12 defensive driving tips from local road warriors that could save your life.

Clay Johnson is a long-haul truck driver who trains others in how to safely operate a rig. He has all kinds of advice on safe driving, but most of it can be boiled down to one simple philosophy.

“When I’m driving, I assume everybody else on the road is an idiot,” Johnson says. “I give them room to be an idiot so if something happens, I can be a spectator rather than a participant.”

It’s a concept that arises again and again when you talk to experts in defensive driving. Most of them don’t put it as bluntly, but the concept is the same: watching out for the other guy is near the top of the list when it comes to safe driving tips.

“Observation is the key in driving,” says Larry Boivin, chief driver’s license examiner at the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles. “I cannot stress that enough. People sometimes just don’t know how to observe properly.”

Guy Desjardins, former Androscoggin County sheriff who went from driving a police cruiser and limousine to driving a school bus every day in retirement, concurs completely. The simple act of observation is half the battle, he says, and it’s more important today than ever.

“There are people texting out there. There are people talking on their cell phones,” Desjardins says. “There are so many distractions out there, you have to be observant at all times.”


Of course, if the simple act of paying attention was the only skill that mattered, most of us would glide down life’s highway without so much as a close call and only imbeciles would run into trouble.

Unfortunately, good drivers have to share the road with bad ones and let’s face it: Bad drivers can mean trouble for everybody.

“People are so often in such a big rush,” says school bus driver Don Boucher, “that they fail to notice everyone else on the road. From speeding through town, driving through red traffic signals, applying lipstick while driving, eating a sandwich, having both hands occupied – phone, food, newspaper, etc. – while holding the wheel with their knees, it sometimes can be extremely comical, if it weren’t so damn serious and scary.”

Scary, indeed. Your best shot at survival? Reduce risks by always staying focused and avoiding distractions, but also by doing the little things right.

What are the little things? It’s the stuff you might not think about as your buzzing from one place to another, mentally patting yourself on the back for being such a smart and responsible driver. Fortunately, our driving experts helped us come up with a list of things to keep in mind – things that just might mean the difference between a safe trip and a nightmare.

1) When stopped in traffic and preparing to make a left turn, do not turn your wheels to the left until you are ready to make the turn.


In March, a 95-year-old Mexico woman died after the car in which she was riding was struck from behind, forcing it into oncoming traffic on Route 2.

When details of the wreck emerged, the scenario was a familiar one. Police said the driver of the car had been headed east on Route 2 when she slowed in anticipation of making a left turn. As she stopped and waited for the opportunity to turn, the driver already had her wheels turned to the left, police said. When her car was hit from behind, it naturally went in that direction, bumping her into oncoming traffic.

Was the driver guilty of gross negligence? No. In fact, police say it’s common. When a driver is preparing to make a turn, he or she naturally prepares by turning the wheels in that direction. Don’t do it, the experts say.

“If you’re struck from behind, where are you going to go?” says Larry Caron, an instructor at Roy’s Driver and Rider Education in Lewiston. “You’re going to go straight into oncoming traffic.”

Instead, keep your wheels straight until you are prepared to make the turn.

2) Be wary of tailgaters and don’t be one yourself


We all know that we should maintain a safe distance between our car and the car ahead of us. Most experts suggest a distance of one to two seconds between vehicles. “And four is better,” says Caron.

Not tailgating the poor soul in front of us is something we can control. But what about when some lead-footed fool behind us is driving too close to OUR tail?

“When somebody is tailgating you,” Caron advises, “you should actually back off and leave more room between yourself and the person ahead of you.”

This move serves a dual purpose. It reduces the chances that you’ll have to brake suddenly in reaction to the car ahead of you, and it alerts the dolt to the rear that you’re not crazy about him riding your back bumper. It also will give the tailgater more room between you and the next car to safely pass you.

And if it’s really getting on your nerves, just pull over and let the guy pass.

3) Green does not mean go


Say, what? Since we were just tots riding in car seats, we’ve known that red means stop and green means go. But Caron would tell you otherwise.

“A green light doesn’t mean go,” he says. “It means go if it’s safe to do so.”

Too many people, the experts say, jump on the gas the very second the light changes from red to green. The trick is to take a second to observe your lane of travel before proceeding, just to make sure it’s clear.

4) You’re a good looking driver. Make sure others can see you

This might be as simple as turning your headlights on when the day turns gloomy, or it might mean flashing your brakes to let the driver behind you know where you are. In a world where drivers tend to be more distracted than ever, the experts say the more you can do to make them aware of you the better.

5) Anticipate what the other guy is going to do


This goes back to Clay Johnson’s advice on assuming the mentality of other drivers. If you proceed with absolute certainty that all other drivers on the road will do the right thing, you’ll eventually pay for your faith. You can hope for the best, sure enough. But the experts say you should also consider the mistakes other drivers might make and prepare to evade them. Sometimes that means slowing down to give them space, sometimes it means speeding up to motor passed them, other times it means considering what moves you will make if the fool pulls out in front of you.

“You’ve got to have that 260-degree awareness,” says Caron. “And always leave yourself a way out.”

6) Use the simple technology (blinkers anyone?)

Some folks just can’t bring themselves to use their headlights in the middle of the afternoon, even though it greatly increases visibility. Many are reluctant to tap the car horn to get the attention of other drivers. Plenty of people flat out refuse to use seat belts.

“I also think people get lax with blinkers and such,” says Travis Stearns, a professional race car driver from Auburn. “It’s really a simple thing and takes little to no effort, so just use them.”

Ah, turn signals, a technology that can be typically activated with just one finger. According to one study, 42 percent of drivers say they don’t have time to fiddle with their blinkers, while another 23 percent admit they’re just too lazy to use them. Other studies show that an estimated 2 million car wrecks a year are caused by drivers who neglect to use their turn signals.


Lewiston school bus driver Don Boucher has some thoughts.

“My pet peeve as a driver in general is turn signals,” he says. “There are three types of drivers: First, those like us professional drivers who avail themselves of the relatively easy process of using turn signals to let others know of our intended maneuvers. Second, those who flit around town, turning here and there, going in and out of traffic with no inclination at all to use turn signals. Just try to get out of their way. Third – and this I just don’t get – those who actually turn on their turn signal only not to make a turn anywhere. They seem oblivious to the clicking and signal lamp blinking on the dash.

7) Become familiar with new technology (even if it annoys you)

According to Larry Boivin, the driver’s license examiner with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for more than 20 years, technology has shown to be both boon and bane. Autonomous technology, where your car takes evasive or adaptive measures without any input from you, the driver, can be downright spooky.

Then there are the various bonks, beeps and chirps seeking to inform you of one thing or another: drowsiness alerts, collision warning systems, blind-spot detection and a host of other alarms that might startle and confuse a driver who’s more accustomed to crank windows and AM radio.

“I think folks need to become more familiar with it all before actually driving the vehicle,” Boivin says. “Unless you’re familiar with the technology, it acts as a distraction.”


Of course, with self-driving cars possibly entering the mainstream, there may come a time when we can just sit back and let the vehicle do all the worrying.

“The Jetsons are going to be here before long,” Boivin said.

8) When making a left turn, don’t grip the inside portion of the steering wheel

We know. It looks much cooler to do it that way, and it might be easier on your wrist. But Caron advises against it.

“What if a kid jumped out in front of you while you’re making the turn?” he said. “Are you going to be able to turn right to avoid him? Not unless you’re Gumby.”

Keeping the hands near the inside part of the steering wheel also opens the door to grotesque injury, Caron added, if the driver’s-side airbag were to deploy.


9) Always keep your eyes moving, searching the entire driving environment

It’s a good driving habit (and if you happen to be sitting in the passenger seat, it’s an easy way to tell if your driver is a good one).

Caron, like many driving experts, embraces the SIPDE method (scan, identify, predict, decide, execute). It works out like this:

* Scan the roadway and off-road areas 20 to 30 seconds ahead for information that can help you plan a path of travel;

* Identify objects or conditions 12 to 15 seconds ahead that could interfere with your planned path of travel;

* Predict what cautions or changes in conditions on or near the roadway could increase the level of risk;


* Decide what action or actions to take at least 4 to 5 seconds ahead of time to control or reduce risk;

* Execute necessary action.

10) Keep your pets secure. Or at home.

You think other drivers are unpredictable? Try letting a dog, cat, ferret, parakeet or boa constrictor run amok inside your car. It seems like lunacy, but people do it every day, according to Boucher, the bus driver.

“I love animals,” he says, “but it does bother me when I see people driving with dogs of all sizes sitting in their laps. I know dogs like to stick their heads out of car windows, but it seems to be an accident waiting to happen.”

11) See all that you can see (and don’t be a slob)


It’s kind of hard to scan your driving environment if 75 percent of your windows are still covered with snow.

The same goes for car clutter.

“Saw a car, once, loaded floor to ceiling with trash,” bus driver Boucher says. “Pizza boxes, wrappers, coffee and soda cups, clothes, magazines and all sorts of other garbage. There was only just enough room for the driver to sit behind the wheel. One can only imagine what it smelled like in there.”

12) Don’t rely on your mirrors

Blind spots are everywhere. Look over your shoulders when passing or changing lanes to make sure there’s no one bearing down on you. This is also another great way to tell if your driver is a good one. If he’s not looking over his shoulders when making these maneuvers, he should go back to driving school.

The wrong way to grip your steering wheel:

“What if a kid jumped out in front of you while you’re making the turn? Are you going to be able to turn right to avoid him? Not unless you’re Gumby.”

— Larry Caron, Lewiston driving instructor 

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