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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Holiday driving hazards: Five safety tips around busier roads and impaired drivers in winter

As the holidays ramp up, drivers also can count on a rise in traffic from more shoppers, delivery trucks and celebrators – all potentially navigating slippery roads.

Plus, the driver next to you might be more fatigued and distracted this time of year, or intoxicated.

Add ice or snow, and you’ll need to apply all the defensive driving tips you can. The driver’s education of yesteryear calls for leaving extra space between your vehicle and others, lowering speeds in bad weather and watching out for other drivers’ mistakes. But there are other factors to consider.

“You also have the component closer to the holidays of more people traveling who are from out of town, so they may not be familiar with our roads,” said A.J. Seitz, owner of 911 Driving School of Spokane and a former police officer for 20 years in Puyallup.

“Obviously, the heavier the traffic, the more you’re going to want to make sure you’re really diligent about maintaining a space cushion so you have time to react.”

Seitz offered five holiday driving safety tips as families head out for errands, festive occasions or travel.

Look past tall delivery trucks

Because more vehicles are on the roads for package deliveries, you have a good chance of getting stuck behind one. Along with extra space behind such trucks, Seitz said it’s a good idea to move your vehicle a tad to the left to see past them for any brake lights among vehicles ahead so you have more time to react.

“That truck will block your view, and you won’t see traffic ahead that’s stopping until that truck hits its brake lights,” he said.

A typical lane is usually about 12 feet wide and an average car about 6 feet wide, he said. “On most arterials, you’re going to travel in what we call Lane Position 1, which is dead center in the middle of your lane. But in this case, you’re going to move to Lane Position 2, which is a little bit to the left, but you’re not going over the line.”

Beware of fatigue

People get exhausted this time of year from extra errands, shopping and longer work hours, Seitz said. So watch for both your own fatigue and that of other drivers.

“We encourage people that if you’re too tired, No. 1 don’t drive and have somebody else drive, especially if you’re on a family road trip,” Seitz added.

Watch if you’re yawning a lot. Rolling down the window for cold air can help. One red flag is if your eyes start to flutter, in quick shut and open motions. Another big risk is if you or a passenger notices the head bob, a slight nodding off, called micro sleep.

“You’re actually falling asleep for a good second or second and a half,” Seitz said. Sometimes, micro sleep bouts can last four or five seconds, and at 55 mph, you’ve traveled more than 100 yards down the road while asleep, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s plenty of time to cause a crash.

Seitz said federal traffic experts equate such drowsy driving as similar to a .08% blood alcohol concentration, considered legally impaired in the U.S. Often, a mistake people make is thinking they’re close to home and can make it, he said.

“We actually responded to a fatality that was exactly that, where the driver survived and the passenger died. The driver said the passenger had told him they should probably pull over because he was doing the head bob. He went around a curve and at that point fell asleep, went off the edge and flipped the car over. The driver said, ‘I figured I could make it because I was only about 3 miles away from home,’ and it killed his best friend.”

React to impaired drivers

Stay even farther away from apparent drunk drivers because impaired or distracted drivers are unpredictable, Seitz said. He offered signs that can warn you.

“The things we look for as police officers for intoxicated drivers would be weaving in their lane, weaving outside of their lane, erratic speeds where they slow down and speed up. And if you can see the driver, we call it the drunk stare. A normal driver, their head will be moving unconsciously looking at things on the side of the road. Drunks are so concentrated on trying to stay straight, they’re just staring straight ahead.”

If you think the other driver is intoxicated, you can call 911 as an exception among emergencies in the law that otherwise prohibits cellphone use while operating a vehicle, he said.

Sometimes, you’ll also see distracted drivers on those cellphones, so give them wide clearance. “We tell the kids the hardest part of the driving experience is other users; you can’t control that. You’ve got to be constantly scanning for other drivers and making sure they’re paying attention.”

Driving better in snow and ice

Again, it’s allowing extra space around other vehicles and avoiding heavy use of brakes on an icy slope. The newer ABS systems go far today, and main roads get cleared relatively fast. If someone is new to snow and ice, take them out to an empty parking lot to get a feel for handling the vehicle in those conditions, Seitz said.

“We still offer winter driving classes, but the last few years, we haven’t had enough snow to be able to do that,” he said. “Still, we can take people out to show them going down hills, and instead of having to keep hitting the brakes, which could cause you to slide, you shift the transition down and let the motor kind of slow you down rather than having to constantly use your brakes, especially on steep passes.”

Be cautious when you stop

Seitz said he always adds to his holiday travel tips an extra caution as a former police officer. “During this time of year, bad guys take advantage of people being tired, and they watch for them bringing packages out to the car and then going back into the store. Don’t leave your purse in plain view or packages out in the back of your car.”