Learn to Share the Road

Some motorists see big-rig trucks -- the 800-pound gorillas of the road -- as dangerous, but generally they are only as dangerous as car drivers make them. For the most part semi-trailers and other trucks that crisscross our highways and byways are piloted by professional drivers who pride themselves on their hard-won driving skills and on their courtesy. In fact, if you spend a lot of time driving from state to state and take the time to observe the behavior of big-rig truck drivers, you will quickly determine that they are the best and most courteous drivers on the road. So where did the aforementioned nightmare about big-rig trucks originate? Like most myths, it came from a lack of understanding -- in this case, a lack of understanding about what big-rig truckers are up against.

Imagine for minute driving with a paper bag over your inside rearview mirror. Then imagine you are at the wheel of a vehicle that is nearly as big as a boxcar and is articulated -- meaning the rear portion and the front portion don't turn as one. This gives you some idea of what it is like to be a big-rig driver.

With all this in mind, think of the challenge it must be to change lanes guided only by your side mirrors. Big trucks rarely have rearview mirrors, because the trailer would block the view. As a result, truck drivers cannot easily see what is directly behind their vehicle. While you might have some sense of this, you probably don't know that this blind spot extends at least 30 feet behind the trailer.

"When I’m driving my big-rig, my view of the road is limited," one semi-truck driver told us recently. "There are places in front, behind and on both sides of a big semi-truck where I just can’t see what’s there at all."

The blind spot alongside the truck extends out several lanes on each side of the vehicle. If you're driving in one of these areas, and the truck has to change lanes, it may not be possible to see you. Because of this, zipping into these blind spots and staying there, even though the lane ahead is clear, can be dangerous. The important thing is not just to observe what the big-rig driver is doing, but also anticipate what the big-rig driver might do, which could include moving into your lane.

The same holds true at an intersection, because trucks are not as maneuverable as cars. When a truck makes a sharp turn, the driver must swing wide. Because the driver's mirror is fixed to the tractor, during a turn the driver often can't see anything on the right side of the truck, so it's very risky to pull alongside of a truck turning right even though it seems the lane is clear.

Even the area right in front of a big-rig truck can include a blind spot. Can you see a small object directly in front of your front bumper? Neither can a truck, but with a truck, the invisible area can extend up to four car lengths. Because of this, it is dangerous to pass a semi and then cut in front of it.

Remember, most truck drivers have excellent skills and exhibit courteous behavior. Understanding the special circumstances they encounter behind the wheel can help make you a much safer driver.

Keep Your Family Safe This Summer

Summer isn’t winter. This is not simply a statement of fact: It also has implications on how you drive and the dangers you may face. Because summer isn’t winter, you will not encounter the same kinds of hazards in the next couple of months that you would in December, January and February -- namely, frigid temperatures and ice- and snow-covered roads. (Those living in Florida or Southern California are laughing right now.) But just because you are unlikely to get stranded in a snowdrift next week doesn’t mean your family’s safety isn't at risk. Since getting stranded on the roadside is inherently unsafe, avoiding that scenario is one key to summer safety. Another is maintaining systems that are vital to your well-being. Here's how to do it to ensure your family safe this summer:

Make sure your brakes are in top shape The fluid in your brakes attracts and absorbs moisture. If you haven't had a brake system flush in the last year, get one. Moisture and brake parts don't mix. Water-laden brake fluid causes severe damage to very costly brake parts and lowers the fluid's boiling point. A lowered boiling point can lead to brake failure during hard or prolonged brake application -- common on long road trips. Heavy traffic and hills seriously stress brakes and brake fluid.

Check tire pressure and tread depth Many believe the proper tire pressure is listed on the tire itself. But in reality, the number on the tire is the maximum amount of pressure the tire can hold safely when it's cold. To find the recommended pressure -- expressed in pounds per square inch (psi) -- look on your driver's side door jamb, on the inside of the fuel-filler door or in your owners manual and check the pressure before you leave. Also make sure the tread on all four tires is not too worn or unevenly worn, which can signal a wheel alignment problem or the need to replace front-end parts. If your tires are on the bubble in terms of wear, it's best to install new ones now rather than take a chance on them failing while you are on the road. Remember, overinflation or underinflation combined with heavy loads, heat and high speed can lead to a blowout, so take the few minutes needed to check all four tires -- plus the spare.

Wear seat belts all the time, every time Many of our cars and trucks are now equipped with very elaborate air bag systems that sense the size of vehicle occupants and deploy accordingly. But these systems remain a supplement to the most important safety equipment in your vehicle: your seat belts. Always wear your seat belt, even on short trips. And be sure your children and other vehicle occupants are also belted in at all times.

Once your car is in tip-top shape and you're on the road, remember to stay focused. Summer road trips are filled with distractions. You often travel unfamiliar roads, playing with maps and navigation systems; your kids are hungry, cranky or just inquisitive; your wife is playing music that you dislike; or the cell phone rings, and someone from work wants to speak with you “just for a minute.” All these things distract you from your critical task: driving your vehicle safely. Do your best to avoid them, along with other distractions, and you'll be on your way to a safe and pleasant summer.

Summer Driving Hardly Carefree

“Here comes summer; school is out, oh, happy day!”

Those are the words of a now-obscure 1959 Jerry Keller hit song, and they promise a carefree season of endless fun. Not so fast there, driver. With the summer travel season looming, AAA has announced that it anticipates coming to the rescue of 7.3 million stranded motorists. During the months of June, July and August, the auto club expects a nearly 1.5 percent uptick in roadside assistance requests compared to the summer of 2008 that we all remember so fondly. Why is this summer expected to be worse? 

“AAA believes a combination of lower gas prices, consumers holding onto their vehicles longer and some motorists cutting regular maintenance from their budgets will drive an increase in the need for roadside assistance this summer,” said AAA Automotive Services Vice President Marshall L. Doney, and he’s a guy who knows.

Some of these problems will be relatively minor. On a yearly average, AAA says it is able to remedy problems at the roadside two out of three times, avoiding the need for an inconvenient vehicle tow. But the motor club has also learned from experience that the number of motorists who suffer major vehicle problems requiring a tow usually spikes during the summer months. This summer, AAA estimates it will tow nearly 3.2 million vehicles. Since you don’t want your car to end up on a hook, there is a lesson to be learned here.

“No one wants to have their day disrupted by a broken-down vehicle, especially when they are on vacation,” said Doney. “Many of the problems that end up with the vehicle on the back of a tow truck could have been prevented with regular maintenance.”

Here are some things you can do to decrease the likelihood of your vehicle leaving you stranded:

  • Think regular service Have your vehicle serviced frequently, based on the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. Identify a quality repair shop and use that facility for all of your vehicle repairs and maintenance. Repeated visits to a trustworthy shop allows a motorist to develop a good working relationship with the service staff and lets the repair technicians get to know the vehicle and make needed service recommendations in a timely manner. Consumers can look for a “AAA Approved Auto Repair” sign at local auto repair facilities or search online for a shop that’s met AAA requirements.
  • Mind the hot weather Be aware that heat is not friendly to tires. The number of motorists seeking assistance with flat tires traditionally rises during the summer months. The motor club estimates it will come to the rescue of more than a million motorists with flat tires this summer -- more than any other season. While it can be difficult to avoid an errant nail in a tire, some tire problems can be caught or prevented before motorists hit the road.

    To ward off tire trouble, regularly check and adjust tire pressures to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended settings. Inspect the tire sidewalls for cuts and bulges, and check the tread for excessive or uneven wear, which indicates the need for wheel alignment and/or tire replacement. For maximum life, rotate tires at the mileage intervals specified in the owners manual and don’t forget the spare. Make sure the spare is properly inflated and in good condition.
  • Check the battery Many motorists are aware that cold weather can take its toll on automobile batteries, but few realize that summer heat also contributes to battery failure. High ambient temperatures accelerate the rate of corrosion on a vehicle’s battery terminals, which can leave you stranded without warning. AAA anticipates it will jump-start or replace more than 1.3 million batteries this summer. To avoid this inconvenience, ensure the battery cables are securely attached and keep the battery terminals free of corrosion. It is not enough to simply remove external corrosion either. Proper cleaning requires disconnecting the cables to clean the areas where the ends contact the battery terminals. Most batteries have a three- to five-year service life. If your battery is nearing the end of its life cycle, have it tested to see if a replacement is in order.

Saving Teens Also Saves Others

Over the last decade, the challenge of keeping teenage drivers safe has come to the forefront, and new efforts are already paying dividends. An unexpected dividend is the fact that the efforts to make the roads safer for teens has, in addition, made the roads safer for all of us. 

One big step in improving teen driver safety came in the form of so-called graduated driver licensing laws (GDLs) that ease teens into their responsibilities behind the wheel. While graduated driver licensing laws nationwide are estimated to have saved hundreds of lives by reducing the number of teen driver crashes, a new analysis of teen crash data by the Automobile Club of Southern California and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that such efforts also resulted in 540 fewer deaths of others in teen driver crashes.  

“That's saving 540 lives of passengers of teen drivers, occupants of other vehicles involved in teen driver crashes and of non-motorists -- all of whom might have been killed if young-driver crashes had continued at the same level throughout the last decade,” said Steven A. Bloch, Ph.D., the Auto Club’s senior research associate. “The drop demonstrates the effectiveness of the GDL laws over that time period and underscores the positive link between teen driver safety and everyone’s safety on the road. That’s especially significant because crashes of older drivers weren’t declining nearly as quickly as those of younger drivers.”

Despite the success of graduated licensing laws, teen drivers continue to pose significant risks, particularly to others on the road. The new report, Teen Crashes -- Everyone is at Risk, looked at the change in teen driver crash deaths over the past 10 years -- the period when most states were enacting graduated driver licensing laws -- and found the results encouraging, but the work is far from finished. From 1998 through 2007, young drivers, aged 15-17, killed in teen driver crashes dropped by 27 percent (from 1,134 to 823). But even with the lifesaving provisions of graduated driver licensing, vehicle passengers and other motorists continue to be the most likely victims in teen driver crashes. Nationally, 63 percent of the 28,138 fatalities in teen driver crashes between 1998 and 2007 were passengers, drivers of other vehicles or non-motorists, and the toll was staggering (17,750 victims). Just 37 percent of those who were killed in teen crashes were the teen drivers themselves.

California teen crash statistics also show a reduction in deaths resulting from teen driver crashes, after graduated driver licensing was instituted, but revealed the same trend: a continued high percentage of fatalities are victims other than the teen driver. Statewide, teen drivers killed in crashes dropped by 13.3 percent over the period studied, and though teen driver crashes killed 1,855 people, just 29 percent (542) were teen drivers themselves. The remaining 70 percent included 631 passengers in the vehicle operated by the teen, 463 occupants of other vehicles operated by adult drivers and 219 non-motorists.

An Auto Club analysis shows that teen drivers of ages 16 to19 make up about 4 percent of California’s driving population but are at fault in about 14 percent of all fatal and injury crashes. And this figure is made worse by the fact that teens drive only about half as many miles as older drivers.

So what can we do to limit the teen driving problem and make the highways safer for us all? Kathy Downing, manager of the Auto Club Driving School, says parents need to set strict driving rules for their teens.

“Parents should be clear where, with whom, when, and under what weather and road conditions teens drive,” she told us. “There’s no magic age or number of months driving that must pass to make teens safe drivers. Only parents, after consistent involvement with their teens’ driving, can help make that determination.”

It’s a responsibility that has implications for all of us, regardless of age.

Car Criminals Beware

You might remember the headlines; after Hurricane Katrina, truckloads of flooded vehicles were taken out of Louisiana and shipped to other states as far away as the upper Midwest, where they were dried out, cleaned and readied for sale to unsuspecting consumers in states that do not brand flood vehicles. Prospective purchasers of these vehicles were likely unaware that the vehicles had been subjected to a saltwater flood, which made the cars’ electrical systems (including their air bag sensors) more prone to failure, and because of this, consumers were victims of vehicle fraud.

Up until January 30th, it was relatively easy to get away with that crime and with organized auto theft, because individual state licensing systems didn’t really “talk” with each other. Realizing that communication about vehicle fraud was poor, thieves and scammers could move suspect vehicles from state to state with impunity, defrauding the public as they went. But with luck, those days are over.

The U.S. Department of Justice has just announced the availability of an online computer system to help protect consumers from automobile fraud and to provide law enforcement with new tools to investigate fraud, theft and other crimes involving vehicles. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) became available to consumers on January 30, and it will be accessible through third-party, fee-for-service Web sites. The Bureau of Justice Assistance sector of the Office of Justice Programs administers NMVTIS in coordination with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

NMVTIS is designed to prevent vehicle histories such as the infamous “Katrina cars” from being “washed” or concealed. It is designed to serve as a national repository of vehicle information. When fully implemented, NMVTIS will have data from every state and will be queried before any state issues a vehicle a new title, making it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to wash, “flood” or “salvage” designations from a vehicle.

The system allows state motor vehicle administrators to verify and exchange titling and vehicle history data, and it provides critical information regarding vehicle histories to law enforcement officials, consumers and others. Consumers now have access to the vehicle's brand history, odometer data and basic vehicle information and can be redirected to the current state of record to access the full title record if available. Law enforcement can track the vehicle's status from state to state by accessing the system directly.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, car theft is a costly business to consumers, generating nearly $8 billion in criminal proceeds each year. Take this recent example: South Florida law enforcement’s “Operation Roadrunner” recovered approximately 250 cloned, stolen vehicles across the U.S. The multistate investigation discovered that a criminal enterprise based in South Florida was stealing vehicles and replacing the VINs on the stolen vehicles with VINs removed from other vehicles of the same make, model and year. These "cloned" vehicles were then used for criminal purposes or sold to unsuspecting consumers. Because the stolen cars and their fraudulent title paperwork displayed legitimate VINs taken from other automobiles, consumers, individual state motor vehicle titling agencies and law enforcement could not detect the vehicles' true stolen status. The criminal enterprise that was taken down in this investigation was linked to many other types of criminal activity, including major violent crimes. This is just the kind of criminal activity NMVTIS is designed to prevent.

Since 1997, the Department of Justice has committed over $15 million to assist states and other stakeholders in the implementation of NMVTIS. Along with implementing this system, the Department has outlined the various responsibilities and reporting requirements for states, auto recyclers, junkyards and salvage yards, and insurance carriers. The Department has also designed the system consistent with federal law, which requires that the system be paid for through user fees and not be dependent on federal funding.

Currently, NMVTIS has the full or partial participation of 36 states. Ultimately, with full participation from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, NMVTIS will prevent stolen motor vehicles, including clones, from entering into interstate commerce; protect states and consumers from fraud; reduce the use of stolen vehicles for illicit purposes, including fundraising for criminal enterprises; and provide consumer protection from unsafe vehicles. In research conducted by the Logistics Management Institute, the system is estimated to save taxpayers between $4 and $11 billion each year. That’s a pretty nice sum of savings for a system that will cost taxpayers not one red cent.