never cross multiple lanes in one maneuver. Instead, make sure you know where your exit is and look out for guide signs which indicate it is coming up. That way, you will be able to merge into the appropriate exit lane gradually without endangering yourself and other road users.

Always look out for suggested and mandatory speed limit signs on freeway exit ramps. By the time you reach the end of the ramp you must have slowed down enough to safely merge with other traffic on the new roadway.

Avoiding highway hypnosis

Highway hypnosis can occur on long, straight, high-speed roads with little scenery and few distractions – like limited access highways. On these roads, the monotony of the driving experience can cause your mind to wander or make you drowsy. Highway hypnosis is incredibly dangerous, as it can stop you from spotting and avoiding dangers.

Protect yourself from highway hypnosis by:

  • Driving less than 8 hours each day. If you must drive more than this, take more frequent and longer breaks.
  • Take a break at least once every two hours or every 100 miles. Get out of the car and stretch your legs.
  • Scan the roadway by keeping your gaze moving. Do not stare at a single spot on the road.

Other highway driving safety rules

Finally, keep the following safety consideration in mind:

  • Avoid other vehicle’s blind spots. You may have to pass through them when passing but do not linger.
  • If the weather permits it, leave the window partially open to let fresh air in and keep yourself alert.
  • Do not use cell phones or other types of wireless communication devices when traveling at speed; even a momentary lapse in concentration could be deadly.

Driving at night

Driving at night is always more dangerous than driving during the day, even on well-lit and otherwise safe stretches of roadway. In addition to experiencing limited visibility, driving at night means you are more likely to be fatigued or sharing the road with other drivers who are. It is best to avoid driving at night whenever possible, though if you can’t, here are the rules you need to consider:

  1. 1

    Activate those headlights!
    Keeping your headlights on when driving any time between sunset and sunrise is a legal requirement in all states. You should check out rules for night driving in your driver’s handbook, as there may be some state-specific laws you need to know. For instance, in Texas: drivers keep their headlights on from no more than 30 minutes after sunset until 30 minutes prior to sunrise, or any time visibility in limited to less than 1000 feet due to other conditions.

  2. 2

    Keep your low-beam headlights on around other traffic.
    High-beams are powerful enough to blind other drivers or pedestrians and cause a crash. Rules governing the use of high-beam headlights are written into most state traffic laws. For instance, in Pennsylvania: drivers must not have high-beam headlights on within 500 feet of an approaching vehicle or 300 feet of a vehicle they are following.

  3. 3

    Do not look directly at other vehicle’s headlights.
    Even when the other driver has their low-beam headlights on, the glare caused by looking directly into the light can cause temporary blindness. If any vehicle approaching you fails to deactivate their high-beams, avert your gaze to the lane markings on the right-hand side of the road until they have passed.

  4. 4

    Leave your lights on when stopping on an unlit roadway.
    If a vehicle malfunction, fatigue or some other situation demands that you pull over on a poorly-lit highway at night, always leave your parking lights, low-beams or hazard lights active to warn other road users of your presence.

Winter driving

The risks drivers face when driving in wintry weather are significant and complex. Water, snow or ice on the surface of the roadway will reduce traction and make your vehicle less responsive to braking. Falling rain and snow can also make it much harder to see the roadway ahead and spot oncoming hazards in time to react.

You must always exercise extreme caution when driving on roads that are coated in snow or ice. Reduce your speed and maintain as much space around your vehicle as possible, as it may take you longer than usual to stop. These safe driving rules will help you to avoid problems when driving in wintry weather:

  1. 1

    Consider fitting your vehicle with snow tires or chains.
    Keep in mind that the use of snow chains is restricted in many states as they can cause damage to the surface of the road. Your state driving manual will explain these restrictions if they apply in your area.

  2. 2

    Avoid driving over shady spots when possible.
    Ice and snow on the roadway will melt slower in the shade, making these areas more slippery than other parts of the roadway.

  3. 3

    Watch out for black ice.
    Thin films of ice are practically impossible for drivers to see. Keeping speed to a minimum during winter weather is a must.

  4. 4

    Keep your windows clean.
    Dirty windows will limit your view of the roadway. You should also clear your vehicle of all snow and ice before driving, as this is a legal requirement in most states. Open your windows if they steam up while you are driving.

Emergencies and malfunctions

All drivers must deal with unexpected emergencies or vehicle malfunctions sooner or later. You can control your own actions but not the actions of drivers around you and even brand-new, well-maintained cars occasionally malfunction without warning. You must be ready for anything; your life may depend on it.

The number-one rule which you must follow in any driving emergency: do not panic. Drivers who react to an unexpected danger in blind panic usually make the situation worse. Always take a moment to think and react in a considered way.

Correcting a skid

Skids occur when one or more of your tires loses grip on the road’s surface. When your car begins to skid, correct the skid by:

  • Steering in the same direction as the skid.
  • Taking your foot off the accelerator. Slamming on the brakes can worsen the skid.

Driving off the road

Your tires may leave the pavement if you move too far right while avoiding a hazard or a dangerous driver. This can also happen if a drowsy driver loses concentration and meanders out of their lane. The immediate change in surface texture beneath your wheels may shock you, particularly if there is a difference in level between the roadway and the shoulder. If one or more of your tires leave the pavement:

  • Do not swerve back toward the roadway, it may cause your vehicle to spin out of control.
  • Slow down by taking your foot off the gas pedal. Avoid sudden braking.
  • When you have slowed to a safe speed, carefully steer your car back onto the roadway. Make sure there is a sufficient gap in traffic.

Handling brake failure

Brake failure is frightening but it should not be a catastrophic event when handled correctly. If your brakes fail, decrease speed by removing your foot from the accelerator and shifting into a lower gear. When you have slowed down considerably, you may activate your parking brake to bring the vehicle to a complete stop. Avoid doing this too soon, as it may throw the vehicle into a skid.

Recovering from a flat tire or blowout

Compared to other types of mechanical failure, losing a tire while driving is relatively common. Looking after your tires and keeping them properly inflated will minimize the risk of them blowing out. Keep in mind that the risk of tire malfunctions increases in very hot weather and on poor road surfaces.

If your tire blows out, try to remain calm. Slow down by easing your foot off the accelerator and steer your vehicle toward the roadside or another safe place to stop.

Moving your vehicle off the road

When experiencing any electrical or mechanical malfunction which makes it impossible or extremely difficult to keep driving safely, you must pull your vehicle over to the side of the road. If you cannot resolve the problem, do not continue to drive the car.

Your vehicle presents a hazard to other drivers when parked on the shoulder or by the roadside. To stay safe, you must make yourself as visible to traffic as possible:

  1. 1

    Activate your emergency lights, or your taillights if your emergency lights are not working. When stopped at night you should also switch on the car’s interior lights.

  2. 2

    Secure a white or brightly colored cloth to your antenna or car door, where it can be seen by other drivers. This indicates that you are experiencing problems and are seeking assistance.

  3. 3

    Place flares, cones or another warning device around your vehicle if you are unable to move it off the roadway. All occupants must vacate the vehicle and wait for assistance by the roadside.

Hill driving risks

When driving on a steep hill, you must counteract the effect of gravity acting on your vehicle. This force can cause you to speed up or lose control when driving down a steep hill. To avoid this, keep your vehicle in a low gear and hover your foot over the brake pedal. This should prevent too much unnecessary acceleration and make it easier to brake if you need to slow down.

Drivers should keep in mind that coasting downhill in neutral or by taking your car out of gear is illegal in nearly all states, as it is incredibly dangerous.

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