Driving in the Real WorldTM is a change agent for driving safely and efficiently in the real world. Many driver's education programs, especially in the United States, do not adequately train people in hazard perception, risk management, and proper handling of the complex challenges of everyday driving. Through its blog, social media, and upcoming subscription newsletter, DITRWTM offers tips, techniques, and reflections on driving that will improve your situational awareness and may even save your life and that of others.

There is an enormous need to make our roads safer by making it socially unacceptable to be a bad driver in America, regardless of the cause. We must completely rethink how we drive and how we teach it, and then make the driving test something to actually be respected. Driver's ed should also be a lifelong learning process. And I believe that this can be achieved in much more fun, enjoyable, and experiential ways than it is often presented now.

Many people don't realize this, but what makes you a better driver also improves you in many other areas of life. This involves honest self-examination of our core values as both a society and the individuals that constitute it, and truly making the necessary changes to improve our attitudes on the road.

Thank you so much for visiting. I invite readers to share their own experiences and reflections on driving, to suggest ideas on the subject, and to follow me on Twitter (@DrivingReal).

—Mi Ae



23 Winter Driving Tips They Don’t Tell You About: Part 2

 This is the second part of a 3-part series on winter driving tips that are often not mentioned or discussed in enough depth.

9.  In an emergency, minimize the time spent out of your vehicle. One of the biggest tragedies is people getting injured, killed, disoriented, or lost when they step out of their vehicles during winter emergencies. In huge multicar pileups recently in the US on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, numerous people got out to help other motorists, inspect damage, or take pictures; at least one person was struck and killed by another vehicle. In the case of the Wisconsin pileup, stunning video footage shows people running out of the way with vehicles swerving to avoid them. And an Illinois groom died on his wedding night when he stopped to help a woman who’d slid off a snowy road. Both he and the woman were killed when they were struck by not one but three cars whose drivers simply did not see them. State patrol advise that if you’re stranded or see someone in trouble, it’s best to stay in your vehicle and call for help. Frequently at collision or emergency scenes, motorists experience what’s known as “target fixation”; by staring at people or disabled vehicles too long, such drivers may unwittingly head right for them. After all, you tend to steer in the direction you’re looking. And in the case of blinding snowstorms, people walking to seek help can become quickly disoriented and frostbitten. Always stay in your car for your safety and so that emergency personnel can locate you easier.
10.  Turn on your flashers to warn others of sudden slowdowns. Briefly turning on your emergency flashers to alert drivers behind you of a sudden slowdown or problem up ahead can help provide valuable warning time. This is actually a tactic used frequently in Europe but seldom seen in the United States. Every little bit helps, especially if motorists behind you are going too fast for conditions or visibility is poor.
11.  Control your speed. It is almost always mentioned in winter driving tips to reduce your speeds in snowy and icy conditions. But this excellent advice goes deeper than that. You can actually travel quite fast safely in a straight line on ice and snow and be fine—as long as you don't have to stop or turn. It’s awfully hard to beat physics, and American motorists are especially poor at driving appropriately for conditions (this video footage shows how a 40-car pileup in Wisconsin started precisely because motorists were going too fast). In bad weather, always go more slowly than you think is necessary, maintain the maximum distance between you and other vehicles, and keep your eyes up as far ahead as possible to anticipate hazards.
12.  Don’t travel at night. It can be very dangerous to travel in darkness in bad winter weather. You can’t see ice or changing road surfaces as well; falling snow can be disorienting blowing into headlights; lane markings or even where the edges of the road lie can be impossible to discern without other visual cues. And while dense fog and blowing snow can extremely treacherous during the day, they’re even more so at night. We are also biologically programmed to become more fatigued as darkness falls, further hindering our judgment. In these cases, better to be safe than sorry—and wait until daylight.
13.  Coping with extreme temperatures. Single-digit and below-zero temps call for special tactics:

  • Use windshield washer fluid rated for temperatures of –30; this will help keep the fluid from freezing in your reservoir tank, in the wiper nozzles, and on your windshield. Prestone makes a good formula that’s a combination de-icer, washer, and dirt repellant.
  • When filling up your vehicle, don't leave the gas pump unattended to run inside the convenience station; below-zero temps can cause the automatic shut-off pumps to jam—and gasoline spurting out all over the place.
  • Always keep gloves and extra clothing in the car; a sleeping bag rated for negative temps that can be stored compactly in a compression sack is also a good idea in case you get stranded.
  • Keep your gas tank at least half-full at all times to avoid condensation issues. It also provides fuel in case you get stuck and need to keep the heater going.
  • Check your tire air pressure frequently. The colder the temperature, the faster they tend to go down.
  • If you live in an area that regularly gets below zero and don't have sheltered parking, you might consider installing an engine block heater that can be plugged in at home or your workplace for easier starts.
  • But note that today’s modern vehicles do not require significant idling to warm up—in fact it can even harm them. A maximum of 30 seconds, even in the coldest temps, is all that’s needed.

14.  Minimize braking and acceleration. Great driving is all about properly managing time, weight, and space. This is especially true in bad winter conditions:

  • Don’t brake if you don’t have to. Slow down early enough to roll up to a traffic light change without having to brake completely. If you do need to stop or slow down, start braking early and gently to keep yourself and others behind you in control.
  • If a traffic light does change quickly, make a swift judgment call whether it’s really safe to stop—remember that vehicles behind you may not be able to halt in time in these conditions, and it may just be safer for you to go on through the intersection.
  • Keep your acceleration gentle and to a minimum—if you hit the gas too much on snow and ice, you’ll just spin your wheels and possibly go into a skid or a slide.
  • Use your vehicle’s momentum and time your gear changes to minimize braking and acceleration. If you’re in hilly terrain, let gravity work for you on the downhill, but try not to stop on an uphill—you’ll lose momentum and start sliding backward.
  • Give yourself as much space as possible between you and other vehicles. Remember, everything takes a lot longer to happen on slippery roads!

15.  To pull off or not? And where? Sometimes a driver needs or wants to pull off because of an emergency, fatigue, nerves, lack of visibility, or changing conditions. But this is often a judgment call depending on the location, conditions, and level of traffic. If you’re traveling up a hill or in a place with narrow shoulders, or there’s a lot of traffic going by, it may be safer for you and others to just keep going rather than pull off—and risk an accident trying to get back on again. If you need to pull off a highway or interstate during a blinding snowstorm, try to find a ramp with an overpass under which you can park temporarily. The overpass will provide shelter and keep your car clearer of snow.
16.  Use your thermometer. Many modern vehicles show the external temperature on the dashboard. Use this information to your advantage to tell if conditions are above or right around freezing, or if temps are dropping to the point that ice may be forming. Keep in mind that the temperature displayed may not truly reflect what’s happening on the ground, especially if the road surface has been salted or de-iced, is shaded or unprotected, or if traffic has been grinding ice and frost away. But this extra info can provide very handy clues as to whether driving conditions may be changing quickly.

If you want to read the last part of this 3-part series on less common winter driving tips, click here.


23 Winter Driving Tips They Don't Tell You About: Part 1

Like most Americans, I travel every Thanksgiving to see my family, but I do something crazy—I drive 4,000 miles from Seattle to Wisconsin and back—alone. This year was no exception. But on my return trip west in the first week of December, a major winter storm swept eastward across the country, plunging much of it in deep snow, heavy ice, sleet, freezing rain, and sub-zero temperatures.

I changed my route slightly to avoid the worst of Storm Cleon, but 300 miles of snowstorms and fog, 400 miles of heavy blowing snow, and another 500 miles of icy Interstate 90 as slick as a skating rink awaited me. The one night I stayed in South Dakota, temperatures dropped to –33°F (–36°C) with the wind chill. Insanely cold.

Predictably, I also passed a lot of vehicles (and emergency personnel trying to help them) that had spun out into ditches, off freeway ramps, and into center medians. A distressing number of these were large pickup trucks and SUVs pulling trailers. Considering that humans excel at underestimating risk and being overconfident, it doesn’t take much of a leap to figure out what happened.

At this time of the year, many traffic safety and automobile organizations put out winter driving tips. They recommend getting your vehicle in tip-top mechanical order; keeping emergency food, water, blankets in case you get stranded; and driving more slowly and not braking suddenly. This is all very sound advice, but many other aspects to safe winter driving are never mentioned. In this 3-part article, I’ll cover these, as well as expound on oft-told ones, but from a different perspective.

1.  Be antisocial. One of the biggest problems in America is that drivers don’t leave sufficient following distances in any kind of weather. Even on largely empty interstate roads, motorists frequently bunch up and trail only a couple of seconds behind other vehicles at 75 mph (113 km/h). In the winter, tightly packed caravans of six or seven vehicles—semi tractor-trailers, cars, SUVs, campers—often form with scarcely a second’s worth of distance between them. All it takes is a single driver tapping their brakes or hitting an icy patch for a pileup to happen. Your best defense is be downright antisocial—distancing yourself from others as much as possible and always planning an escape route are your best insurance in case you or someone else starts suddenly sliding, braking, or going out of control.

2.  Be hyperaware of road feel. To drive safely on snow and especially ice, one needs to be fully alert to how their vehicle feels on the road surface at any given moment. The slightest changes—a sudden floatiness in steering, a tiny sideways shift of a rear tire transmitted through seat vibrations to your butt, a minor rasping noise—often signal a changing condition that requires reducing speed or making another immediate adjustment. Don’t let distractions like talking to passengers or having music on too loud get in the way of this situational awareness.

3.  Don’t get overconfident just because you have AWD and ABS. State patrol and emergency personnel always say that the first vehicles to go off the road are SUVs and pickups with all-wheel or four-wheel drive. In many years of driving in winter conditions, I’d have to concur. Having power to all four wheels may help you get traction in certain situations, but it will not help you stop, and it certainly won’t save you from stupid driving. Antilock brakes (ABS) can go a long way in helping you stop sooner and maintaining control, but again don't rely on it. Use common sense.

4.  What really to do in a skid. The best way to handle a skid is, of course, not to get into one in the first place through a combination of proper space management, minimal braking and steering, and no sudden moves. But if you do get into one, what should you do? There’s a lot of information (and misinformation) about the subject, and it gets complicated because it’s often highly contextual depending on what caused the skid in the first place, the type of vehicle, and its drive technology. And in a panic situation, everything usually flies out of the mind in a flash. The most important things to remember? Look into the empty space you want to go and steer gently into that direction. Don’t overdo the steering correction, avoid braking hard, and very lightly press the accelerator to redistribute the car’s weight to gain traction. It’s really that simple.

5.  Don’t freak out. Driving in snow and ice means that your vehicle will not behave the same way it does on dry pavement. No matter how carefully you make a turn, the back end may slide out a little. Your vehicle will wallow when plowing through deeper snow or shimmy sideways in icy ruts. And you may experience considerable oversteer or understeer at times. You also may not stop as quickly as you think you’re going to. It’s important to remember that this is completely normal in winter conditions. Keeping calm, having your wits about you, anticipating these sensations, and gently correcting them as needed with very small inputs will go a long way to making you a safer, less stressed-out winter driver.

6.  Practice deep breathing and relaxation methods. When we drive in hazardous situations, lots of nervous tension can build up, sometimes without our even realizing it. Often we start breathing in a shallow fashion, or worse yet we hold our breath and tighten our muscles. When this happens, our adrenalin surges and our brains are deprived of much-needed oxygen for thinking clearly. It’s important to recognize these signs of tension and deliberately relax, whether by deep breathing, mindfully exhaling, listening to soothing music, or even singing (see my earlier blog post for more on this).

7.  Be aware of fatigue. Bad winter conditions take huge tolls on a driver’s attention and energy. On longer road trips, many drivers underestimate the exhaustion that can set in after hours of sustained focus and tension. This can cause a person to make mistakes or misjudge a potential situation. Take frequent breaks or stop early for the night if necessary.

8.  Avoid a bad situation in the first place. The best way to avoid getting into an accident in bad winter weather is simply to not go out if possible, or take public transit. Even if you can drive well in snow and ice, it doesn’t mean others can. Increase your safety odds by staying home or waiting until the worst of the storm has passed and roads have been plowed. And if mountain passes require tire chains even for AWD or 4WD vehicles, seriously question whether it’s wise to be out at all in such conditions.

If you want to continue reading more winter driving tips, check out Part 2 of this series.



The Role of Driving in the Real World

Recently I’ve been getting asked a lot why I started Driving in the Real World and if there was any singular incident (like an accident or loss) that made me want to change the way people drive.

Although I have known a couple of people who were killed in auto accidents, their fate is not what’s feeding my passion. My motivations are much more simple, and I’m reminded of it every time I get behind the wheel: I am simply tired of sharing the road with so many bad drivers who endanger me and others every day. And I feel like I can and should do something about it.

But I have no illusions of how long and difficult a task this will be, because at least 80 percent of our population feels that they’re already good drivers. To effect any real change in our lackadaisical attitude toward driving on a national scale is going to take a systematic, persistent, and collaborative approach over many decades and across numerous channels of media, products, services, and campaigns to multiple age groups. It may take at least 30 or 40 years to see its cumulative effects, and it may not even be fully accomplished in my lifetime. But by steadily partnering with others and chipping away at this massive task little by little, I do believe that we can start changing life on the road. The role of Driving in the Real World is to make bad driving as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving.

I’ve been asked about my plans to make this website a larger one, and when that will take place. That is still a ways out yet, possibly a year or more. My vision for DITRW is enormous and long-term. Ultimately it will include the following:

  • Apps for mobile phones and tablets relating to driver information/feedback
  • Training tools for teens, parents, immigrants, and the elderly
  • Ad campaigns across all media
  • Online driver forums that cater to the unique navigation and safety needs of different communities
  • Road safety/driving concept games for children as young as kindergarten all the way to high-school age
  • Fun products that promote better driving
  • Intensive curricula for driving schools and instructors

I hope to build DITRW over the years into a major player that has some sway in state legislation, laws, and licensing. I’d also like to see it involved in the creation of a national driving safety center, similar to the one in Teesdorf, Austria, that has nationally reduced beginner accidents by 17 percent and young driver fatalities by 34 percent.

This is all horrendously ambitious, given the current American cultural attitude toward driving. But I still think it is not totally impossible if enough dedicated stakeholders chip away at it in effective, intensive ways over time. With strong leadership and consistent vision, I believe we can innovate driver and road safety education in ways that make people not only want to learn the right way, but even have fun doing it, and remember and use what they’ve learned for the rest of their lives.

I must acknowledge that hundreds of entities, from private citizens to government agencies, are already devoted to these causes, and their good intent, hard work, and often passionate fervor should be recognized. The problem is that very few are willing to tackle our completely broken system of driver-focused road safety consistently and over the long term by its true root causes. An alarming fatality statistic is cited here, a call to end distracted driving is shouted from another mountaintop there, and everywhere there is emotional hand-wringing.

But too often these are small disparate elements that are isolated from why our collective driving skills are so bad:

  • Little acknowledgement of the huge role of cognitive science and driver personality influencing behavior behind the wheel
  • A lack of truly good driving training available in America
  • A severe shortage of in-car time spent learning superior technique and good habits
  • The very weak knowledge and testing standards that enable us to get a license
  • Our own huge underestimation of driving’s complexities and overconfidence in our abilities
  • A deterioration of our social conduct in general
  • The very low sense of priority we place on driving safety
  • The subsequent lack of money assigned to doing something about it, whether it is a parent investing in good driver education for their teen or a government agency running a graduated licensing program

Until these larger issues are addressed in meaningful, substantial ways, US roads will continue to be dangerous places, ranked well below other developed nations when it comes to traffic fatalities and accidents.

What are your thoughts? Do you have ideas? What do you think is necessary to change our driving culture? Do you have experience in it? I would love to hear from you.



New Year’s Resolution: Drive Smarter

For many people, the beginning of a year often means a chance to start anew, to improve a longstanding issue of some sort. Getting in shape and shedding extra pounds are the most common resolutions, but some people decide they need to save more money, quit smoking, reduce stress, or get a more fulfilling job.

How about drive smarter?

Consider this: Driving is an activity that many of us do almost every day. And like everything that we do almost every day, we do it so much that we don’t think about how we do it anymore (unless someone cuts us off or we have a near-accident). But unlike brushing your teeth or answering email, the consequences of not driving well can be annoying, dangerous, or deadly.

Driving well means driving smarter. It means being careful, looking far ahead, anticipating and planning, and sharing well with others. It means being aware, paying attention, and staying focused. It means driving smoothly and steadily even through the most challenging conditions. It means knowing how to use technology to help you travel efficiently and safely—and when to ignore it.

Most of us think we drive really well. According to cognitive research studies, exactly 80 percent of us, in fact, believe we are above-average drivers. And 999 times we drive somewhere, we don’t get into an accident, or even close to it. So we’re good drivers, right?

But when was the last time you were out driving and something took you by surprise? A pedestrian stepping out from behind a parked car? A motorcycle in your blind spot? A vehicle that was entering the same lane you were changing to on the highway? An invisible patch of ice on an onramp? A red stoplight on a busy downtown street that wasn’t visible until you were already in the intersection? Another vehicle tailgating you?

If you were surprised or startled by any of these, it means there’s room for improvement. Over 90 percent of vehicular accidents are completely avoidable. An “accident” should mean a freak happening, such as a tree falling down on your car during a windstorm. Everything else is irrelevant—and preventable.

Driving smarter also means being completely honest with yourself about your abilities, personality, intent, and execution. Most of us aren’t.

The rewards of driving smarter are huge. Safety is the obvious benefit; no one wants to be in a crash or risk being injured or killed. Or worse yet, do that to someone else. But aside from that, driving smarter means you’ll be less frustrated and scared by traffic and others around you. That means you’ll be less stressed, and you’ll likely even save some time, because you know how to drive more efficiently. And when you drive smarter to your destination, you’ll have that secret inner satisfaction of having executed a job well-done in a hazardous world.

It’s not just for behind the wheel, either. The mental and physical skills to drive smarter directly improve just about everything else you do—looking far ahead, being aware of what’s going on around you, and focusing not on the mistake that just happened, but how to avoid repeating it in the future.

So try it—take a refresher course from a good driving school, join an auto club that offers car control clinics, research the Web for driving techniques (including this blog), or get one-on-one training with a professional driving instructor. Or take a single bad driving habit you have, and work deliberately on replacing it with a better one.

Driving well, really well, takes practice. Lots of it. But most of us drive everyday. What a great opportunity to get better throughout the year.



Rage Unleashed

The flowers placed by the Ramp Metered Ahead When Flashing sign near the onramp still haven’t wilted yet. Day after day, their silk petals flutter in the rain, wind, and sun, as out of place as a kitten on an ice skating rink. Every time I see them, I inhale deeply for a man who no longer can.

Almost ten months ago, this man was driving his silver BMW M3 sedan westbound in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland on a beautiful summer day. A famous Google software engineer who had just celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary, he was returning home from Costco when a black Hyundai SUV hurtled from out of nowhere and slammed into his car. He died instantly.

I came upon the accident scene perhaps about a half hour after it happened. I was on a routine trip to pick up my dad and we were on our way to downtown Kirkland, but the road was blocked, forcing us to enter the freeway onramp. Weaving through the disorienting maze of emergency vehicles, flares, and police officers waving the crawling traffic by, I suddenly found myself about five feet from the silver M3.

It was mangled so badly that its driver side was smashed clear into the passenger area and the whole car was squished to less than half its original width. My heart sank. My first thought was that no driver could have possibly survived that kind of impact. My second thought was what kind of speed had to be attained to inflict that much damage, and how? The 30-mph speed limit of the surrounding streets made this improbable, even taking into account normal traffic fluctuations. 

The Washington State Patrol later determined that the SUV driver had been traveling southbound on the freeway when he perceived that another driver cut him off. Fueled by a blood alcohol level four times the legal limit, the Hyundai driver flew into a rage and started pursuing the vehicle. He exited the freeway on the eastbound 85th St offramp at high speed, lost control around a corner, crossed three eastbound lanes, hit a raised median, rolled his vehicle, and sailed across all the westbound lanes before slamming into the top of the BMW.

The drunk driver walked away from the SUV. The dead man left behind a devoted wife and two young children. The person being pursued by the drunk driver continued on the freeway and likely never even knew what happened.

Seeing the BMW shook me up terribly the rest of the day—it was so clearly a case of being literally at the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t until the next day that it dawned on me that I had been running about 15 minutes late that day, all day. I’d been a little irritated at my tardiness when I picked up my dad, having come down southbound on the freeway, not my usual route but necessary that day because of an errand. I had exited eastbound on that same offramp to 85th Street, only to return westbound with my father in the front passenger seat 10 minutes later. If I’d been running on time—my usual time—the Hyundai would have been 10 minutes behind me on the freeway, and we could have been that BMW. 

No words can describe the unfairness of fate, when reckless impulse, inattention, alcohol, and road rage intersect in a single horrifying moment. Still, the silk flowers brave the ceaseless elements, their presence a reminder of randomness.


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