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Defensive Driving Techniques

Driving in Illinois can be an enchanting experience. From the quiet river valleys to the bustling big cities, a drive through the heartland is an incredible experience. However, driving in Illinois also presents its own unique set of challenges. In order to combat these challenges, you need to practice defensive driving techniques. Simply knowing how to operate your vehicle is not enough-you have to know how to drive defensively. What's the difference between driving and defensive driving? Driving is merely operating a vehicle. Defensive driving involves planning ahead and keeping an eye out for trouble, so you can avoid accidents before they happen. The following defensive driving techniques will help you stay safe while driving in Illinois, no matter where the road takes you.

Basic Defensive Driving Techniques

No matter where you are, there is one "golden rule" of defensive driving that you should be following at all times. Unfortunately, most of us break it constantly. What is the golden rule of defensive driving? It's simple: "Stay alert and plan ahead!" If more people followed this rule, there would be far fewer accidents on Illinois highways. Even though this rule seems like it would be easy to follow, in today's fast-paced world there is always something else in the car clamoring for our attention: a crying baby, a ringing cell phone, a fast food hamburger combo with fries....the list goes on and on. Also, our culture glorifies multi-tasking, to the point where it almost seems wasteful to spend all of our commuting time "just driving."

Unfortunately, driving is not a task that's conducive to multitasking. We are in our cars so often that it seems routine, but think about it: when you drive, you are piloting a ton of metal with a combustible gas tank, moving at high speed along roads filled wit other equally fast and combustible vehicles. It only takes a few seconds for something to go horribly wrong, and if you are focused on doing something else for that short span of time, you could be in trouble. In fact, according to a study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association in 2006, 80% of auto accidents were caused by drivers being distracted in the three seconds prior to the crash. So, whether you need to talk on a cell phone, read a map or eat a burger, do yourself and everyone around you a favor and pull over!

According to the Illinois Secretary of State's Distracted Drivers Task Force's Final Report, there are actually three types of distractions: visual (you look away from the road to do something else), manual (you take your hands off the wheel to do something else) and cognitive (you get so lost in thought that you aren't mentally "there" at all). Even if you aren't actually doing anything other than driving, you still need to be sure to focus on the task at hand. Keeping your eyes on the road is important, but it isn't nearly enough. Your mind has to be on the road, too. If you find yourself worrying about work, family, etc, do some deep breathing, listen to happy music on the radio, and most importantly, focus on the road ahead of you!

If your attention is focused on driving, you can keep an eye out for potential trouble ahead. Observe the other cars, and make sure to give extra room to drivers who are driving unsafely. Keep your eyes peeled for potential trouble spots and hazards, and try to always have an "escape route" in case you need to take evasive action. This defensive driving technique is useful anywhere. Read on for more defensive driving tactics for specific situations.

City Driving

Illinois is home to major cities, including the third-largest city in the United States, Chicago. With a population of almost 3 million plus the tourists that come in droves to see the Windy City, Chicago's streets are packed. The sheer volume of traffic means that driving in Chicago, or in any of the other large cities in Illinois, can be especially challenging. Here are some defensive driving techniques to help you navigate through busy urban streets.

When you drive in the city, you share the road with so many other drivers that there isn't as much space available for you as there is when you drive in other environments. Less space means less room for error, so slow down to give yourself time to react to hazards caused by other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians. By slowing your pace and staying alert for surprises, you'll be able to react in time. Another way to shorten your reaction time is to rest your foot lightly on top of the brake. Don't apply pressure to it-you'll spend a fortune on brake jobs and keep everyone behind you guessing about what your next move is going to be. Just keep your foot there in case you do need to stop. This technique, known as covering the brake, will shorten your reaction time. This way, you'll be able to stop more quickly if a problem arises.

Also, try to plan your route beforehand. Think of the time of day you will be traveling, and try to re-route around streets you know will be congested with heavy traffic. You'll save time, gas and possibly your sanity! If you can't change your route to escape the worst of the traffic, consider going at a different time of day, if possible.

The way you position your vehicle in relation to other vehicles on the road is also an important defensive driving skill. In the city, you want to make sure that you can see everyone and everyone can see you. The best way to position your car is to move with the flow of traffic. Just make sure that traffic isn't speeding! Don't ride in another car's blind spot, and try to change positions if you notice someone riding in yours. Also, make sure you are in the lane that will give you the smoothest trip to where you want to go. If you've planned your route ahead of time, you'll know which lane you need to be in before you get there.

Here are some more tips on lane usage: Don't travel in the far right lane unless you plan on turning right soon. You might end up in a collision with a car turning in or out of a side street. Also, be careful at intersections. If you have less than 30 feet to go and you're in the wrong lane, just stay where you are. You can always turn around later. In the meantime, you've got other drivers on the road with you, and they won't expect you to change lanes that late in the game.

Rural Driving

Illinois has some of the most scenic rural driving in the country. The famous Route 66, an American institution, provides a more slow-paced, scenic route from Chicago to Los Angeles or anywhere in between. Here are some defensive driving techniques to remember while you tour the countryside of America's heartland.

First, remember that the scenic countryside conceals hazards that are unheard of in the city, or even in the suburbs. For example, you don't ordinarily come across a cow blocking your path in the city, but you just might when you travel through farmland. Slow down to give yourself more time to react. This is especially important when vegetation from farm or forest blocks your view. Stay alert for animals, both wild and domestic, as well as horse-drawn carriages and slow-moving farm vehicles.  These vehicles usually have a bright-orange triangle on the back. Don't try to pass them. Wait until they pull off to the side and the driver indicates that it's time for you to pass.

Also, remember that scenic routes usually follow the curves of the land. When building urban roads, construction crews often smooth the natural grade of the land for easier traveling, but this is not true of their country cousins. This means that you may experience prolonged periods of going up or down steep hills. When you need to slow down, avoid the temptation to ride on your brakes. They could overheat, and that's never a good thing. Instead, slow yourself down by shifting to a lower gear.

Passing can also be tricky on 2-lane rural roads. The first rule of passing, of course, is to obey the pavement markings. Don't try to pass if there is a solid yellow line on your side of the road. Even when passing is permitted, make sure you can see at least 1/3 of a mile in front of you before you make an attempt. Finally, if someone wants to pass you, pull off at the next turnoff and let them by.

At night, country roads can get dark. Use your high-beams if there is no other traffic around. Just don't forget to turn them back down to low for oncoming traffic! Whenever traffic facing you is approximately 500 feet away, it's time to turn on your low beams. Likewise, turn your lights down whenever you have another car 200 feet or fewer in front of you. Driving is much easier when you can see the road in front of you-don't take that away from other drivers!

Truck and Motorcycle Safety

Big trucks are the backbone of America, hauling goods from one part of the country to the other. However, driving with them can be tricky, even a little scary. You can't treat them like you would another car-it's simply not prudent. Here are some defensive driving strategies to keep everyone safe and happy when there are trucks on the road.

First, remember that trucks are much heavier than regular cars. This increased weight means that trucks take longer than cars to do just about anything. They take longer to start up and get up to speed, longer to turn, and longer to stop. Make sure that you use your signals often and early when you are on the road with a truck. Don't make any sudden moves or sporadic last-minute driving decisions-the big rig may not be able to react in time. Also, if you see a big rig stopped in front of you at a light. don't expect it to move out of the way the moment the light turns green. The laws of physics will prevent that from happening. Instead, give the truck some space to get going.

Also, remember that trucks have extra-large blind spots. Don't hang out in a semi's blind spot. It's not a good idea. How can you tell if you are in his blind spot? Generally, if you can't see the truck's mirrors, the driver can't see you. A truck also has a super-size turning radius, which is a good thing to remember when the road you are on makes a tight turn. That truck might need your lane, too, so watch out!

Motorcyclists love Illinois' open highways. As the driver of a car, you need to remember to give them some extra space. Tailgating a motorcycle is dangerous and could have tragic consequences. What happens if that motorcyclist has to come to a sudden stop, or the bike slips on some loose gravel? Remember, your car can do a lot more damage to a motorcyclist's unprotected body than it can to another car. Leave at least a four second following distance between you and the motorcycle. Also, motorcycles are smaller than cars, and they can be easy to miss if you don't watch for them. Check and double-check your blind spot.

Driving in Fog

Illinois is notable for its many serene lakes and mighty rivers. However, whenever conditions are right around bodies of water, you can expect fog to form. High humidity and cooler temperatures can create ghostly, hazy stretches of road. Fog makes it difficult to drive by reducing visibility. Here's how to cope: First, make sure your low beams are on. It may seem counter-intuitive, but high beams actually reduce visibility in mist or fog. Second, slow down but don't stop in the middle of the road. You need time to be able to react to obstacles in front of you, but you don't want to get rear-ended. If you have to stop, pull as far over on the shoulder as you can. Don't try to pass anyone, and try to avoid going through intersections if you can.

Winter driving

Illinois winters get extremely cold, and snow and ice are not uncommon. If you don't know how to drive in winter weather, you'll need to learn before you try to drive during an Illinois winter. The first step in making sure your winter trips are safe is to be prepared. Bring extra clothes, food, and an emergency blanket in case you get stranded. If you get stuck slipping and sliding across an ice patch, some kitty litter stashed in your trunk can help your wheels regain traction. Also, make sure to take your car in for a checkup before the weather gets rough. Above all, you need good brakes, a good battery, and the appropriate amount of anti-freeze in your coolant system.

When winter weather arrives, remember to slow down! Speeding over an ice patch can send your car into a tailspin. Additionally, it's important to be able to recognize ice patches. "Black ice" is infamous for being well-camouflaged; it looks just like shiny new black asphalt. In winter, the road should be light gray. Also, ice collects more frequently on bridges and overpasses. Even if the rest of the road is ice-free, you should still use caution in these areas. Skip the cruise control during winter. You need to be able to slow down immediately. Additionally, make sure to keep your lights on so that other cars can see you.

Driving in winter can be intimidating, but if you take precautions, you should be able to get yourself home safely!

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