Question of the Week

June 19, 2006


As the summer driving season heats up, more people will be traveling -- and more people will be driving in unfamiliar situations. Whether taking a day trip to a local beach or driving in a foreign country, unfamiliar situations bring unfamiliar risks and an increased need to be pay attention.

"Renting a car is hard enough in the States, but throw in foreign street signs, right-sided driving wheels and Paris rush-hour traffic, and your European road trip could be headed for a ditch. ..."

When renting a car, drivers are already adding the challenge of driving an unfamiliar vehicle. Add to that unfamiliar streets (foreign or domestic) and/ or an unfamiliar transmission, and the stress levels can rise along with the risks. Some ways to reduce those risks include... When choosing a rental car,

"Pick simplicity over style. Though standard transmission cars are more prevalent in Europe, if your shifting skills are shaky, pay the 10 to 20 percent more for an automatic. Also, consider renting a smaller car, since many European cities were built for horse-drawn carriages, not Hummers. [Mariana Field Hoppin, a travel consultant for Avis Europe] recommends a midsize model, large enough to fit your bags but small enough to park on medieval streets."

Most people will not be planning to rent a car in Europe for their summer driving. While those renting domestically are not likely to find standard transmissions, they will still need to choose the right size vehicle to best meet their needs. While everyone wants to fit and be comfortable, bigger is not always better. Whether driving their own SUV or a rental, drivers need to keep in mind that summer travel can be different from the weekly commute. One big difference: the summer drive often includes a much fuller vehicle.

"SUVs appeal to consumers because of their greater cargo capacity and perceived go-anywhere capability. Compared to typical sedans and station wagons, it seems logical that a larger 4WD vehicle would offer both these advantages with few tradeoffs. This is despite the fact that many SUVs have a payload capacity (how much weight they can carry) that is considerably less than what buyers assume. Once an SUV is overloaded, the chance of a rollover increases dramatically. The taller height of an SUV (which provides a commanding view of the road that many consumers love about their SUVs) also raises the chance of a rollover. Due to their higher center of gravity, SUVs are more prone to roll over than passenger cars that ride closer to the ground. Overloading an already top-heavy SUV not only raises the risk of rollover; it also places added stress on the brakes and can cause a tire blowout -- especially if the tires are improperly inflated."

It is a good idea to check all vehicles for proper tire inflation (not just SUVs). While all drivers need to make sure their vehicles are ready for travel (and this means checking more than just the tire pressure before a long trip), those pulling trailers have even more to do.

"Before You Go Out On The Highway...
* [Make certain] the trailer is loaded evenly from front to rear as well as side to side. Too much weight on the hitch will cause the rear wheels of the tow vehicle to drag and may make steering more difficult. Too much weight on the rear of the trailer will cause the trailer to 'fishtail' and may reduce traction or even lift the rear wheels of the tow vehicle off the ground.
* Check the brakes. On a level parking area roll forward and apply the brakes several times at increasing speeds to determine a safe stopping distance.
* [Make certain] the side view mirrors are large enough to provide an unobstructed rear view on both sides of the vehicle. ...
* Make certain water from rain or cleaning has been removed from the boat. Water weighs approximately eight pounds per gallon and can add weight that will shift with the movement of the trailer."

For those who have not previously pulled a trailer -- or who haven't driven with one for quite some time -- it is important to remember that the vehicle will handle differently with the trailer attached.

"* Allow more time to brake, accelerate, pass, and stop.
* Remember the turning radius is also much greater. Curbs and roadside barriers must be given a wide berth when negotiating corners.
* Prior to operating on the open road, practice turning, backing up, etc. on a level uncongested parking area"

Whether driving an RV, pulling a trailer, or driving an RV that is pulling a trailer, bigger vehicles require extra care.

"Always leave plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front of you. RV's are much heavier than your automobile and require a longer braking distance to come to a stop. This alone will prevent accidents, especially during emergency braking. Driving at a safe speed also lowers your braking distance. Always use a supplemental braking system on the vehicle you are towing too.";jsessionid=PUFDS1QBUWPZ2CTFJMXSFEQ

A bigger vehicle is more difficult for the driver to stop or maneuver; it is also more easily affected by outside forces.

"Avoid driving or pulling your RV during bad weather and high winds. Because of the size and mass of RV‚s it can be extremely dangerous to travel during periods of high winds. It's better to get to your destination one day later, than to risk traveling in bad weather.";jsessionid=PUFDS1QBUWPZ2CTFJMXSFEQ

Bigger vehicles have their advantages and disadvantages. It is easier to be seen, but it is more difficult to seeothers. It is more difficult to avoid an accident, but there is more protection in the event of one. While some feel safer in a bigger vehicle, others prefer the maneuverability and freedom of something smaller. Cars provide a good compromise for some; for others, a car does not meet their needs (their family is too big, or they need to tow more weight than a car can handle). Then there are those who find that even a car is too big.

"An automobile has more weight and bulk than a motorcycle. It has door beams and a roof to provide some measure of protection from impact or rollover. It has cushioning and airbags to soften impact and safety belts to hold passengers in their seats. It has windshield washers and wipers to assist visibility in the rain and snow. An automobile has more stability because it's on four wheels, and because of its size, it is easier to see. A motorcycle suffers in comparison when considering vehicle characteristics that directly contribute to occupant safety. ... An estimated 33 percent of motorcycle operators killed in traffic crashes are not licensed or are improperly licensed to operate a motorcycle. By not obtaining a motorcycle operator license, riders are bypassing the only method they and state licensing agencies have to ensure they have the knowledge and skill needed to safely and skillfully operate a motorcycle."

With the added "weight and bulk" of a car comes added safety. Driving a motorcycle has its own unique set of challenges and risks. For that reason, a special license is required. Again: "An estimated 33 percent of motorcycle operators killed in traffic crashes are not licensed or are improperly licensed to operate a motorcycle." If the drivers know what they need to know in order to get a license, then they have knowledge of the skills they need in order to be safer drivers.

"Motorcyclists must ... [a]nticipate what may happen more than other vehicle drivers may. For example, anticipate that drivers backing their cars out of driveways may not see you; and place greater emphasis on defensive driving. Motorcyclists also must be more cautious when riding in inclement weather, on slippery surfaces, or when encountering obstacles on the roadway. ... Approximately half of all fatal single-vehicle motorcycle crashes involve alcohol. A motorcycle requires more skill and coordination to operate than a car. Riding a motorcycle while under the influence of any amount of alcohol significantly decreases an operator's ability to operate the motorcycle safely."

Questions of the Week:
What will you be driving this summer? What do you need to know about a vehicle before getting behind the wheel? Even if you are driving the car you always drive -- on streets you know well -- how can knowledge about the challenges other drivers might be facing affect your driving? Whether or not you will be the driver, what do you need to know when helping load a vehicle? What can passengers do to improve safety on the roads? What can you do if a friend offers you a ride, and you don't think it would be safe to go? How can knowledge of vehicle safety issues help you talk to your friends and family members about safe driving practices (and help you keep yourself safe)?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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