Roadcraft: unlocking the mysteries of car ownership

Join us as we take you through the 18 key points of car ownership...

Britain’s police drivers all benefit from a handbook they receive during training

Ford Focus panda car

It’s called Roadcraft, and is the official guide to better and safer driving. Police drivers need this, but so do the rest of us.

So it got us thinking, and we have come up with our own version, with all the key things every driver needs to know, wherever they live and drive, and whatever they do. After all, driving is a skill, like any other activity. Let’s get down to business:

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How can I avoid car crashes?

Wrecked car

Car accidents are one of the leading causes of (usually) avoidable deaths in most countries – there were 1770 deaths in the UK in the year ending in June 2018, the latest data available. And although cars and roads are getting safer, there are still a lot of ways to avoid us becoming a statistic.

Driver error – The most important single cause of accidents everywhere is not equipment failure – for example, a tyre blow-out – but driver error.

Cycle couriers in London are trained to ride defensively. They are taught to constantly think about the most foolish thing a vehicle nearby could do, and make allowances for it happening. So if for example a car pulls up ahead, there's a very good chance of them opening their car door in front of – and thus they should make allowances accordingly.

How can I avoid car crashes? - anticipation

Over-the-shoulder image of driver panicking before head on collision

What applies to bike riding also applies to car driving. Anticipatory driving is extremely important. Be aware of all vehicles around you, including those behind. If there appears to be impatient madman behind you, get out of his way. He will get to the next traffic queue a few seconds quicker.

Ditherers in particular should be given a wide berth, literally – they may be lost or impaired in some way, and may make sudden unexpected moves. If you find yourself near a bad driver, keep your hand near the horn – a quick blast may bring them to their senses and allow you to get away from them.

Failure to look properly is the number one cause of accidents. Look once, look again, look once more, and both directly and in your mirrors. And this factor combines with another key cause  – a failure to judge another vehicle’s course or speed.

How can I avoid car crashes? - conditions

VW Golf R driving in the wet

A traffic policeman recently spoke to us about how to avoid accidents:

“Give yourself time and space, and share the road equitably. Where it’s safe and you have a clear view, open up the road by relaxing your lane discipline and positioning the car so you have an even better view and can straighten out corners.

“Concentration and good observation make you a safer and more efficient driver. And remember it’s inappropriate speed that kills, not speed alone.”

Conditions are also important. Braking distances can double for wet roads, and rise a scary 10-fold in snow and icy conditions. Drive to the conditions, not just the speed limit. And keep your distance at all times.

Speed

Average speed cameras above motorway

Talking of speed, while we should all adhere to speed limits, speed in itself is only the 10th largest single cause of road accidents in the UK according to the Department for Transport. It’s high speed in conjunction with other errors that act as a compounder for those errors that is crucial. After all, right now there are hundreds of people driving at 120mph and more on autobahns in Germany, and they’ll nearly all get home just fine.

But speed limits on autobahns are rigidly applied in areas where there are most accidents: at junctions, and next to road works. Indeed, autobahns have a much lower fatality rate than rural roads in the same country.

What is the key to fuel economy?

Woman re-fuelling Mini Cooper SD at petrol station

First things first: if fuel economy is a big deal for you – and it will be especially if you do a lot of miles – get a vehicle that has decent fuel economy. Generally speaking, the more powerful the car and the heavier it weighs, the more fuel it will consume. But over and above that, driving style is important. Nailing the pedal to the floor of a heavily-laden car up a hill will use a lot of fuel. Sudden, surging acceleration may remind you of why you enjoy a high-performance car, but again it will use a lot of fuel.

Economical driving means momentum driving – just make steady progress, avoid harsh acceleration, and keep a good eye on the road ahead and anticipate the road. Engine speed as measured by your cars rev-counter has a direct correlation to fuel usage – the lower the engine speed, the less fuel you’ll use, so get up the gears as soon as possible, but without straining the engine which can lead to fatigue-related engine issues.

What is the key to fuel economy? - speed

Renault Clio travelling fast round corner

Don’t be afraid, however, to use hard acceleration when necessary for safety – for example, when overtaking, or when merging onto a faster road. Most modern conventionally-powered engines feature turbochargers, which is great for wringing more power out of a relatively small engine.

But turbos guzzle fuel; turbos come on boost – which gives you a surge but hits fuel economy – in most engines around 1500-2000rpm. If you keep your engine speeds mostly below that, it will have an appreciable impact on your MPG.

Should I use air conditioning all the time?

BMW air conditioning unit

Talking of fuel economy, air-con truly comes into its own in hot weather, but it does consume more fuel, especially in very warm weather. It is tempting to switch it off in winter conditions, but this can lead to problems: there are lubricants suspended in the refrigerant gas and if it isn't used regularly the seals dry out and the gas escapes.

You’ll need to re-gas the system at a minimum, or even carry out more fundamental repairs. And cars without functioning air conditioning are virtually unsellable today. So just leave it on; if not set too cold in normal weather, it won’t use much fuel.

How to avoid road rage

Angry driver tailgating another car

The simple answer is: don’t get angry. The world is full of idiots, and an excellent rule of life is to avoid them at all costs. And on the roads is the same. Let others get angry, while you carry on with your day.

London ‘black cab’ taxi drivers spend all day annoying other drivers – stopping and performing U-turns with little notice and so on, but they tend not to get into disputes. Why? They’re taught to avoid eye contact with other road users, to not engage in quarrels, to wave and signal before they carry out manoeuvres, and generally avoid aggravation. We can all learn a lot from this.

Don’t drive a junkyard

Triumph Stag in scrap yard

One of the things that mental health advisors often advise people with emotional problems is to tidy their homes. The reasoning is that messiness rubs off on people’s moods – and there is scientific evidence: a 2009 UCLA study suggested that levels of the stress hormone cortisol were higher in people - especially women - with a messy home than those without in a controlled experiment.

And one suspects it’s true of our cars as well. No one likes driving around in a mess, and it may not be helpful to your mood. You don’t need to take your car to a valet every week – just clear it out regularly, and a cheap mini-vacuum can work wonders, too; that’s how VIP drivers keep their car interiors smart.

What should I listen to in the car?

Ford Fiesta ST infotainment system

Simply put, anything that isn’t distracting. Loud music can be enervating, but studies have shown that it can be dangerous, and can encourage speeding. Research from the Memorial University of Newfoundland  in 2007 showed a direct link between a higher sound volume and reaction time.

When music was played at just 95 decibels (the average smartphone speaker is capable of more than 100 decibels), reaction times increased by 20% across all participants. A favoured tune in a great car with a great sound system driving a great road can be a wonderful thing, it’s true, but be aware that you’re still driving a heavy lump of metal around, and not relaxing in a nightclub.

How to get comfortable when driving

Man at the wheel

The word ‘comfortable’ can be perceived in many ways, but there are a few things which could help when you’re on the road.

To start with, the position of your seat and steering wheel will depend on your height and your personal preferences but ideally your elbows should be at a 45 degree angle to your body when you hold the wheel, your seat should be upright to support your back and your legs should not be fully extended even when you fully press the pedals. If you have lumbar support or heated seats in your car these options will also usually increase your comfort.

How to get comfortable when driving - what to wear

Man sat comfortably in car

Another thing to really think about is what you are wearing. Are the stiff leather shoes or heeled boots really necessary? Or will they give you sore, restricted feeling feet which will make driving awkward and long journeys unbearable. Perhaps you can drive in your casual, loose clothes and get changed into your smart gear when you arrive. Belts can be uncomfortable for longer stints and so can tight clothing.

Take your coat off if you are not too cold because this can not only make you feel hot and flustered, but on some coats a big furry hood impairing your vision or tickling your ear can be annoying. Besides which some padded, tailored or slim fitting coats can restrict your movement and if you avoid this you can also avoid the hassle of pulling over to take off a layer.

Lastly, grab yourself a drink for the car because there is nothing worse than driving when you have a sandpaper mouth and dry throat, but only drink when stationery.

How to concentrate when driving

Over-the-shoulder shot of man driving a car

Top of the list is: don’t drive when you’re tired. This is easier said than done because nearly everybody drives with a purpose, so it can be hard to say no to getting behind the wheel, but according to the Department for Transport around 20% of accidents are caused by driver fatigue. This figure rises to 25% for fatal and serious accidents.

If there really is no other option, have a short rest before you get on the road. You shouldn’t be driving if you are feeling unwell in a way which can impact your concentration or judgement such as feeling faint, dizzy, or having a headache/migraine.

Still, even if you’re feeling in tip-top condition, concentrating when you’re driving is a fine balance between observing potential hazards and being two steps ahead of all other road users/pedestrians. You also need to block out things which aren’t relevant like a goal being scored in the football pitch you’re passing.

How to concentrate when driving - sat-nav

Sat-nav system

You might be using sat-nav, and if phone-based you need to make sure that it’s secured in a hands-free mobile phone holder somewhere you can see it easily. It can be so easy to switch off when following the sat-nav, but pay attention to your surroundings to avoid missing a junction.

Modern sat-nav systems have real-time notifications and travel updates. The popular app Waze, for example, shows real-time user reports of police, potholes, weight of traffic and other hazards, and is used by 110 million monthly users, worldwide.

Another trick is keeping an eye out for speed cameras which can always sharpen the mind. Some road users will instinctively brake on sight of these, whether speeding or not, so be ready for that. Lastly, don’t look too closely at the advertisements on lorries, building decorations, car stickers or billboards.

How to relax when driving

Over-the-shoulder shot of man driving a car

This is an interesting conversation – is there such a thing as a relaxing drive in this day and age? Although other road users can be inconsiderate, dangerous and quite frankly annoying, try not to rise to the frustration bubbling inside of you.

Remember that your priority is to get to your destination safely, not quickly while worrying about who is going to pick up some emergency food supplies. Be present in the moment rather than the past –  “Have I turned the oven off?” – or the future – “Oh no, I’m going to be late.”

The chances are that even if you accelerate between speed bumps and overtake people you won’t reduce your journey time, and worrying about getting there won’t impact your timings either. If you are on a long journey make sure you stop at the services when you fancy it or if you need to rest your eyes/go to the toilet. Think about your playlist or tuning your radio beforehand so you don’t get the same songs on repeat.

How should I avoid distraction when driving?

Man on phone whilst driving

In a 2018 IAM RoadSmart survey, the top personal safety issues were: driving while using social media and driving while texting or emailing. These were all considered threatening by more than nine-in-10 people. How to avoid them?

Get a suitable music playlist or radio station which requires minimal interaction, always use hands-free systems, try and carry sensible or helpful passengers, and don’t eat and drive. But what about the distractions which are spoken about less?

Pets should be in a harness and have safety equipment such as a dog guard fitted so your pets cannot reach you in the front seat. Mirrors should be adjusted before you leave. And secure all loose luggage which might roll around and cause you to look.

And finally, don't be a rubber-necker when you see an accident on the other carriageway. This causes congestion on the motorways and can cause you to have an accident, too.

Why does my car breakdown?

Broken down car at side of road

Cars have infinite differences, but there are two words that are most important in avoiding breakdowns: routine maintenance. All cars have a recommended service interval cycle, and you should stick to it. Apart from reducing the chance of breakdowns, it will help enhance the future value of the vehicle, and highlight problems emerging that could cost you a lot of money down the road. In short, routine maintenance will save you money.

The most important part of any service on a conventionally-powered car is the changing of oil. Oil is a vital ingredient of any conventional car engine, which is full of moving parts that can only operate smoothly because of it. However, the oil degrades over time, and eventually turns to sludge. When this happens, it no longer protects your engine properly, and can lead to parts abrasing each other in the engine, eventually leading to component failure. And you being stranded at the side of the road.

And finally, keep your cool

Over-the-shoulder shot of man driving car

Your journey won’t always be perfect – there are far too many things to go wrong, often involving things outside your control. To avoid stress, try and leave at least a 10% time buffer zone, and even more if you have an important engagement to get to.

The French author and philosopher Albert Camus once opined that he knew “nothing more stupid than to die in an automobile accident." He died in an automobile accident.

In one of the last songs he ever wrote, that other philosopher John Lennon suggested that “Before you cross the street take my hand. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Driving can and should be perfectly safe – but it’s still the single most dangerous thing most of us do in any given day. Stay relaxed, be patient, avoid unnecessary risks, drive sensibly, and treat it like the specialist skill it is. A craft in fact. This will leave room for your other plans.

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