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Audi A4 Sport Wagon

New behind the wheel? Here's some advice for new and inexperienced drivers

By Jim Bray
September 24, 2020

Back to School season may be the "most wonderful time of the year" if you're a parent whose kids have been driving you up the wall for the past several months, but it's also a time when many people are heading back to classes – or work, or whatever, as well.

This means, as I'm sure you'll have noticed, that our highways and byways are filling up again – not, perhaps, as much as they were back before our forcible, free trial of tyranny began, but more than were on the roads during the early heights of the health hype. This prompted the folks at OK Tire to offer some tips they think can help the more inexperienced drivers among us to have safer and/or more pleasant driving experiences than they might otherwise.

I'm not sure how many of today's young snowflakes will take heed – since OK's advice involves such things as paying attention to things other than themselves – but I present them here for your information, along with some comments of my own gleaned from a half century of driving vehicles of nearly every size on every type of road from dirt to race track.

OK Tire's list is all common-sense stuff, and it applies to drivers of all experience levels, not just the so-called newbies:

"Know your vehicle – Familiarising yourself with all of the buttons, including your AC, heating and wipers means you will know where they are when you need them quickly and will prevent you from taking your eyes off the road. Learning the basics of how your vehicle works inside and out will help to avoid panic if something goes wrong."

This makes perfect sense, of course, and all it really requires is for you to poke around your vehicle before you head out. Learn the touch screen and its various features (you may not have a touch screen but the advice is sound for any type of screen no matter how it's controlled) so you can spend the least amount of time looking for stuff when you should be looking down the road.

You should also poke around the various adjustable parameters of your vehicle to customize it for yourself. Do you want all doors to unlock when you unlock one? Do you want three, five or seven flashes of your signal lights when you want to change lanes? You can probably set such stuff (if the capability is even offered…) either via the centre stack's LCD screen or one on the instrument panel. If in doubt, a quick trip through the owner's manual could be a big help.

If you have voice recognition (and it actually works…), you might want to train it so you can just tell the vehicle audibly what you want it to do. You might feel funny ordering your car around vocally, but it could save your life.

"Plan your route – While you may know where you want to go and how to get there, planning your route ahead of time means you won't run into one-way streets or turning restrictions. Using driving aids, such as GPS or your smart phone's map app, to review your route before you set out helps in avoiding traffic and construction zones that can add extra stress."

This may not be a big deal if you're just running down to the corner store, but "forewarned is forearmed" as they say. This can also be handy if there's construction (your map app may not have the capability, but your municipality's website might have the info if you check); last week I was driving to meet a friend and the city had torn up a cross street and dumped fresh tar onto it, which covered the bottom of my beloved sports wagon and made it (and me) cry all the way home. So, yeah, this is a "do as I say not as I did" piece of advice, but that doesn't invalidate it.

"Talk to a professional – As a novice driver, there are things you might not notice that could be detrimental to your vehicle's performance or overall safety, for example, poor ride control could also mean a reduced braking distance. If you want to have peace of mind that your car is in tip-top condition, having a routine maintenance check will ensure your vehicle is performing its best and give you confidence before you head out."

I think they mean "longer braking distance" rather than "reduced" (isn't shorter braking distance a good thing?), but the point is valid: keep your vehicle in good condition.

I get our vehicles checked over, the oil changed etc., twice a year, in conjunction with our spring/fall wheel/tire swap over. Both our vehicles have separate winter tires and wheels, which means I could swap them myself if I weren't such a lazy oaf – but not having to remove and reseat the tires onto the same rims twice a year is easier on the tires and on the rims.

This doesn't mean you don't have to monitor your oil/fluid levels between times, of course, and if you don't know how to check your oil it would behoove you to learn; it could save your engine. It's usually pretty easy unless, as with my sports wagon, you have a really weird dipstick – and even then it isn't much of a chore.

"Avoid distractions – We all know distracted driving has been the cause of many accidents so make sure you avoid getting into bad habits now. Keep your phone tucked away, pull over if you need to eat or drink, keep music to a level where you can still easily hear surrounding sounds and only offer rides to people you trust will respect your position as a new driver and won't make you nervous."

How many times have you seen a vehicle swerving because the driver is on the phone, or otherwise oblivious to the driving world outside? Some of today's Bluetooth-equipped vehicles will even read incoming texts and give you a limited ability to respond without having to touch your phone, and it works quite well. If you have Bluetooth, learn to exploit it; if you don't have it, think about buying an aftermarket unit.

Now, here's a piece of my own advice, learned from the advanced driving courses I've been lucky enough to take: adjust your mirrors correctly. This one was driven home often during my time as a customer valet shuttle driver for an area car dealer: more often than not, when I get into a customer's vehicle I'm appalled at where the outside mirrors are aimed – generally so the driver can see the sides of his/her/its vehicle from the driver's seat.

This is understandable, but wrong; heck, I was taught the same when I took Driver's Ed back in high school (yes, they had cars then…) – but as was pointed out to me during Advanced Driving classes, there's no point in seeing the sides of YOUR car – you need to see the OTHER person's car! And you need to see it while it's still far enough away for you to do something about avoiding it.

So, and this will feel distinctly weird for a while (so bear with it until it feels natural), adjust your side mirrors outward, away from the sides of your vehicle. Set them so that you can see a wide, panoramic view behind and to the sides, using all three mirrors (including the inside rear view mirror). Ideally, if you have someone walk from one side to side of your vehicle to the other, you should be able to see him/her/it pass right across the rear.  

Practice makes perfect, but once you get this right and are comfortable with it, you won't have to shoulder check (you do shoulder check, right?) nearly as much, which means you can spend more time looking ahead.

And one more thing: hold the steering wheel with your hands at nine and three o'clock. This gives you the best control and most efficient steering.

Again, this is all common-sense stuff (well, maybe the mirror thing seems a tad counterintuitive, but it isn't, really) and if you get into good driving habits you'll not only be a safer driver, you'll be more impervious to other oafs driving around you – and, fortunately, you'll also enjoy the drive a lot more.

Copyright 2020 Jim Bray

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