7 Driving Mysteries That Could Save Your Life

The most dangerous thing most people do in a typical day is get behind the wheel. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans ages 5 to 34, reports the Centers for Disease Control. Globally, motor vehicle accidents claim more than 1.3 million lives a year, and cause 20 to 50 million injuries—prompting the United Nations to declare 2011 to 2020 the decade of action for road safety with upwards of 70 countries pledging to initiate new programs to save lives on their roads.

About one in five US drivers— 36.9 million Americans—couldn’t meet the basic requirements to get a driver’s license if they had to take the written test today, according to a shocking GMAC Insurance survey released in May. Kansas topped the list with the most knowledgeable drivers, while Washington, DC drivers scored the worst on a test of basic driving skills, based on questions from state DMV exams.

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Think you’re smarter than the average driver? Here’s a quiz to check your driving IQ, using questions from the survey and other road safety research, plus driving safety tips that could help save your life from Charlie Halfen, a retired UPS (United Parcel Service) fleet safety manager who now serves as a driving safety consultant to companies and parents’ groups:

1. What’s the correct action to take when approaching a steady yellow light?

Answer: This seemingly simple question stumped 85 percent of the 5,130 licensed drivers GMAC polled. The correct action: Stop if it’s safe to do so.

2. What’s the number one driving mistake that causes crashes?

Answer: Multi-tasking while driving, which is particularly a problem among young drivers. A survey of 2,300 teens around the US released this month found that 68 percent of them were involved in near-miss collisions in 2010-2011 due to distracted driving, including changing songs on portable devices with screens, cell phone use, and texting. The government reports that in 2009, an estimated 448,000 Americans were injured in crashes caused by distracted driving, and 5,474 were killed.

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3. What’s the most common location for injury-causing car accidents?

Answer: Intersections rank as the number one danger zone for crashes serious enough to cause injuries, reports Halfen, who has investigated hundreds of accidents. Drivers often assume that it’s safe to proceed if they have the right of way. However, it can be a dangerous mistake to rely on others to drive safely, given the high rate of distracted driving.

4. What safety steps should you take at an intersection?

Answer: “Always look left, right and left again to make sure the intersection is visually clear before and be prepared to stop—even if you have the right of way—rather than risk an accident if another driver isn’t paying attention,” says Halfen. Since left turns are the most hazardous maneuver, he advises planning your route to make only right turns, if possible. This also saves money, by avoiding gas consumption due to engine idling while waiting to make left turns safely.

5. What’s the best way to avoid parking lot fender-benders?

Answer: UPS teaches its drivers to back into parking spots when they arrive at a parking lot, instead of backing out when exiting, says Halfen. “While people who have never tried this may find the idea a little scary, once they do, it soon becomes second nature. You have much better visibility exiting a parking spot facing oncoming traffic—or pedestrians—that move into your path, compared to backing out and checking for hazards with the rear view mirrors.”

6. Which simple precaution saves lives if you’re in a car accident?

Answer:  Make everyone in the car buckle up, no matter how short the trip. The CDC reports that seat belt use can prevent about 50 percent of injuries and deaths from motor vehicle crashes. Kids should be protected with age-appropriate child safety seats or booster seats until they are at least 8 years old or 4’ 9” inches tall. For more on child passenger safety, click here.

7. What’s the safe following distance?

Answer: Only 25 percent of those GMAC surveyed knew the correct answer: three seconds. For an extra margin of safety, however, Halfen recommends a four second gap to reduce the risk of a rear-end collision if a vehicle in front of you stops suddenly. To check if you are at a safe following distance, start counting slowly when the car in front of you passes a stationary object, such as a road sign. If you pass the object before four seconds is up, slow down. To take the 20-question GMAC driving test, click here. Your score may surprise—or even shock—you!

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