New era of cars ushers in new rules of the road

Linda Melone
Old habits die hard, and so do old-school driving lessons.
Changes in vehicle design, such as the introduction of power steering, and technology like airbags and anti-lock brakes have prompted a change in how we drive, says Maria Wojtczak, co-founder and chief operating officer of DrivingMBA, an Arizona-based driver training and education provider. In fact, some formerly advocated driving practices no longer are valid.
Now that new cars come equipped with airbags, the old-school 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock hand positions on the steering wheel could severely injure your arm or face if the airbag deploys. Now, experts say, you should grip the wheel at 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock — or even 8 o'clock and 4 o'clock — to avoid the airbag.
"It's much more comfortable and easier on the shoulders," says Allen Robinson, president of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, a trade group for driving instructors.
The old rule about placing your hands at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock on the steering wheel started when we had steering wheels that were three times as large as they are now and lacked power steering, Robinson says.
"You needed all your shoulder muscles to turn that wheel, but not with today's vehicles. Putting your hands on top of the wheel forces you to be too close to the wheel, so if the airbag deploys, your hands will go into your face," Robinson says.
A turn for the better
Along with steering with both hands on the lower part of the wheel, steering by turning one hand over the other has gone the way of manual door locks. Use a push-pull motion instead, Robinson says.
"If you want to turn left, pull down with your left hand and push up with your right hand on the steering wheel. You're only going to move that steering wheel about 15 degrees," Robinson says. "You never turn a steering wheel completely around -- you turn it enough just to turn it enough to get in the lane you want to be in."
Stop in the name of technology
Improved tires also have changed the way we stop a vehicle, Wojtczak says.
"Tires today give us better traction and better stopping ability," she says. "Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) have changed the way we brake in an emergency situation. You brake, keep your foot on the brake and steer versus pumping brakes manually as you did years ago."
Robinson notes that when old hydraulic brakes locked, you'd lose steering control. "Anti-lock brakes really improve stopping in an emergency," he says.
As an offshoot of anti-lock brake technology, electronic stability control (ESC) in new vehicles also has altered the way that drivers should handle turning. ESC detects loss of steering control using high-tech sensors and automatically applies the brakes.
Researchers estimate that as many as 10,000 deadly crashes could be avoided each year if all vehicles were equipped with ESC. As of the 2012 model year, the federal government required ESC in all cars, SUVs, pickups and minivans.
"Between ABS and ESC, you'd be hard-pressed to put your car into a spin," Robinson says.
Driving: No small task
Having these new features not only makes driving less physically demanding, the updates' safety factor also could lower your auto insurance premiums. However, these changes to behind-the-wheel behavior give drivers a sense of safety and have caused drivers to let their guard down in some cases, Wojtczak says. "It is still important for us to know how to do all of these things manually, as technology sometimes fails," she says.
Those manual tasks include controlling your speed without the help of cruise control and checking behind your car to look for people or objects without the aid of backup cameras.
"There is a sentiment in this country … that driving is no big deal and anyone can do it," Wojtczak says.

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