Health watch: Holiday, winter driving - stay safe

Lance left work 30 minutes early and ran to the parking lot. He had 30 minutes of city driving to pick up Sarah and then another 20 minutes to get to the day care center. If they could get a head start on the rush-hour traffic, the family had a six-hour drive ahead of them.

But, a light snow was beginning to fall.

Michael had everything packed before his last exam so he could get an early start home. Four other students were riding with him so there were plenty of drivers for the eight-hour trip - although all were in serious sleep debt after final exam week. Room in the car was at a premium, and the back window ledge was piled high with books and backpacks.

Whatever your plans for the holiday season, keep in mind that Lance and Michael - and hundreds of drivers similarly stressed out - will be sharing the road with you. The obvious solution is to drive defensively, assuming that others on the road are at least as tired as you are.

The first step is to make sure that seatbelts are fastened and that children are secured in child safety seats. Using seatbelts reduces risk by 40 to 50 percent of both injury and death in a motor vehicle accident.

Even though you may be in a hurry, don't push the speed. In fact, it's best to drive a little slower than you normally would to compensate for the holiday conditions, not to mention the likely presence of state police lurking by the road to snag speeders.

Don't tailgate. In driver's education class many years ago, you may have learned to leave at least two seconds between you and the car in front of you. Recent studies show the distance to be unsafe; the Department of Transportation and most states recommend a four-second following distance.

Drive slower at night

If you're driving at night, you need to decrease your speed and increase your following distance even more. The fatality rate for night driving is three to four times higher than for driving during daylight.

Most individuals think they see better at nigh than they actually do and "overdrive" their headlights. This can become a serious matter when something unexpected - such as a deer, a pedestrian or a disabled vehicle - looms suddenly into view. Most drivers, who hit pedestrians say their first warning was the impact of the person against their vehicle. Until you've had an accident at night, you can never really appreciate how great the potential dangers are.

Driving late into the night and into normal sleeping hours brings up the problem of fatigue and drowsiness. Drowsiness can also become a problem in mid-afternoon between 1 and 5 p.m.

It makes sense, of course, to get plenty of sleep that night before you start a long drive. Even a short nap just before setting out can help.

Leave enough time for a break at least every two hours. Stretch and take a short walk. Coffee is fine, but don't rely on caffeine to keep you awake since the effects can wear off.

Avoidance of alcohol is crucial. In addition to reducing coordination and reaction time, and giving you a false sense of confidence, alcohol also makes you more vulnerable to falling asleep.

Talking with a passenger is a good way to fend off drowsiness, but don't get too philosophical or emotional in your discussion. Studies have demonstrated that involved conversations can distract drivers and keep them from noticing troubles on the road. Other strategies for fighting driver fatigue include snacking, chewing ice and rolling the window down.

Stop driving immediately if you have any of the following signs:

• Your eyes close involuntarily or go our of focus.

• You can't stop yawning, blinking or nodding.

• Your thoughts start to wander and become disconnected.

• You don't remember driving the last few miles.

• Your speed starts to vary and you drift in and out of your lane.

• You drive over a rumble strip more than twice.

If you're changing drivers, be sure that the new driver is awake at least 30 minutes before resuming the trip. Don't park on the shoulder of an interstate to change drivers or take a break; this is forbidden in most states, except for emergencies.

Winter rule: SLOW

Safe winter driving starts with preventative maintenance - making sure tires are properly inflated and not overly worn, and that battery, starter, generator, defroster and lights are in good working order. Streaky windshield wipers can obstruct vision. An ice scraper and brush, jumper cables and a tool kit should be in your trunk.

The key word for winter driving is slow. Drive slowly, change speeds slowly, turn slowly and brake slowly. Never use cruise control in slippery conditions.

Regular brakes will lock up and start to skid on slippery pavement. Safe stopping requires braking gently and then pumping the brakes - repeatedly easing up and then braking again.

Antilock brakes are designed to keep the brakes from locking up and do not require pumping. It's essential, of course, to know which kind of brakes you have.

If your car ever goes into a skid, ease off the accelerator and, keeping a firm grip on the wheel, steer in the direction you want the car to go. Quick, jerky actions can make matters worse.

Should your car stall or get stuck in a snow bank in cold weather, the best plan is to stay in the car and use your cellular telephone, if you have one, to call for help.

Venturing out in to a snowstorm to push the car or seek help is not recommended since it's easy to become disoriented and put yourself at risk of hypothermia and frost bite.

If you're using your engine to warm the car, make sure snow is cleared from the tailpipe, and your window is open a crack to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.

Move around as much as you can inside the car, and be sure you have a blanket and extra clothing in case they get wet. Other items for winter emergency include: reflecting triangles to help others locate you, a bag of sand or cat litter to give you traction if you get stuck and a flash light with extra batteries.

Of the 40,000 motor vehicle fatalities that occur each year, about 500 are expected to occur over the Thanksgiving holidays.

With a few defensive measures, a good number of these could be avoided.

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