Driving isn't a right--it's a privilege.

We don't always treat it that way, though. All too often, we forget the basic courtesies, the finer points of driving.

Don't worry. It happens to all of us. Need some help? Then bone up on this conclusive list of everything you need to know to be a better driver.

Before you read, know this isn't the same advice you'd get from typically useless American driver's education. This is real-world, 21st-century stuff that recognizes you use your car as more than entertainment, more than transportation.

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You car is a job, a life, a home, a weapon, a buddy. The new rules of the road for driving, owning, parking, and using your car have to reflect that, not some pat rule about following five car lengths behind the vehicle in front of you.

Here's how to make sure you don't make a mess of that somewhat co-dependent relationship.

Streaming video rearview mirror from the 2016 Cadillac CT6

Streaming video rearview mirror from the 2016 Cadillac CT6

Getting set up

Adjust your mirrors, seat, and controls before you put it in gear. Of course, this is where to start. The new angle? Set a memory position if you have one, as many cars now do. And spend some time getting the perfect angle for the rearview and sideview mirrors, because soon they'll all be replaced by cameras, and you'll miss them.

Keep your insurance card up to date, in your car or on your phone. Many car-insurance carriers now offer electronic identification. Download their app, keep it updated. Check to see if it overrides your passcode in an emergency -- or if you're totes paranoid, set your lock screen to a picture of your policy card. If none of this sounds familiar, make sure you keep the latest, active version of the printed card on your person and not in the car.

Keep your license plate mounted and clear of debris. This is for the rest of us, so we can report you when we need to. But it also will keep you from getting pulled over by the cop who can't see it, and therefore thinks you have something to hide.

Sit up straight and set the proper driving position. This isn't your living room couch. Hands on the wheel, chest at least a foot away from the airbag module, with the gauges framed by the wheel and a clear line of sight to traffic lights from below the windshield frame. 

Prep your workstation. Plug in your phone, and put it and your wallet in a convenient storage bin. You might need them at a stop.

Take an advanced car-control driving school. You're not doing it for the hours, or to get your provisional license. You're doing it so you can respond quickly and correctly when the three cars ahead of you decide to get intimately acquainted with each other.

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Turn signal mirror

Turn signal mirror

Basic courtesy and safety

Use turn signals. You paid for them, use them so we know what's going on, and can prepare for what's about to happen. Side note: it also makes you think more deliberately about what you're doing and what may be in the way.

Pay attention to traffic lights and when they change. Quit with the radio fiddling and talking to your passengers and even dancing or reading. We're all waiting to get through this light, and the chances we'll have to gun through a yellow go up exponentially when you're an engaged driver.

Be aware of elderly drivers that might need a little encouragement. It will be you one day. Be kind.

Don't get up in our grille just because you're late getting home. Your problem becomes our problem when you turn into an aggressive driver with a time-management issue. So you're late: the world will not stop rotating. If it's a true emergency, call 911.

Don't use your SUV or truck to block the view of traffic for normal-size cars. Normal's a tricky word with today's fleet of trucky wagons, but remember, you may be sitting three feet over and ahead of a vehicle simply trying to make a legal turn.

If you're driving an SUV, a truck, or a tall van, pay even more attention. You're responsible for a larger mass and a higher head count than other vehicles. Make sure that matters to you.

Practice installing, and use, your child car or booster seat. Because those kids are your future chauffeurs.

EVERYONE GETS A SEATBELT. This is non-negotiable.

Uber driver (photo by Uber)

Uber driver (photo by Uber)


Basic technique

Drive smoothly. This applies to all but emergency circumstances. You can accelerate smoothly without being slow. Steer with purpose, don't just drift around. When you need to brake, do it assertively, not abruptly. Remember: You're piloting a two-ton missile.

Drive with both hands on the wheel, at 9 and 3 o'clock. The proper driving position is not slouched over the wheel, or behind it, with one wandering hand at high noon. Don't pretend you heard something else somewhere else, because you didn't and they were wrong.

Don't pump the brakes if your vehicle has anti-lock control. Or you're missing the point.

Don't drop your clutch at a stoplight or use launch control at a stoplight or stop sign. Those things have a place and time, and that place and time is obviously at Cars & Coffee.

Leave the stability control on. If you're an expert and know when you need yaw and wheelspin, you should probably be on a closed circuit.

A quick flash of the lights or light horn beep are acceptable, nothing more. Do not treat them as you would an Aldis lamp or a wood instrument. You're not trying to stun the driver into doing your will; you're gently nudging them into participating.

Stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, and pretty much everywhere else too. You don't need a lawsuit from the jackass who decides he needs to toddle across five lanes of traffic, and you don't want to be quoted in a newspaper or a police report.

Give bikes and motorcycles a wider berth than you would other vehicles. Even if they don't abide by the law. Critical Mass and lanesplitters will piss you off, sure, but they're missing out on the joys of things like air conditioning, satellite radio, ventilated seats, and most importantly, airbags.

Drive predictably. When we can tell what you're doing, we can do a better job of driving ourselves. Drive like you're part of a system, not trying to evade one.

Don't ask your tires to work too hard. Contact patches are only about a palm wide. Going 95 into a tight bend? Good luck with that, Mario.

Toyota's Automated Highway Driving Assist (AHDA) maintains inter-vehicle distance

Toyota's Automated Highway Driving Assist (AHDA) maintains inter-vehicle distance

Turning, merging and exiting

Don't cut across three lanes to get to that gas station/Starbucks/restroom. There's another one at the next exit, we promise.

Don't be the jerk who rides the right lane and cuts in when lanes merge. There's an argument to be made that all drivers should fill all available lanes, even when those lanes merge. Fine--just don't be an idiot and jump in and out of the lanes just to get ahead of one or two vehicles.

When you are turning left, go into the left lane. When you are turning right, go into the right lane. Novel concept, low in intellectual rigor, high in real-world demand.

Don't creep out too far in the intersection. Especially if you know you won't make that light. You end up cutting down the time for the other turn lanes to get their fair chance at a light, and as you know from driving in (your town here), there's always an intersection that falls prey to terrible light timing.

Tesla Model S electric-car road trip, Route 66 Museum, Elk City, Oklahoma [photo: David Noland]

Tesla Model S electric-car road trip, Route 66 Museum, Elk City, Oklahoma [photo: David Noland]


Going the distance

Take breaks every 90 minutes on long trips. Trite advice, yes, but your bladder has a finite size, and so does your attention span. One day soon you'll have to get used to it anyway, whenever your electric car needs to be topped off.

Make sure you keep pace with other drivers--safely of course. There's a speed limit, then there's the speed we drive. Here's where it pays to be above average, but not the lead rabbit.

Don't use cruise control when it's raining, or snowing, or anything but fair weather. It's a convenience, not a technique.

Watch several cars ahead. Accidents on interstates usually happen when you're not paying attention.

Don't ride the brakes, and don't brake-check other drivers. The big pedal requires just as much nuance as the tall skinny one.

Lamborghini Road Trip

Lamborghini Road Trip

Bad weather

Don't drive into flooded roads. Even if you're in an Amphicar. No emergency personnel need one more extraction on their to-do list.

Don't run summer times in the winter, and don't run winter tires in the summer. The treads are designed with squishy blocks or firm compounding for a reason; noise is just the least of your worries.

Don't drive with snow on the roof. It all comes flying off, soon enough, maybe on to the car behind you.

Don't drive with fogged windows. Feel free to do other things with fogged windows when you're parked. We're not your parents.

Don't drive without wiper blades! We see this more often than we should shake our heads.

Don't drive unless both your headlights and taillights are in working order. It bears repeating.

Dry your brakes in heavy weather with a light squeeze on the pedal. Some cars do this automatically now; it's a good way to keep maximum brake power on tap.

Distracted driving

Distracted driving

Distractions and how to manage them

Keep a steady focus on the road, above all else. Put down the muffin, put down the cell phone, put it all down.

Don't blast your music so loud you can't hear the sirens coming up behind you.

Be prepared to drop everything. If you're going to read email at a stoplight, drop the phone as soon as the light turns. We're not saying we do it, but we're not saying we don't do it.

Pump up the jams, responsibly. Use your smartphone for music to keep you alert, but make a playlist and stick to it. If you have steering-wheel mounted buttons, even better. Just don't search for songs that you like to sing while you drive.

Don't seek navigation spots while driving. With the caveat that Siri and other natural-language voice searches are getting better all the time. Most native navigation systems will block you from doing so, anyway.

Apple or Android--just do it. Use your phone, or its operating system, instead of car-bound GPS. It's better, quicker, and likely has cleaner voice operation. Mount it to the glass to keep it closer to your line of sight, and use those steering-wheel controls.

2016 Tesla Model X P90D after crash while owner was parking [photo: owner 'Puzant']

2016 Tesla Model X P90D after crash while owner was parking [photo: owner 'Puzant']


Don't depend on cameras, entirely. Surround-view cameras are a few of our favorite things, but cameras see things differently than do you and I. They're reference books, not instructions.

Don't ding my doors, dammit. If you do so by accident, leave a note, because soon all our cars will have cameras to record exactly what kind of slugabout you are.

Don't park over or close to the lines. When you do, other drivers can't use the space, or maybe can't even get out. This is how keying was invented.

Don't park in electric-car spots unless you're charging your electric car. If it were our electric car, and we were low on battery power, and your Excursion was using the charging spot...we're not sure what we'd do, but it wouldn't be very nice.

EVgo charging station

EVgo charging station

Gas stations and drive-thrus

Know your order and be ready to pay at the drive-thru. You have plenty of time to get your act together before they ask, "You want fries with that?" Who doesn't know their coffee order these days anyway?

Don't use your car as a recycling bin. Or as a garbage heap. Stuff gets under the pedals, on the steering wheel, it's distracting and unhygienic.

Pull your car out of the filling spot when you're done refueling. Even if you really have to pee. You should have thought of that before we left the house.

Angry Driver with Road Rage

Angry Driver with Road Rage

Handling aggressive drivers

Give them wide berth. Stay away from them. Don't play their head game. Signal to get in another lane, let them blaze ahead, and then you can laugh when the flashing light bar catches up with them later.

Don't think you know what you don't know. Remember, this is America, and you never know who has a higher-caliber weapon in the glovebox.

An ounce of empathy goes a long way. That person could be having a really bad day. You might be too. You can make both drivers feel a little bit better, or at least make yourself safer.

Van accident

Van accident

If there's an accident

Call for legal help. The police will have to know you called to file a report--even if your local police won't come to actually file an accident report.

Call for medical help, if you can. You're not a doctor, unless you are one, and even then you'll need help. Even low-speed accidents can cause a concussion, and without a portable MRI in your car, who's to know what's going on?

Call your insurance company and take pictures. Your carrier may even offer a claim app that lets you take pictures and walks you through the accident process step by step.


What you really need to know about driving

Finally, just remember to relax. Don't forget, when you're out on the road--we're all in this together.

Have something to add to this list? Leave it in the comments below, and if it's good, we'll add it to the story.


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