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How to be a better driver

By Jane Speechley - 11 June 2017 22

Most of us like to think we’re pretty slick on the roads, but there’s plenty of evidence out there to suggest quite a few of us are wrong.

You can’t control what others do on the road, but you can absolutely control what happens inside the cabin of your own vehicle.

Learning some more advanced driving techniques can not only help ensure a safer and more comfortable journey – it’s actually a lot of fun to test and challenge your skills.

Here are a few suggestions for more sophisticated driving techniques to try on your next quiet stretch of road. Do just be careful, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted from your driving.

Keep your hands at 9 and 3

When we’re talking about placing your hands on the steering wheel, we refer to the wheel as though it’s a clock face.

Your hands should be positioned where the 9 and 3 would be on the clock.

If you’re beyond a certain age, you might recall that we were once advised to place our hands higher at 10 and 2; but as our cars and steering wheels have changed, so have the guidelines.

Experts now say the most comfortable and effective hand position is 9 and 3, or you can go even lower, to 8 and 4.

Modern power steering also means you shouldn’t even need to shuffle your hands to navigate the average corner. The more your hands can stay on the wheel, the better – so this is a good one to try.

Give it a go, see if you can turn using the wheel and without moving your hands.

Aim high

Highly skilled drivers know to look much further down the road than the car in front.

Be aware of your immediate environment, sure, but you’ll have a better chance of avoiding any issues if you can see what’s coming up, sooner.

So next time you jump into the driver’s seat, check your posture – make sure you’re sitting up straight, with your head and eyes held high.

Zipper merge like a boss

The NRMA found Commonwealth Avenue, Canberra Avenue and Belconnen Way to be our three worst hotspots for merging-related accidents.

(Commonwealth Avenue is also exactly where I had my only serious car accident to date)

Most of us know how we *should* merge – but changing traffic conditions, distractions, and other drivers’ behaviour result in plenty of delays, accidents and road rage incidents.

You don’t want to cut in two early (lineupping), nor do you want to push ahead and push your luck just to make up a few spots (sidezooming).

Poor merging consistently rates high on the list of annoying driving behaviours, so pulling off the perfect ‘zipper merge’ is a good skill to master.

Make sure you have a safe opportunity and a bit of room.

As you approach the merge, look a few cars ahead as well as at the lane you’re merging into, and pick your spot.

The most efficient zipper merge results when people simply take turns, one for one, so shoot for this.

Then – and this is important – try to get your car up to speed with the existing traffic. Unless you have an obstacle in front of you, be confident and don’t slow down.

The reason merging is so problematic is because there is a lot to think about and be aware of.

But see just how smooth a merge you can pull off, and then pat yourself on the back for being one of approximately 5 drivers on our roads who can do this well.

Braking like a pro

The best indication of a really good driver is not how they brake, but how often they don’t brake.

Braking hard or often is bad for your car, bad for fuel efficiency, annoying to other drivers and uncomfortable for your passengers.

If you’re scanning the road well to see what’s coming up and using all the other tools you have to manage your speed (less acceleration, gears changes, etc), you should only need to drop the anchor in emergencies and when you actually have to come to a stop.

But when you do, you’ll want to use ‘limo braking’ (gentle stop) rather than ‘taxi braking’ (sharp stop).

If you had a good instructor, you should’ve learned this technique when you learned to drive.

Or otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ve instinctively picked it up along the way.

What you’re trying to do is avoid the inertia, that throws you and your passengers forward as you slow down, then back as you actually stop.

If the nose of your car is dipping as you brake, you’re braking too hard (except in an emergency, of course).

The trick is to apply gentle and even pressure to the brake pedal, then when you’ve almost stopped, let up on the brake a little, so the car almost rolls to a gentle halt.

Finding your A-line

Variously called the A-Line, Apex Line or Racing Line, this refers to the ideal path through a corner – it’s the fastest and most efficient, and the one that lets you limit turning, maximise speed and comfort, maintain grip and minimise braking.

It’s fun to practise on your own, but use with great caution when there are other vehicles around, as this technique involves using as much of the road as possible.

Essentially you want to drive as smoothly and as straight(ly?) through the corner as possible.

There are plenty of good instructions on the internet that we don’t need to recreate here, but basically you want to start as wide as possible, cut in close to the inside of the corner, and then finish as wide as possible.

Remember: outside, inside, outside.

Settle down to watch a few rounds of the F1 or Supercars closely to see how it’s done.

Heel and toe, heel and toe…

I remember learning to dance the Heel-and-Toe Polka in about Year Six – are kids today still put through this torture?

When it comes to driving, however, the aim of the heel-and-toe shift is actually to avoid all the sliding and skipping about, while minimising the drop-off in revs when you change down gears.

Manual drivers, this one is for you, as this great video explains, the technique actually emerged to address the issue in older (manual) cars, where the three pedals were much further apart.

While this is rarely a problem in our modern vehicles, it’s still a handy skill to learn, to move your foot from the brake back to the throttle as quickly, smoothly and safely as possible.

Starting with your foot up nice and high on the pedal, you’re basically using your toe to manage the brake, and your heel to manage the accelerator.

Once you get your head around the idea of having the same foot on both the accelerator and brake at the same time, the key is to learn how to keep both the brake pressure and the clutch release nice and smooth.

Step it up with left-foot braking

If you want to feel like a racing or rally car driver, left-foot braking is one to conquer – but take note: this one is going to be very difficult to manage, and to manage smoothly.

Make sure you practise in a large, safe, clear area, and even then, you might want to keep it for off-road driving.

That’s because you’re going to be fighting against years of training and habit when you start using your right foot for the accelerator and your left foot on the brake.

That’s right, Lefty no longer sits to the side being useless, or waiting for the chance to use the clutch if you’re driving a manual transmission.

In theory, this should give you more stability and control, as your right foot remains dedicated to the throttle.

As with the steering, the less you have to move your limbs about, the better.

In reality, and as you practice, get ready for lots of really sharp and uncomfortable stops as you learn the balance, and to not push down too hard on the brake.

Over to you – any advanced driving techniques that I’ve missed? What works – and doesn’t work – for you?

What’s Your opinion?


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22 Responses to
How to be a better driver
Holden Caulfield 11:15 am 14 Jun 17

Leon Arundell said :

There’s plenty of evidence that learning techniques like these makes people MORE likely to have crashes, possibly because these techniques allow them to drive closer to the limits of the vehicle, with less room for error.

I’ve heard that theory before and it’s always a tricky one to determine. The key is taking away what you learn at a track day and adapting those skills to driving on public roads. A bit of common sense is required; so maybe you do have a point. 😉

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given during training on track days is to raise my eyes. If I’m focusing on the apex of a corner as I’m driving through it, I’m not looking far enough ahead and it’s costing me time is the theory. While that’s great when chasing tenths of a second in a controlled environment, the technique can be applied to road driving. That’s because we do steer with our eyes to a degree.

On an open road, if you’re looking further down the road, not only will you be more aware of your surroundings, your steering inputs should be smoother and require less adjustment.

Just as practically, in traffic, while you obviously need to be aware of the car immediately in front of you, you also want to keep any eye on what’s happening 4-5 or more cars ahead. This will allow you to better anticipate what could happen next. It’s one of the reasons I dislike SUVs, it’s hard to see past them.

I think the discussion here on merging, braking and raising your eyes is really good. All are applicable to being a better driver on public roads.

I’m not sure about the benefit of discussing some of the other techniques mentioned, that are mostly of benefit on a track day. If they must be discussed perhaps the author would be better served to raise them in an article that is about track day driving.

JC 5:17 pm 13 Jun 17

tim_c said :

JC said :

bikhet said :

Lucian Burca said :

Doug Dobing said :

Thanks Jane for sharing these cool tips to improve driving. After teaching four teenagers to drive, the most interesting change I’ve noticed in the ACT is the change to ‘push-pull’ steering technique from the ‘hand over hand’ method. Funny, my kids prefer to use the ‘hand-over-hand’ steering technique as it feels more natural.

Indeed, it’s more natural and safer to turn by hand-over-hand technique, as it gives more accurate and firmer control and grip to the steering wheel. I am actually seeing a lot of drivers that struggles to negotiate sharp turns using that creepy push-pull technique. Just wondering whose “brilliant” idea was…

I was told it’s to stop your crossing arm between your body and the steering wheel airbag. Not good if the bag goes off while your arm is in it’s path.

It is more to do with maximising the amount of time the steering wheel is in your hands. Hand over hand you at times only have one hand on the wheel, push pull in theory it is both hands all the time. Although one hand when turning is a loose grip.

Horses for courses. Use push-pull for higher speed turns where you’re not turning the wheel far enough to need to grab the other side of the wheel and bring it around in one go. In tight low-speed turns (eg. three-point turn or manoeuvring into/out of a parking space) you would use the hand-over-hand method to get the wheel around as quickly as possible (push-pull in these situations is silly – and if you’re worried about the airbag blasting your arm into your face, they don’t deploy at speeds lower than 15km/h anyway).

I am not worried about the airbag going off, its about hand control. Once learned properly push pull is far better even in slow speed situations. The only time I use hand over now is turning into and out of a car parking space. And as mentioned before I was very much taught the hand over method and am a recent (5 years now) convert.

Holden Caulfield 4:40 pm 13 Jun 17

Maya123 said :

How can you use the left foot for the brake while clutching?

Left-foot braking in a manual car is best left for track days, off public roads.

You’re right, you don’t brake and use the clutch at the same time. That’s not the point of left-foot braking. It’s predominantly a rallying technique, although it can also benefit circuit racing too.

One of the main advantages of left-foot braking is to aid weight transfer and sometimes you might even do it while you’re still accelerating.

For example, you may go into a corner on light throttle and use the brakes to alter the balance of the car on corner entry; using the brakes will pitch the car forward, increasing the forces through the front axle, which in turn should offer increased grip at the front end.

As you progress through the corner your right foot is then able to gently increase pressure on the throttle as your wheels straighten, until grip is such that wide-open throttle is beneficial.

Then there’s the fact that computers in many modern cars won’t let you apply the brake and the throttle at the same time; if you leave your foot on the throttle the computer will simply cut power until pressure on the brake pedal has been released.

In an automatic car, with no clutch, then pretty much all of the above is moot. In an automatic left-foot braking can be beneficial if you’re lazy, haha; it could reduce reaction time in event of an emergency. But probably only if your left foot is hovering above the brake pedal at all times.

tim_c 4:14 pm 13 Jun 17

JC said :

bikhet said :

Lucian Burca said :

Doug Dobing said :

Thanks Jane for sharing these cool tips to improve driving. After teaching four teenagers to drive, the most interesting change I’ve noticed in the ACT is the change to ‘push-pull’ steering technique from the ‘hand over hand’ method. Funny, my kids prefer to use the ‘hand-over-hand’ steering technique as it feels more natural.

Indeed, it’s more natural and safer to turn by hand-over-hand technique, as it gives more accurate and firmer control and grip to the steering wheel. I am actually seeing a lot of drivers that struggles to negotiate sharp turns using that creepy push-pull technique. Just wondering whose “brilliant” idea was…

I was told it’s to stop your crossing arm between your body and the steering wheel airbag. Not good if the bag goes off while your arm is in it’s path.

It is more to do with maximising the amount of time the steering wheel is in your hands. Hand over hand you at times only have one hand on the wheel, push pull in theory it is both hands all the time. Although one hand when turning is a loose grip.

Horses for courses. Use push-pull for higher speed turns where you’re not turning the wheel far enough to need to grab the other side of the wheel and bring it around in one go. In tight low-speed turns (eg. three-point turn or manoeuvring into/out of a parking space) you would use the hand-over-hand method to get the wheel around as quickly as possible (push-pull in these situations is silly – and if you’re worried about the airbag blasting your arm into your face, they don’t deploy at speeds lower than 15km/h anyway).

Leon Arundell 1:12 pm 13 Jun 17

There’s plenty of evidence that learning techniques like these makes people MORE likely to have crashes, possibly because these techniques allow them to drive closer to the limits of the vehicle, with less room for error.

bigred 9:33 pm 12 Jun 17

Wow, a lot of challenges here. Before providing my counter points, I will add a couple of other key points that keep me safe. Firstly, try to keep calm and not get sucked in by the idiots. If your heart rate increases significantly when you see the inevitable stupidity you should have a good look at yourself. I suggest wearing one of those wrist watch heart monitors and tracking your heart rate while driving. Secondly, learn how to continually assess your own abilities and learn from your many errors (without admitting it to anyone else, of course).

The only steering technique that should be used in a modern vehicle is push/pull. I will add, this does not mean clenching the wheel so tightly you sprain your hands. It also should mean you do not have your thumbs wrapped around the wheel. Anyone using push-pull or any other techniques should just go back to school for their own safety.

Heel and toe techniques were handy to know when cars had carbies and needed to warm up. Was also handy to keep the revs up in twisting bits when driving hot cars like Minis, Escorts and Hunter GTs. Unless you are doing some serious track stuff, I cannot see a use.

Left foot braking is a very effective technique when driving a really well sorted car with an automated transmission and steering wheel paddles. Cannot see the point on a manual – all it will do is break down your learned techniques.

JC 6:43 pm 12 Jun 17

bikhet said :

Lucian Burca said :

Doug Dobing said :

Thanks Jane for sharing these cool tips to improve driving. After teaching four teenagers to drive, the most interesting change I’ve noticed in the ACT is the change to ‘push-pull’ steering technique from the ‘hand over hand’ method. Funny, my kids prefer to use the ‘hand-over-hand’ steering technique as it feels more natural.

Indeed, it’s more natural and safer to turn by hand-over-hand technique, as it gives more accurate and firmer control and grip to the steering wheel. I am actually seeing a lot of drivers that struggles to negotiate sharp turns using that creepy push-pull technique. Just wondering whose “brilliant” idea was…

I was told it’s to stop your crossing arm between your body and the steering wheel airbag. Not good if the bag goes off while your arm is in it’s path.

It is more to do with maximising the amount of time the steering wheel is in your hands. Hand over hand you at times only have one hand on the wheel, push pull in theory it is both hands all the time. Although one hand when turning is a loose grip.

JC 6:40 pm 12 Jun 17

Lucian Burca said :

Doug Dobing said :

Thanks Jane for sharing these cool tips to improve driving. After teaching four teenagers to drive, the most interesting change I’ve noticed in the ACT is the change to ‘push-pull’ steering technique from the ‘hand over hand’ method. Funny, my kids prefer to use the ‘hand-over-hand’ steering technique as it feels more natural.

Indeed, it’s more natural and safer to turn by hand-over-hand technique, as it gives more accurate and firmer control and grip to the steering wheel. I am actually seeing a lot of drivers that struggles to negotiate sharp turns using that creepy push-pull technique. Just wondering whose “brilliant” idea was…

I was taught hand over hand but later learnt push pull at an advanced driver training course and now days I much prefer it and have no issues negotiating sharp turns.

Certainly wouldn’t do it in a car without power steering though.

Maya123 5:47 pm 12 Jun 17

I learnt to drive (a long time ago) by using the left foot on the brake and the right foot on the accelerator, but this only works on an automatic. When I switched to a manual car, and then drove them most of my life (privately owned, work vehicles and most rentals are manual) I had to learn to use the left foot for the clutch and the right foot for the brake and accelerator. How can you use the left foot for the brake while clutching? They are some distance apart. Recently I owned an automatic, but I am not going back to left foot brake and right foot accelerator, because that would be very dangerous. I sometimes hire a rental and they are almost always manual (USA is the exception) and I would hate to think of the dangerous mess I would be in attempting to drive out of the rental hire place into the busy road (they are often in busy locations), while trying to go back to left foot clutching, while my right foot handles the brake, and which I would have become out of practice with. When I haven’t driven a manual for awhile, the first day I sometimes forget to clutch (fortunately my most recent rental – last month – I didn’t), but this would be nothing in comparison to mixing up the feet. I am staying with left foot for clutch and right foot for break and accelerator for safety’s sake, because I don’t always drive an automatic.

John Moulis 10:55 am 12 Jun 17

Spiral said :

I’m not so sure about using both feet. It seems like it would increase the chances of people hitting both pedals in an emergency.

What’s wrong with using the left foot for the clutch and the right foot for the brake and accelerator? It’s how I was taught to drive and I’m sure most others as well. Why bother “mastering” left foot braking? What’s the point?

bikhet 7:34 am 12 Jun 17

Lucian Burca said :

Doug Dobing said :

Thanks Jane for sharing these cool tips to improve driving. After teaching four teenagers to drive, the most interesting change I’ve noticed in the ACT is the change to ‘push-pull’ steering technique from the ‘hand over hand’ method. Funny, my kids prefer to use the ‘hand-over-hand’ steering technique as it feels more natural.

Indeed, it’s more natural and safer to turn by hand-over-hand technique, as it gives more accurate and firmer control and grip to the steering wheel. I am actually seeing a lot of drivers that struggles to negotiate sharp turns using that creepy push-pull technique. Just wondering whose “brilliant” idea was…

I was told it’s to stop your crossing arm between your body and the steering wheel airbag. Not good if the bag goes off while your arm is in it’s path.

Spiral 7:32 am 12 Jun 17

I’m not so sure about using both feet. It seems like it would increase the chances of people hitting both pedals in an emergency.

tim_c 11:57 pm 11 Jun 17

“Braking … often is bad for your car, bad for fuel efficiency, annoying to other drivers and uncomfortable for your passengers.”

Apparently Mr Rattenbury hasn’t woken up to this yet, as he continues to roll out his third-world speed enforcement (speed bumps) all over Canberra. You’d think, calling himself a greenie, that he’d be trying to make traffic more efficient, not going out of his way to ensure it’s as inefficient as possible.

Lucian Burca 11:47 pm 11 Jun 17

Doug Dobing said :

Thanks Jane for sharing these cool tips to improve driving. After teaching four teenagers to drive, the most interesting change I’ve noticed in the ACT is the change to ‘push-pull’ steering technique from the ‘hand over hand’ method. Funny, my kids prefer to use the ‘hand-over-hand’ steering technique as it feels more natural.

Indeed, it’s more natural and safer to turn by hand-over-hand technique, as it gives more accurate and firmer control and grip to the steering wheel. I am actually seeing a lot of drivers that struggles to negotiate sharp turns using that creepy push-pull technique. Just wondering whose “brilliant” idea was…

Doug Dobing 8:31 am 11 Jun 17

Thanks Jane for sharing these cool tips to improve driving. After teaching four teenagers to drive, the most interesting change I’ve noticed in the ACT is the change to ‘push-pull’ steering technique from the ‘hand over hand’ method. Funny, my kids prefer to use the ‘hand-over-hand’ steering technique as it feels more natural.

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