‘Drive to the conditions.’ It’s something that we’ve all heard countless times, but if you asked people what those conditions were, they might struggle to come up with more than whether it’s raining or dark. Those are definitely two of the conditions to be aware of when you’re behind the wheel, but there are others. Being fully aware of the conditions in which you are driving and making some minor changes can be the difference between having enough time and space to avoid a crash, or not.
1. What is the condition of the road?
This isn’t just whether it’s unsealed or has potholes. More people die in road crashes on rural roads and highways than on motorways each year in New Zealand yet there is much more traffic on motorways. The difference is that motorways are engineered to be safer at high speeds. Some key conditions to be aware of are whether you are on a road with a median barrier; whether the road has power poles, trees or ditches alongside it; or whether it has side roads and driveways on it. If you’re driving on an undivided rural road with a ditch running alongside it, there is hardly any room for error if someone crosses the centreline, or if a car pulls out of a driveway in front of you. The risks are considerably greater than driving on a motorway, even though they both could have a 100km/h speed limit.
What can you do? Be extra careful on open roads that don’t have median barriers or have ditches, trees and power poles along them. Stick to safe speeds and scan ahead for vehicles turning in or out from side roads or driveways. Give yourself more of a buffer by keeping a good following distance and try to have an ‘escape route’ in mind if you suddenly were in an emergency.
2. What is your condition as a driver?
Your health, frame of mind and emotions can all affect your driving. If you are sick or tired, you may take longer to react than you normally would. Similarly, if you have a lot on your mind, like a big event or work project, or you have just had an argument with someone, the mental focus you are giving to your driving is likely to be reduced. Medications are something else to be aware of, as some can make you drowsy or fuzzy-headed.
What can you do? Recognise when you aren’t 100% or your mind is on other things and, if possible, avoid driving. If you are driving, allow more following distance so that you have more time to react and try to get a good night’s sleep before any long drives. Check the side-effects of any medication you are taking and be extra cautious when starting a new one. Ask your doctor if what you are taking could affect your driving and be extremely careful about having any alcohol when you are taking medicine, as it can change how the medication affects you.
3. What is the condition of your vehicle?
When was the last time your tyres were checked? Tyre tread is the crucial condition here; if your tread is getting low, or the tyres are under-inflated, it will take longer to stop and if there is water on the road, you will have less grip. While you will be used to driving your own car, remember when you jump into someone else’s that it's going to accelerate, brake and handle differently. Towing is the other obvious condition that will affect how your vehicle drives. The increased weight means it’ll take longer to stop, be slower to accelerate and not corner as well.
What can you do? Check your vehicle regularly. Make sure your tyres have enough tread on them and are at the right pressure. Check all your lights are working and that your windscreen wipers aren’t smearing. If you are using an unfamiliar car, take time to know where the controls are (lights, indicators, wipers, demister) and give yourself extra following distance until you're comfortable. When towing, stick to safe speeds, increase your following distance and pull over regularly so other vehicles can pass. AA Members get two free Safety Checks each year – see aa.co.nz/ safetychecks
4. What is the condition of the traffic?
Do you adjust your driving when the roads are busy, or in places where there are likely to be people cycling or more motorcyclists, trucks or rural vehicles? As the number of vehicles around you increases, so do the chances that someone will do something unexpected or make a mistake. When you have a mix of different types of vehicles it adds to the unpredictability, as they can use different parts of the road and move at different speeds to what a car does.
What can you do? When traffic is heavy you want to keep at least a two-second following distance and go with the flow. There often isn’t much point overtaking as you’ll just end up behind someone else, and because there will be more traffic coming the other way, overtaking is riskier. If there are cyclists and motorcyclists around, double check your mirrors and blind spots for them passing inside or outside you. In rural areas remember that things like tractors and livestock can be just around the next corner, so be ready to slow down or stop. Check traffic conditions before you go at aaroadwatch.co.nz
5. What is the condition of the light?
One in five injury crashes involve someone not seeing the other party. And it doesn’t have to be night-time for people to have trouble seeing. New Zealand has plenty of grey murky days that make visibility tougher. Other high-risk times are early morning and late afternoon when sun-strike can create blinding glare on windscreens. There are normally several fatal crashes each year involving sun-strike.
What can you do? Use your headlights during the day when it’s overcast or dim and keep your windscreen clean inside and out. Be mindful of sun-strike in the mornings and afternoons and try to put your visor down before the glare hits your windscreen. Slow down if it’s hard to see, and remember that even if your visibility is fine, other people facing into the sun might be struggling to see you at those times.
Reported for our AA Directions Autumn 2022 issue