In this post, I will highlight some important points on safe driving style, good road manners and maintenance of cars, based on my personal experience. While this must be common knowledge, I don’t see many drivers following them in practice. Safety on the road should be of prime concern to a good driver. Being a responsible driver also means respecting other drivers and pedestrians on the road. A good driver must not abuse the car and maintain it well. This article assumes that the reader is an experienced driver. Inexperienced drivers may follow my advice at their own risk.
Driving, even if it is for a short distance, should not be taken casually. You must not drive if you are tired or sick. You should be well rested. Drinking and driving is an absolute no-no. I had the good fortune to work under the guidance of an eminent eye surgeon who avoids alcohol in the evening if he has surgeries scheduled in the next morning. Wear appropriate footwear when you are driving. Before getting inside the car, take your sweet time to make sure everything is in order.
- Take a quick walk around the car. Make sure no pet is sleeping underneath.
- Inspect the tyres.
- Take out any twigs or leaves from the wipers.
- Check if the tailgate, bonnet and passenger doors are fully shut.
- Clean the windshield, windscreen of the rear and side windows, all the mirrors. A dusty windscreen not only reduces visibility, it creates glare at night when lights from oncoming vehicle falls on it.
- Check if you have everything you need e.g. phone. Remove anything that you don’t need because unnecessary cargo only adds to the dead weight of the car and increases fuel consumption.
The Kolkata traffic police requires you to carry original copies of:
- driving license – this should be in your wallet and not in the car
- pollution certificate
And attested xerox copies of:
- road tax invoice
- smart card
Once inside the car, take your time to adjust the seat. Modern cars have all kinds of adjustments for seat height, lumbar support, steering tilt, headrest and so on. An ergonomic sitting position is important as it will keep backache and fatigue at bay. To sit comfortably, I get the wallet out of my back pocket. Fasten the seat-belt by default. Ask your other passengers, even those in the rear bench, to do the same. Seat-belts have saved many lives. Don’t take them lightly.
Before setting off, it is also important to have a clear idea of the route. Before going to a new place, I check the route on Google maps and ask friends about parking zones and alternative routes. If going on a totally new road, I try to spot a well driven car and follow it. The leading car becomes a good guide to potholes and intersections ahead.
Adjust the mirrors
The IRVM should be so adjusted that you can view the entire rear windscreen, simply by moving your eyes, and not your head. This is important because you don’t want to lose sight of the road while looking at the IRVM. Some ignorant Indian chauffeurs may tell you otherwise, but you must drive with both ORVMs open. I adjust them to see the car in the inner third of the mirror and the road in the outer two-third. For vertical adjustment, you should be able to see the rear door handle in the lowest point of the mirror. This is the best way to adjust the ORVMs in the city according to my experience. On the expressway, you can reduce the blind spot by widening the ORVM angle at the cost of seeing a bit less of your your car in the mirrors.
Modern cars don’t need idling to warm up the engine. Idling can actually do more harm to your engine. However, according to Jalopnik, if this is a freezing winter morning, say in the Darjeeling mountains, then it is a good idea to idle your engine for 3 minutes before you start off. For all other climate conditions, the engine is best warmed by driving at low RPMs for a few kilometres. It should be about ~ 8 km ideally which translates to a 15 minute drive at 40 kmph. On a summer day, the engine will reach its operating temperature in 5 km whereas it may take 10 km to do so in the winter. During these first few kilometers, while the engine is warming up, don’t revv the engine hard: keep it below 2000 RPM.
The unruly city traffic can be stressful. A little music can be therapeutic. I usually listen to soothing music to calm me down when driving inside the city. On the highways during the night, I switch to fast paced (not loud) music which helps me stay alert.
I always drive with the AC turned on, which is not exactly an environment-friendly thing to do, but it reduces driver fatigue by cutting out the air and sound pollution. Remember though, when you are driving at > 55 kmph, it is recommended to roll up the windows and switch the AC on anyway. This reduces wind drag, improves the aerodynamic efficiency of the car and returns an overall improved fuel economy.
Don’t turn the AC on immediately on start-off. Drive a few hundred metres with the windows open, let the car ventilate well, after which you can roll up the windows and turn it on. This will get rid of the build up of harmful gases inside the car evaporated from interior plastic.
Set the AC controls at a low setting at first and gradually increase its speed. In case you have an automatic air conditioning system, this adjustment will be automatic. It goes without saying, you should select recirculation mode always. Every hour or so, briefly change it to fresh air mode or turn down the windows to let in some fresh oxygen.
When you suddenly switch the engine off, the AC unit goes into a state of shock. Turn the AC off a short distance before reaching your destination but keep working the blower fan at a moderate to high speed. The fan will dry out the AC and prevent bacterial growth.
Get the air conditioner serviced annually. At that time, also get the cabin air filter cleaned or replaced. This cabin filter, which filters outside air entering the AC, is an oft-neglected item and some car manufacturers omit this as a cost-cutting measure. If the cabin filter is not a standard factory fitment, do install it during your car’s first service.
Anticipation and Smooth Driving
Accelerating aggressively consumes a lot of fuel but doesn’t reduce transit time significantly. Also, the more hard braking done, more is the loss of built-up kinetic energy. On the other hand, it takes a lot less energy to maintain a more or less constant speed. When starting, I accelerate very gently and once I build up enough momentum, I maintain a constant speed, depending on the traffic and road condition, with a light foot on the gas pedal. I try to anticipate the road ahead as much as possible and avoid unnecessary fluctuations in speed. If your car has cruising ability, use it on the highway to maintain a constant speed.
Once I decide to stop ahead, I don’t waste the momentum by braking, instead I release the gas pedal a good distance before and let the frictional forces slow down the car. For example, before a traffic stop which I can see from a distance turning red, I simply take my foot off the gas pedal and let the car come to a stop naturally. However, a brief brake input is highly advisable here because it will turn on the brake lights alerting the cars behind! Press just a bit and release, I say.
Three second rule
Even in stop-and-go traffic, I always maintain a safe distance from the car ahead. A safe distance from the car ahead gives me adequate response time, allowing me to brake gradually. Ideally follow the “three second rule” to follow a car at a safe distance. This rule states that you should stay at least three seconds behind any vehicle that is directly in front of you. The rule uses time as a unit instead of distance and hence standardises a safe following distance at any driving speed; higher the speed, greater will be the safe distance.
360 degree scan
Make it a habit to steal quick glances at your mirrors from time to time so that you have a clear idea about your surrounding. When taking turns and at intersections, turn your head quickly and scan both sides. When you are changing lane on a highway at a sharp angle, it creates a huge blind spot – it is important to look over your shoulder instead of relying solely on the mirrors! Before reversing, scan the surroundings thoroughly. Watch out for kids and pets. Once you have scanned the surroundings, it is okay to rely solely on the mirrors for parking manoeuvres but when reversing straight down the road, you should turn and keep your left hand on the passenger seat headrest, look through the rear windscreen over your left shoulder and steer with your right hand.
Road traffic accident continues to be a major cause of death and morbidity in India. The roads out there are not safe at all. A moment’s carelessness is all that may decide between life and death. Avoid the phone by all means. Those who check their phones while driving need to pay a visit to the ER and see the RTA patients; I am sure they will change their habits. Talking over Bluetooth is acceptable but keep the calls short. Also, disable all notifications during driving. If your phone doesn’t have a “car” or “driving” mode, you can simply turn off the notifications by turning on “restrict background data” in Android. Remember that a high music volume will only distract you and eventually tire you out. Turn off the music in crowded streets and narrow roads, to hear better. The sun visor is there for a reason. Don’t let the sun blind you.
Good road manners can make the roads a lot safer. It also speaks volumes about your character. A good driver must be responsible, understanding and accommodating. Always respect right of way and yield. Overtake if you really have to. Overtaking a slow moving bus makes sense but if you overtake another car without a good reason and both of you reach the destination at the same time, it defeats the purpose. Lose the ego and let faster vehicles overtake you. If another car has already started overtaking you, you must not accelerate suddenly and block its path; be a gentleman and let it pass. Always give way to ambulances. Honk only when have to. Don’t use the horn as a tool to vent your frustration or to scare a cyclist or a pedestrian. Follow the traffic rules. Don’t jump the red lights. Respect the zebra crossings.
Don’t change direction without a warning. You will be putting yourself and others at risk. Turn the indicator light on at least 30 metres before turns or changing lanes. If you have to stop on the road, e.g. to drop off a passenger, use the hazard lights to warn others. Don’t forget to turn headlights on when it gets dark but always use low beams. You can briefly switch to high beams if it is necessary but remember to switch back to low beams to prevent inconvenience to other drivers. Flash headlight to communicate with others e.g. before overtaking or asking another car to yield way in a narrow road. The height of the headlight beams can be adjusted with the headlight leveller switch. It is especially handy when you have 3 of 4 people riding in the car. Because of the increased weight, the headlights tend to be directed upwards. Check the user manual for instructions on using the headlight leveller switch.
Driving in the rains
Keep the AC on, in fresh-air mode, during the rains to prevent fogging of the windows. Don’t keep the cabin too warm or too cold. The idea is to maintain the right temperature balance between the windows and the outside air. HVAC systems in modern cars are equipped with a defogging mode which can be turned on in case the windscreen is fogged up. Rear screen defogger has become a standard feature, which clears fog by heating up little wires in the rear glass. Turn the AC off before entering a flooded area, in which case you can prevent fogging by rolling down the windows a bit.
Consider driving extra cautiously as visibility is poor. Cut down your driving speed as there is a significant increase in braking distance and risk of aquaplaning on wet roads. Use a combination of engine braking and regular braking as the former has certain advantages on slippery roads. Be considerate to pedestrians and cyclists on a rainy day, who may be difficult to spot in the rain. Give the bikes a margin of error who are not only exposed to the rain but are prone to skidding on slippery roads.
Use turn indicators, hazard light and horns liberally to alert other drivers. Turn on the headlights when it rains, even if it is day. Always use low beams. High beams hamper visibility further as the light is reflected back by the curtain of rain in front of you. Fog lamps can be used in the rain to improve visibility. If you can’t see anything, it is better to stop till the weather improves. Park the car in a safe and high spot, one that won’t be easily flooded.
Drive slowly on puddles so that you don’t splash water on pedestrians and bikers. It can also wreak havoc if the splashed water gets inside the engine. If possible, drive around a water collection. On an inundated road, you can gauge the depth of water by looking at the tyres of other cars. Don’t negotiate water level higher than the center of your wheel, unless stated otherwise in your car’s user manual. Take a different route.
If you really must drive through a flooded area, drive through water slowly in first gear and revv up the engine high. The generated fumes will keep the water out of the exhaust pipe. If the car stalls, don’t attempt to restart it. Restarting a car stalled in water can lead to engine hydrolock causing severe damage and significant repair costs. An automatic car in which you can’t maintain the first gear (and revv high) must not be driven through water. Luckily the automatic gearbox in my car has a manual mode too.
If you live in a city, you must master parallel parking. If you park on a slope, the recommended norm is to turn the front wheels away from the curb on an incline and towards the curb on a decline. If you are parking in a tight space, turning the ORVM downwards, as against peering out of the window, to see the kerb, is a good habit.
Park the car in a safe spot. Be considerate and don’t block another car in the parking area. Ask the parking attendant if you should keep the car in neutral. Make it a habit not to leave the car without your phone, wallet and keys. Even if you are getting down for a short time, keep valuables like laptops or briefcases hidden out of sight. Lock the car and take a walk around the car to check all the doors are fully shut and all glasses are fully rolled up. A small mistake on your part is all a thief may be waiting for!
Care for the engine
Make sure to run-in your new car according to instructions in your car user manual. Most manufacturers recommend a running-in period of 1000 km. A properly run-in engine will give better performance and last the miles. I did a lot of driving in the empty Rajarhat highways to run-in my car in its initial days.
Respect the redline! The redline on the tachometer indicates the maximum performance of your engine. Don’t hit the redline for more than few seconds. Keeping the RPMs within 60-70% of the redline should be fine.
The engine oil is the life blood of the engine. It must be changed when it is time without delay, as instructed in the car’s manual, typically every 7500 – 10000 km. For cars doing frequent short trips and predominantly stop-and-go city driving, the engine oil should be changed earlier than recommended in the user manual – discuss it with your service mechanic. For such cars, it is a good idea to hit the highway in the weekend. A long drive will free up the engine and you will get better performance.
Beat the traffic
Stop-and-go driving in congested traffic takes its toll on the engine. As we follow a repetitive cycle of moving and stopping, there is incompletely burnt fuel which can form deposits in the engine and lead to premature ageing of the engine. The engine which has done 200,000 km on the highway is in a much better shape than that which has done 20,000 km stop-and-go driving in the city. I like to plan ahead to choose the route with minimum traffic and also the time of the day when the roads will be less congested. If needed, I start early in the morning to avoid the rush hour traffic.
Avoid short trips
If it is too short a distance, I prefer not to drive and walk or avail public transport instead. A short trip doesn’t let the engine reach its full efficiency as it doesn’t get sufficient time to warm up. This is detrimental to the engine health and consumes more fuel too. I will often give a ride to a friend to drive a few extra kilometers for this reason. It is also a good idea to club several errands into a single drive to avoid short trips.
Idling wastes a lot of fuel. It is also detrimental to the engine as there is incomplete combustion of fuel during idling, leading to carbon deposits in the engine. Modern cars don’t consume a lot of fuel to start the engine and it is said that it is more fuel efficient to shut the engine off than idling for more than 10 seconds. In fact, nowadays, high-end cars are being equipped with automatic start-stop technology to stop fuel wastage. For all practical purposes, I switch the engine off if I have to stop more than 45 seconds. For any less duration, I keep the engine idling but turn the AC off to save fuel.
The right gear
Driving in the wrong gear can put undue stress on your engine. Shifting the gears correctly in sync with the engine revs, will save fuel too. In my car, this is already taken care of as the gear changes are automatic. If you drive a manual transmission car, you should make it a habit to drive in the right gear. Shift to a higher gear a before you reach 2500 rpm on petrol engines and 2000 rpm on diesel engines.
- The ride must be kept clean. A dirty car doesn’t look nice on the roads. You can read my complete guide to car detailing guide.
- Adhere to the manufacturer’s recommended schedule and get the car serviced regularly.
- Get mechanical issues and niggles sorted at the service centre at the earliest.
- Change the engine oil and other fluids as per schedule.
- Don’t let your fuel tank run low. Fill it up as soon as you reach the 1/4th on the fuel gauge.
- Change the windshield wipers once a year.
- Get the pollution certificate renewed without fail every six months. This is the first document the traffic police will want to see.
Get the tyre pressures checked regularly at your nearest pump, when the tyres are still cold. Drive gently to your nearest fuel pump, not more than 2-3 km away. The right tyre pressure will improve vehicle handling, prolong tyre life and improve fuel economy. Under-inflated tyres can increase the fuel consumption of your car. The right tyre pressure optimizes rolling resistance and improves fuel economy. When you are getting the tyres filled, don’t leave out the spare wheel tyre.
Tyre damage on sharp impact, on negotiating a sharp pothole at speed, is quite common in India. After a drive on bad roads, look out for signs of damage which can be a bulge in the tyre or a bend in the wheel rim. Always replace the missing valve caps. Available in tyre shops at a nominal price, these valve caps prevent air leak and entry of dust.
A car that is driven well ages well. Start developing a smooth driving manner and your car will stand the test of time. A rash driving style will only put undue stress on the mechanical bits of your car. A true enthusiast will adopt a conservative driving style in unfavourable roads and preserve the best performance of the car for some spirited driving on a good highway.
Always slow down on speed breakers; a badly designed speedbreaker can scrape the underbody. The suspension of your car takes a good beating on a bad tarmac; it will definitely last longer if you slow down on bad roads and don’t bang the car into potholes at high speeds. Your tyres will thank you in the long run if you don’t ride the footpath at an angle. If you want to prolong the life of your power steering, get the car rolling a little while turning the steering wheel, instead of standing still; this of course doesn’t apply to tight parking spots.