Family Safety

Today we have cars that are better designed to withstand crashes, cars that have as many as six airbags, and cars with anti-lock brakes. When you combine this with the fact that we also have better roads, it is somewhat of a mystery why some 42,000 people a year are dying on those roads.

Part of the reason may be that drivers do not understand how to use the very safety technologies designed to protect them. Here are some tips to help you stay safe on the road, particularly as winter approaches and driving conditions deteriorate.

Buckle up and put children in the back seat. Although airbags save lives they also have been blamed in the deaths of a small number of infants and adults, mostly smaller women. Safety researchers stress, however, that virtually all of those killed were either not wearing seat belts or were improperly restrained. It is, therefore, important to follow safety guidelines to protect yourself and your family. "The most important thing adults can do is to buckle up," said Brian O'Neill, IIHS president. Adults in the front should sit as far back as possible, at least 10 inches away from the airbag. But for everyone, the back seat is the safest, said O'Neill. "The reduction in risk is about 25 percent in the back seat."

When it comes to children, these are the rules:

  • Place all children age 12 and under in the back seat and make sure they are properly restrained.

  • Never place a rear-facing child seat in front of an airbag.

  • Infants up to 20 pounds or one year of age should be in a rear-facing child seat.

  • Children from the age of one to four from 20 to 40 pounds should be in a forward-facing child seat.


At the age of four years or 40 pounds, children may graduate to a booster seat or a seat belt, depending on their size.

Practice using anti-lock brakes. Ever since anti-lock brakes were introduced in the 1970s, people have thought they would be a major safety breakthrough. But their safety record has shown mixed results. Safety experts think many drivers do not understand how anti-lock brakes work and how to use them, or that drivers may become overconfident and take unnecessary chances, believing anti-lock brakes will save them. An anti-lock braking system, also referred to as ABS, automatically controls

braking pressure to prevent the wheels from locking up. If wheels lock up

and stop rolling, drivers lose the ability to steer. The anti-lock system uses sensors on each wheel to detect when the brakes are about to lock up and the wheels are about to stop rolling. The computer detects this and automatically pumps the brakes -- faster than any driver could -- to keep the wheels from locking. The system gives the driver maximum stopping power, helps the car brake in a straight line, prevents a skid, and gives the driver the chance to steer around an object.

However, the pumping action results in a grinding, vibrating feel of the pedal under the driver's foot. "We think that people may feel the pulsating in the pedal, think that something is wrong, and lift their foot up off the brake," said Julie Rochman with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"Some people may not know that you're supposed to stomp on the brake instead of pump the brake and so drivers may continue to pump anti-lock brakes," said Rochman.

These actions render the system useless and don't leave time to stop or steer around something.

To use anti-lock brakes properly, do not pump them. Push down on the pedal fast and hard and do not let up until the car stops. Because people may be thrown off by the grinding feedback from the pedal, practice using the system.

"Go to an empty parking lot preferably after its just rained a little bit, although a dry parking lot is fine," said Rochman. "Set up a cardboard box or something benign as an obstacle. Get the car up to about 30 mph, aim it towards the barrier and practice braking and steering. Because the first time you use those brakes should not be when you need to use them."

Steer out of trouble. Driving experts say even the most modest family sedan has emergency handling capabilities that go far beyond what most people suspect. Yet, your car's steering may be your most underestimated ally in accident avoidance. Just remember there is an option when that car brakes in front of you — and it's not just close your eyes and hit the brakes. Follow at a safe distance. At 50 mph you are traveling about 75 feet per second. If you see the brake lights go on in the car in front of you, it will take you one-half to three-quarters of a second to react, according to the National Safety Council. So, how close is too close to be following the car in front of you? It is when your following distance is less than three seconds. To find the right spot, begin counting to three when the car in front passes a fixed object, such as a light pole. If you pass the light pole before you reach "three," you are not allowing enough distance to stop in an emergency.Be gentle on slippery surfaces. When the road is covered with snow or ice it is not the time to be a lion in winter — even if you have four-wheel drive. The key to winter survival is just the opposite. Be gentle with the steering, brakes and accelerator to make sure all four tires have the maximum grip possible, which keeps the vehicle from skidding.

Know the limitations of four-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive offers better traction in getting started and keeping momentum on slippery surfaces such as deep snow or mud. But it doesn't help you to stop the car any faster than two-wheel drive. And while it may be friendlier to drive on a slippery surface, ultimately it will slide. A four-wheel-drive vehicle benefits from sending power to all four wheels, which means a driver has four chances of finding some grip instead of just two. But problems arise when drivers with a four-wheel-drive vehicle get overly confident, forget the system's limitations and drive at 65 mph in a blizzard thinking that they are invincible. They aren't.

Eliminate mechanical mishaps. Properly maintaining a vehicle is an important part of being safe. Once a car breaks down, the driver is extremely vulnerable, said Lucille Treganowan, owner of two Transmissions by Lucille car repair shops in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and author of the book Lucille's Car Care. "Most breakdowns are preceded by clues," said Treganowan. "And some of those clues include noises, leaks, odors and performance problems." By investing time in a periodic "scouting trip," she believes owners can help keep their cars in good operating condition. Part of the scouting trip includes taking the car for a road test. "Listen for any sounds, accelerate and decelerate, and go around bends. Be sure the car handles well around bends; if it doesn't there is a reason." Look for anything out of the ordinary. Watch for bucking or jerking when you accelerate. Watch when the transmission shifts. Pay attention to whether it delays when you put it in gear or doesn't shift until really high speeds. Look for performance problems such as slow pick up, if you step on the gas and it doesn't want to go any faster. If anything is out of the ordinary, check it out.

Adjust your head restraint. Headrests aren’t simply a place to rest your head when trapped in traffic. Adjust them when you first get into the car. Ideally, the top of the head restraint should be above the center of the ear or higher. Also, check the distance between the back of your head and the front of the restraint. Some studies have shown that sitting more than four inches from the head restraint increases the risk of neck injury in a collision. Don't be a highway pedestrian. Motorists whose vehicles break down on Interstate highways are risking their lives, according to a study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, based in Washington, D.C. Nearly ten percent of all pedestrian deaths occur on Interstate highways. This is alarming since the Interstate system makes up only about one percent of the nation's total road system. Nearly one-third of those deaths were as a result of people pushing or working on a vehicle, changing flat tires, walking on the shoulder to get gasoline, or exchanging information with another driver following an accident. The best advice, say safety experts, is to get the car off the highway and try to get to an exit. Even if you have a flat tire, you can usually drive a mile or two. If you cannot drive away, you can take other precautions. Pull to the extreme right of the shoulder, as far as possible away from the road; put on the hazard lights and set out flares. Keep in mind that it may be safer to stay in the car wearing your seat belt, use a cellular phone to call the police, and wait for help.

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