Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Have questions about what to do when you’re on the road? See a puzzling sign? A social conundrum? Find answers here! And feel free to ask questions related to traffic safety or driving technique on my Contact page.

When do I have to obey the posted speed limit of a school zone?
Typically, American schools have safety zones around American schools that set speed limits at 20 mph at certain times. This is lower than the usual speed limit in the vicinity. State and county laws vary, so it is important to check with your local DMV or police department for any rules particular to your area, but here are a few general guidelines.

Confusion often centers around the situations under which vehicles are supposed to obey the 20-mph limit. For instance, a posted sign may say, “School zone speed 20 miles per hour,” another sign says, “when children are present,” and still another sign says, “when flashing” (meaning when yellow lights posted on a school zone sign are flashing). Which of them apply when?

Traffic engineers have set the lights to flash at specific times when children are walking to and from school according to current bell schedules (usually around starting times in the morning and let-outs in the afternoon). During these times when the lights are flashing, all drivers must go no faster than 20 mph (and slower if necessary—i.e., when many kids or waiting cars are present). Once the school zone flashing lights are off in some places, vehicular traffic may resume at the higher speed limit posted in the vicinity. However, in other areas, the 20-mph limit is in effect on school days during school hours even when the lights are not flashing.

Bear in mind that there is a huge distinction between when the lights are flashing and when children are present. Obviously, kids are often present around a school at other times of the day for various reasons. It is critical to not only strictly obey the posted school speed zone when the lights are flashing, but to actively look for kids and go slowly when the lights are not on and school is not in session, even in the evenings, weekends, and holidays. You can never be too cautious when it comes to the life of a child.

And yes—the school zone speed limits still apply in the summer. Kids may be attending summer school, participating in extracurricular activities, or using the ballfield or playground.

I see someone texting and driving, or driving erratically. Should I report them to the police? And what's the safest way to do it?
The short answer is that, yes, you should report unsafe driving to the police. This is especially true if you suspect impaired, drowsy, aggressive, or reckless driving or witness a driver going the wrong way. One night I was doing a ridealong with the Washington State Patrol when we were called to an incident where several civilians had noticed and then followed an impaired driver off the freeway and onto surface streets to report him to the police, who were extremely grateful to have been alerted, so they could apprehend him before he could injure or kill someone.

Some police officers have told me that by law they are required to investigate every reported incident if there is an officer in the vicinity, so it’s worth reporting if your local police department welcomes that sort of communication (but not all of them do or it can be impractical if distances are far).

However, reporting should be done only in a safe manner that will not potentially harm others. It is not okay to text, call, or even use Bluetooth/handsfree modes to report an incident while driving. Try to memorize the color, make, and model of the unsafe vehicle, its location, license plate, and any description of the driver. But then wait and pull over safely to the side of road or in a parking lot to call 9-1-1. If you have passengers with you, delegate the task of calling to them while you drive.

You can call anonymously to report unsafe behavior. But remember that 9-1-1 is only for true emergencies when the public is in imminent danger, not because a driver is doing something that annoys you. Also, never take matters in your own hands and engage a dangerous driver—always avoid eye contact, keep a safe distance from them, and ignore rude gestures.

There are smartphone apps available like Nexar that can monitor and record surrounding traffic. However, I don’t particularly recommend using them while you’re driving, unless you have a passenger to do it for you—the apps can be very distracting in themselves. Your first job is always to not make a bad situation worse. Pay attention to what is actually going on around you, not the app.

What should I do when people tailgate me?
The best thing is to simply move over and get out of the way, if possible, so the tailgaters can proceed at the speed they want to go. Holding them up for sustained periods can lead to increased anxiety for you and frustration for them, which may lead to road rage and other unpleasant conflicts. Sometimes tailgaters aren’t really aware that they’re following too closely—it just happens because they aren’t paying attention, or you both are on a long downhill and they picked up speed too quickly. In that case, you can often “calm” them by gradually easing off the accelerator and slowing down slightly. This increases your following distance from the vehicle ahead (always a good thing in case a situation develops), and it also forces the driver behind you to back off a bit. If, after 15 seconds or so, you’re still being tailgated or the driver gets even closer, then move over or pull off safely at the first opportunity.

Should I match my speed to the flow of traffic, even if it is over the posted speed limit? I don't feel safe otherwise, because everyone's going so much faster.
Speeding is a difficult subject—it’s complicated, controversial, and often blamed. It is also problematic and very lethal. And it’s an incredible showcase for human folly and the behavioral forces behind it.

One might think of two types of speeding: the kind on interstate highways, freeways, and higher-speed rural roads where the legal posted speed limit is higher than 50 mph, and then the speeding on all other roads with lower limits, like residential neighborhoods, urban areas, school and construction zones, etc.

There is really never a good reason for exceeding the speed limit in the latter types of roads. The posted speed limits are there for a reason—curves, road banking and engineering, how much traffic the road supports (not just vehicular but also pedestrians and bicyclists), and level of human activity (residences, businesses, schools, etc.). And it is important to remember that the posted speed limits are the maximum—if conditions warrant, you should go more slowly.

The problem is that many drivers believe that going 5 miles over or more beyond the posted limits doesn’t hurt. Everyone else is doing it, so it must be okay, right? The problem lies in that we’re incredibly overly confident of our abilities, consistently underestimate risk, and assume that we’re the above-average exception. Being an incredibly social species, we copy others whether we’re aware of it or not, even when the behavior involved is dangerous and especially when we aren’t punished for the consequences.

In traffic, this becomes a vicious cycle—we fudge, get sloppy, break rules, and endanger others, and then unwittingly encourage others to do the same. The more we speed, the more others feel emboldened, and the ones that don’t want to speed in the first place get anxious and feel pressured—after all, social competition and shame are very powerful.

Speeding creates a twofold problem. One is simple physics; the faster a driver goes, the more likely serious injury and death will happen if something goes wrong. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every 1 kilometer per hour (a little over half a mile) typically results in a 3 percent higher risk in getting into a crash involving injury, and a 4 to 5 percent increase for crashes resulting in fatalities. Not only that, but going 20 to 30 mph (a different of just 10 mph) increases the chances of a pedestrian dying by a staggering 600 to 800 percent. Add a mere 10 mph on top of that (40 mph) and the odds leap to a 1,600 percent increase.

The other problem that we seldom think about is that speeding severely reduces our time to process the massive information that our environment presents to us at every second. We have all experienced information overload in driving, where we simply couldn’t take on board everything coming at us and then got surprised by something that we didn’t see or expect. Most of us were never trained properly in hazard perception and situational awareness when we learned to drive, so we have utterly no idea of what we miss in any given moment behind the wheel. Speeding just adds to this poor state of affairs because so much more information is flying in at us the faster we go—that’s why we have a higher risk of crashing when we go even a half-mile faster.

On highways and higher-speed roads, the unspoken social permissibility to go over 5 to 20 miles over the posted limits has an even stronger pull. But the physics, human behavior, and processing abilities outlined above still haven’t changed one bit. And now the stakes are more dangerous because the speeds are higher.

It is important to remember that speed alone by itself does not kill—it’s the injudicious use of it that does, just like alcohol and drugs. Germany’s Autobahn, which is legendary for having some stretches with no speed limits, is one of the safest roads in the world in terms of vehicle miles traveled. But there are complete differences from America in Germany’s road engineering, driver education, and societal agreement and respect for how to navigate that road. The tradeoff is that when a crash does occur, physics still rule the day—it is pretty much going to be lethal.

So, is it okay to go faster to keep up with the flow? Given the answers above, the only logical one is no. But what if you’re the one stone in the river that is holding up everyone else and therefore seems to be causing a less safe situation than if you just went the speed everyone else is doing? The dilemma is understandable and a fair one to consider.

But think about your role in making the next stretch of road safer and how people will copy you. Why are you speeding? Does it really matter if the choice is saving two minutes or potentially adding to a situation that will lead to a fellow human life ending and the countless suffering in its wake? Do you truly understand your limitations? Your responsibilities in perpetuating dangerous assumptions? Situations? What are you content to live with?

How far ahead should I be looking down the road when I'm driving?
As far as you possibly can, and much farther than you might suspect. Keeping your vision “up” is a mantra common to every type of driving, whether on the street, the track, or a rally road, and for good reason. Most people have “dropped” vision and tend to fixate on either the road right in front of them or barely 200 feet ahead. The hallmark of excellent driving is to look as far down the road, around the curve, across the field, down the next eight intersections, and beyond the edge of the earth if possible. Keeping your vision up like this alerts you to hazards well ahead of time so you can plan accordingly. It also keeps you from getting surprised by unforeseen circumstances, vehicles, animals, people, objects, flying spaghetti monsters, and changing road/weather conditions. And if you don’t believe how poorly motorists look ahead, just watch what happens when they come up on a police car with flashing lights (or not) stopped on the side of a highway. Suddenly at the last moment, everyone’s brake lights come on because they didn’t see that police car earlier—they just weren’t looking far enough ahead to spot it.

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