Automobiles Don't Mix Well with Trains

Before the automobile began its ascendancy to prominence, the iron horse reigned supreme across the land. These days, cars and trucks haul most of the people and freight, but interaction between trains and automobiles continues and, sadly, American drivers have proven they are not that good at it.  As evidence, in the United States a person or a vehicle is struck by a train about every two hours.

The busy holiday season and inclement winter weather can add to the danger. To combat this hazard, a safety organization called Operation Lifesaver, a national non-profit safety education group seeking to eliminate deaths and injuries at railroad crossings and along railroad rights of way, has specific recommendations that can help keep you and your family safe.

First, when battling winter conditions, think about slowing down, especially when weather and/or visibility are poor. Snow-covered or gridlocked roads hamper safety. Since being forewarned is being forearmed, watch for advance warning signs (most often a yellow sign with R X R) indicating railroad tracks cross the road ahead. Be prepared to slow down or stop well before the crossing, because compromised road conditions could result in longer stopping distances than normal. Trains are wider than their tracks, so if you stop near or at a crossing, be sure you are at least 15 feet from the tracks.

Trains also have exceptionally long stopping distances because immensely heavy train cars riding on steel wheels will take a substantial period of time to come to a halt even after the engineer sees an object in its path. Leave extra space between your vehicle and the crossing, which is often marked with a crossbuck symbol, flashing red lights or a gate, so if a car nudges you from behind, it won't push you into the crossing.

Look and listen. Bad weather and dirty car windows can severely limit your vision. Clean off all snow and ice that might block vision before you drive, including snow on the roof and hood that can slide or blow onto your windows or those of cars behind you. Turn your head to see around mirrors, passengers, and any visual obstructions inside your car. Don't rely on sight alone either. Listen for the sound of a train, even though it may be muffled by snow and obscured by the sound of your radio and the heater.

Each year, dozens of drivers are killed needlessly because they chose to ignore warning lights and crossing gates. Don't take a chance by driving around lowered gates you think are "malfunctioning." They might know something you don't, namely, the arrival of a train is imminent.

When you are waiting at a railroad crossing, be aware that the passing of one railroad train doesn't mean another is not right behind it. Watch for the "second train," whether it is behind the first or coming from the opposite direction. Always look both ways before proceeding.

Finally, if your vehicle gets stuck on a railroad crossing, don't stay with it in an effort to get it going again. Your car can be replaced; your life can't. Instead, quickly exit the vehicle, move away from the tracks, and call 911 or the railroad number displayed on the sign at the crossing. Mention any nearby landmarks, particularly the "DOT" number displayed at the crossing if you can see it.

Based in Villeperce, France, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about automobiles and the human condition, and, though he loves driving, he frequently takes the train.

An Even Eight Things to Ignore This Winter

The sight of your crystallized breath as you walk from you home into the cold, cruel world is enough to send shivers of fear through many of us. Brrrr! I can feel the frigid wind pasting the cold polyester of my pants to my legs just thinking about it! So what do you think that cold is doing to your car, which has been sitting inside all night or, at best, ensconced in a drafty garage? It can't be a good thing, can it?

Now a lot of people will tell you there are things you can do to help your car run better in this desperate situation, but who asked them to butt it? Why don't they worry about their own cars, their own finances and their own relationships and just leave us the heck alone? We don't like the cold, and we're comfortable with that, so don't tell us to go out in it to work on our cars. Better we should be inside our apartments, curled up in an easy chair with a good book, sound asleep. Now that's living!

And in that spirit of justifiable sloth, here are several things you shouldn't do to make you car run better this winter:

1. Routine Maintenance
Now what could be duller, more, er, routine, than "routine maintenance?" You take something about as mundane as can be like maintenance, which everybody hates, and then add the qualifier "routine?" Who wants to do that? We say just blow off the oil changes and the battery and fluid checks. You're car's running, right? So it'll probably keep running, at least for a while. Don't be a slave to the routine. Live on the edge.

2. Lubrication
Sure, a lot of people swear by it, but to us lubrication is way overrated -- maybe even scientifically unfounded. We think a lot of people change their oil just because they're scared not to (an incredible marketing scheme foisted on us by Big Oil). Take it from us, no matter how clapped-out it is, your car already has some oil in there...somewhere.

3. Filters, Coolant and Hoses
Where we come from, only hosers check their hoses. And while we all realize your car is filled with filters -- oil, gas and air -- have you ever seen a filter fail?  You can change them if you really want to, but our advice is: just leave 'em alone and let 'em keep filterin'. Ditto the coolant, which is basically high-priced water with some alcohol in it. Odds are it'll last another winter, which is more than you can say for your Great Uncle Milo.

4. Tire Pressure
You're not on your rims, are you? Well, Einstein, that means you have air in your tires. Do you really want to get out of your car, try to screw those little tops off the grimy tire valves just to confirm what you already know? And here's a message a lot of folks don't get: if you drive fast enough, your tires actually fill themselves.  Beauty!

5. Vehicle Warm-up
Totally unnecessary, plus it fills the environment with carbon monoxide and other really stinky stuff while you're just sitting there. We say gas it and go. In nearly the immortal words of Timothy Leary or somebody like him, "Turn on, tune in, takeoff!"

6. Slow Down
You think we got all day? You probably have places to go, people to meet, taxes to dodge, so our advice is, get on with it. Sure, ice, snow and slush will keep the lame from getting out of their own way, and if you're really lucky, they'll just stay home where they belong.

7. Dealing with Ice
Some people say you must deal with unpleasant or even potentially disastrous things like ice, but isn't it far easier just to ignore them? Ice, like wedding gifts and family obligations, is simply something else the herd mentality puts in front of you pretty much just to piss you off. We say, don't fall in the trap. If you see ice on the road, pretend it isn't there. It might not be.

8. Keep Fuel in the Tank
What -- am I made outta money? Gasoline costs big cash these days, so we suggest you try to squeeze as much out of tank-full as you can before forcing yourself back out into the cold to replenish it. There is a chance that by the time you really need to fill your tank, the price will have gone down. Or it might even be spring! And wouldn't that be rich?

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad thinks that inertia is vastly underrated when it comes to car maintenance and pretty much any other stuff as well. And he's proud that he wrote this feature while in bed.

New Hope to Cope with Distraction

Life is filled with annoying distractions. But when you're at the wheel of your car, those distractions can kill you. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), approximately 100,000 collisions are caused every year on U.S. highways by drivers who fall asleep at the wheel. Of that number, 1,500 of the accidents result in fatalities and 71,000 cause physical injuries. Clearly, driver fatigue is a major safety problem, so Volvo Cars has launched the new Volvo Driver Alert system, a decisive step in active safety that is just about to be introduced in the United States.

The technology is designed to monitor a vehicle's progress on the road and alert the driver if it detects signs of fatigue or distraction. The system does not take control of the vehicle, but instead helps drivers make the right decision. Another new-to-America system, Lane Departure Warning, alerts the driver if the car crosses the road markings without an obvious reason. Both Lane Departure Warning and Driver Alert Control will be part of the same option package, called Driver Alert System. It will be available in the Volvo S80, V70 and XC70, at virtually the same time as you read this.

"Real life safety is the key to our safety philosophy," said Ingrid Skogsmo, director of the Volvo Cars Safety Centre. "When it comes to preventive safety, we have the same approach as when we develop protective systems. In other words, our research and technical development focus on areas where new technology can create significant results in real-life-traffic."

Instead of tracking lane markers or viewing the driver's eyeballs, Driver Alert monitors the vehicle's movement to determine if the vehicle is being driven in a controlled way. This method is unique among vehicle manufacturers, and it is designed to be reliable in a variety of circumstances.

"We have chosen to monitor the vehicles progress on the road instead of steering wheel input or the driver's eye movements," said Daniel Levin, project manager for Driver Alert Control at Volvo Cars. "This gives us a more reliable indication if something is likely to go wrong, allowing the system time to alert the driver before it is too late. We do not monitor human behavior, which varies from one person to another, but instead the system monitors the effect of that behavior. That is why there is less of a risk for false alarms."

The Driver Alert system consists of a camera, a number of sensors and a processor. The camera, which is installed between the windshield and the rear-view mirror, continuously measures the distance between the vehicle and the markings on the surface of the road. The sensors register the vehicle movements (like weaving within or outside the lane) while the processor stores the information and calculates whether the driver is at risk. If the risk is assessed as high, the driver is alerted via an audible signal and a text message appears in the vehicle's information display.

The system also warns if the driver loses concentration for a reason other than fatigue. The system can detect if the driver is focusing too much on the navigation or audio systems or children in the vehicle, issuing an audible and visual alert before control is lost. What's more, the driver can retrieve a safety rating about their driving style, based on consistency of performance. Included in the vehicle's trip computer, a display will provide the driver a rating, based on five stars. The less consistent the driving, the fewer stars illuminate.

Driver Alert should not be confused with a system that alerts the driver if a lane marker is breached without activating a turn signal. Instead, it monitors the way the vehicle is being driven and alerts the driver to his or her own actions, rather than the vehicle's position relative to a lane marker. In fact, Driver Alert will respond without the vehicle even crossing a lane marker if other factors warrant it.

The company's goal was to ensure the system would only activate where the risk of falling asleep is the greatest and where a collision would have severe consequences. For example, a straight, smooth road has the potential to lull a driver into a deep sleep -- not unlike a meeting with an estate planner. The system is activated at speeds above 40 mph and remains active until speeds fall below approximately 37 mph. Severe weather, fog or poorly marked roads may limit the effectiveness of the system, but it is a step forward in giving a driver a chance to rebound from inattention before it turns deadly.

Frequently accused of being deadly himself, Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about the human condition and the automobile business from his home in Villeperce, France.

Things Parents Can Do To Keep Their Teen Driver Safe

Traffic accidents are the number one cause of death among teenagers. That's a chilling fact to hear as your children approach driving age, but the positive news is there are steps you can take to minimize your child's risk in an automobile.  Like everything worthwhile, the steps take some effort, but we're certain your children's safety is well worth that effort. In its campaign to aid teen safety the AAA has assembled 10 tips to making your teen a safer driver, which we are happy to share here:

Tip #1: Know and understand your teenage child. Not all teens are ready to drive at the same age. Teenagers mature, develop emotionally and become responsible at varying rates, which parents need to gauge as they determine when their teen is ready to drive. If you think your teen is not ready to drive, you're probably right.

Tip #2: Be a positive and responsible role model. Teenagers learn from their parents' behavior, so parents' actions behind the wheel influence the driving behavior of their teens. Research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that, when using the number of collisions and traffic tickets as criteria, the parents of teens involved in crashes were more likely to have poor driving records than the parents of collision-free teens.

Tip #3: Choose a quality driving school. Driving is a risky activity for teens and warrants professional instruction. Driving schools that feature cutting-edge curriculums, high degrees of interaction and professionally-trained instructors are worth what may be added costs. Parents can consult their local AAA-affiliated auto club for advice because many are able to recommend high-quality driving schools in the surrounding area.

Tip #4: Practice not only makes perfect, it can also make for better teen drivers. As an important supplement to formal driver education, supervised driving sessions with parents provide teens with opportunities to reinforce proper driving techniques and skills and receive constructive feedback from the people that care most about their safety and success. To assist parents in these efforts, AAA offers "Teaching Your Teens To Drive," a parent coaching program containing everything a parent needs to conduct supervised driving and more.

Tip #5: Keep teen drivers free of teen passengers and off the road at night. Extensive research indicates that a teen driver's chances of crashing increase with each additional teen passenger. Parents need to make sure they know who is driving with their teen at all times. Research also demonstrates clearly that teen crash rates spike at night and that most nighttime crashes occur between nine p.m. and midnight.

Tip #6: Encourage teens to get enough sleep. Teens need about nine hours of sleep every night, but many teens fall short due to the combination of early-morning school start times and homework, sports, after-school jobs and other activities. A lack of sleep can negatively affect vision, hand-eye coordination, reaction time and judgment.

Tip #7: Eliminate distractions. Cell phones and text messaging have received significant media and legislative attention as hazardous distractions for teen drivers and rightly so. With surveys reporting widespread use of distracting technology by teens, more than one-third of states have recently banned cell phone use by new teen drivers. Parents should make it a strict rule in their households, too.

Tip #8: Create a parent-teen driving agreement. Having rules, conditions, restrictions and consequences of teens' driving written down in advance establishes driving as a privilege and not as something to be taken for granted. Parents should look to state graduated driver licensing programs as the minimum for their own family standards of conduct. Parents should establish rules and consequences that they and their teens agree upon that extend beyond state laws. If the teen breaks a family driving rule, consequences should be enforced and the situation should be used as an opportunity for learning and discussion. Conversely, proper driving behavior should be encouraged and rewarded with additional liberties. AAA offers parent-teen driving agreements at their Web site.

Tip #9: Set a time each week for discussion and review of driving behavior. Parental involvement and communication is critical in the prevention of teen-related crashes, injuries and fatalities. Designate a time each week to address concerns (both parent and teen), review the teen's driving performance and chart the progression towards established goals and benchmarks.

Tip #10: Make smart vehicle choice decisions for teens. As the family member most likely to crash, a teen should drive the safest vehicle the family owns. Things to consider are vehicle type, size and safety technology. Remember sedans are generally safer than sports cars, SUVs and pickup trucks, and larger vehicles fare better in crashes than smaller vehicles. Vehicles equipped with front- and side-curtain air bags, anti-lock brakes and stability control systems may help teens survive crashes that otherwise would cause serious injury or death.

Based in Cleveland, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on teen safety issues involving the automobile.

New-Fashioned Take on Winter Tires

You might think that in this day and age switching to "snow tires" is about as archaic as to traveling to grandma's house in a one-horse open sleigh. But if you live in an area where snow, ice and wet pavement are facts of life, changing your tires could be the best thing you'll ever do. In fact, in extreme circumstances switching to a tire which maintains its grip to the road when others can't could save your life. That should be reason enough to motivate you.

These days the highest tech winter tires are not just "snow tires" with big-lug tread patterns. Instead, tires like the Bridgestone-brand Blizzak tire, which is designated "The Official Tire of Winter," use a combination of technologies to make the most of winter traction. The original Blizzak was developed in the 1980s for the Japanese market and introduced to the American market after studded tires were virtually banished from our roads. The series is a pioneer of the dedicated, studless snow and ice tire revolution, setting the standard for stability and handling in adverse winter driving conditions.

When metal studs were banned, tire engineers had to find another way for tires to grip slippery ice- and snow-covered surfaces. Bridgestone's ingenious solution was its "Multicell" tread compound, which is used in many Blizzak tires. The compound contains thousands of microscopic cells (or pores), which means it resembles a tiny Swiss cheese. As the tire wears, the pores are exposed and this creates thousands of "biting" edges that grip the road.

In addition to the biting action, the pores help "squeegee" away the thin layer of surface water that often develops on top of icy roads. By pushing away water, the edges can adhere to the road surface with less interference. The result is greater driving and braking force. The pores are distributed throughout the Multicell compound so that as the tire wears, new pores are continually exposed along the tread surface.

In addition, the tread compound of Bridgestone Blizzak tires is also more pliable than that of traditional tires and remains flexible in colder temperatures. When water freezes to ice, tiny irregularities form on the surface. If the tread compound is rigid, it will tend to slide across these irregularities. Flexible tread compounds, on the other hand, dig into the jagged surface, affording drivers better control of their vehicle.

If you live in a climate where snow, ice and freezing temperature are commonplace for three or more months of the year, you might think your "all-season" tires will get you through. And they might. But for a relatively small investment in dedicated winter tires, you can be certain that your vehicle will have the best grip when you need it most, in adverse weather conditions. Depending upon your driving habits, one set of dedicated winter tires can see you through several snowy seasons. The cost of winter tires could well be less than what you would likely pay as a deductible in the event of an accident, and, on a more positive note, they also extend the life of your summer tires.

If you choose to purchase dedicated winter tires, it is a good idea is to invest in a separate set of steel rims for your tires, making it quick and easy to properly equip your vehicle as the seasons change. The additional benefit is keeping your expensive alloy wheels out of snow, salt and grit through the winter. You can identify a winter tire by looking for the "snowflake-on-the-mountain" symbol branded on the tire's sidewall. It identifies tires that provide a high level of snow traction.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley was born in Boston, so he understands snow. He writes about the auto industry and la condition humaine from his home in Villeperce, France.