What About The BAD Driving Advice?

[See also: Driving Myths and Mistakes]

Unfortunately, just as drivers who have never done any additional road driver training after passing a very simple driving test often think that they are “good” drivers, many people who know virtually nothing about in-depth driver safety believe they are entitled to give driving advice.

Occasionally, the results are just comical, but more often, the so-called advice can be potentially deadly.

In the list of extracts that follows, we will refrain from naming the source of the bad advice if we have contacted the originators and they are willing and able to identify the error(s) so that any repetition will be avoided. But if they wish to stick to their point of view — as they are clearly entitled to do — we reserve the right to name them.


(This index will take you to the first example of each topic, after which you may find a link to further examples.)

March 19, 2005 – How to Hold the Steering Wheel

Gary Richards’ column; San Jose Mercury News:

Q Gary, I need an opinion. When I took driving lessons, the correct place for the hands on the steering wheel was at 10 and 2 o’clock. With cars now having air bags, I hear that this positioning is a dangerous idea since the hands and arms may be thrown back into the driver’s face if the air bag is activated, causing additional injury. The solution is to hold the wheel at 8 and 4. Any thoughts on which is the better position for gripping the steering wheel?


Bill Worthington

A Yep, lower ’em. Many police departments train officers to place their hands anywhere from 9-3 to as low as 7-4. The 10-2 position has been the traditional favorite because, in theory, a higher grip allows a driver to keep the car running smoothly without needing to jerk the wheel suddenly if cut off or if there is a hazard in the road.


But air bags have changed that equation. During a collision, the bag will explode out at more than 100 mph, protecting the driver’s head and chest from slamming into the front of the vehicle. At 10-2 or higher on the wheel, a driver’s arms can get walloped or thrown back into his or her face if an air bag deploys.

(Gary Richards)

Regrettably, the above advice is entirely wrong. This issue is dealt with in detail, here.

March 2005 – Following Distances

On a radio commercial for Ford vehicles in the Buffalo area, Western New York:

“….This winter, remember to stay six to eight seconds behind the vehicle ahead, or at least two car lengths….”

D.S.A.:  The first part of this advice isn’t bad (the most appropriate advice for winter following distances is “at least four seconds on a wet road and at least ten seconds on icy roads,” so at least the 6-8 seconds mentioned here covers part of the problem). But which idiot stuck that nonsense about “two car lengths” at the end of the sentence?

Talk about undoing any good work! But, of course, even a child could swiftly work it out that it does not generally take 6-8 seconds to drive two car lengths, so how could these two contradictory bits of information possibly be compatible?

January 2005 – Test Drive Report

The reviewer commented on cup holders: “To reach the front cup holders, for example, you have to raise the seat armrests — which means you can’t use the armrests….”

D.S.A.:  Well, that’s a shame, but of course, for safe driving, a driver should never use either of these facilities while the vehicle is in motion. We assume by implication that the driver was included in the reviewer’s comments by the plural ‘armrests.’

     Using an armrest while holding the wheel severely cramps a person’s ability to use the steering wheel swiftly and accurately in an emergency. Likewise, drinking any beverage while driving is a distraction affecting steering ability.

Back to the ‘Bad Driving Advice’ Index


January 2005 – press release – 02(a)

Subject:  Advice on Driving in Winter

Source:  national press release, U.S.A.

“…The distance needed to stop on ice is twice as long as you would need to brake under normal driving circumstances. This means you should keep at least a three-car distance from the vehicle directly in front of you…”

D.S.A.:  The above recommendation is absolute lunacy, though the P.R. people involved initially didn’t know why we were alarmed by its publication. But after they consulted a retired state trooper elsewhere in the company, they started to grasp that our complaint was fully justified.

On any slippery road surface — ice, compacted snow, mud, or spilled diesel fuel, to name the primary examples — one should maintain a following distance of at least ten seconds because the stopping distance, compared to a dry, clean road, is about five times further and categorically not just twice as far! For example, on sheet ice, at just 20mph, this would represent a following distance of 300 feet — the length of an American football field –. Yet, the writer of the nonsense above recommends just three car lengths, which is approximately 50 feet (although the writer fails to specify any particular speed at which they think this would be acceptable), but using such a relatively small gap would simply be begging to have a collision.


January 2005 – press release – 02(b)

Subject: Advice on Driving in Winter

Source:  national press release, U.S.A.

“…If wheels lose their grip, gradually release pressure from the pedal and steer in the direction you want to travel…”

D.S.A.:  This extract is actually from the same press release as the one directly above, but as it is a separate subject, it has been given its paragraph.

There is no clue as to whether this refers to a front-wheel skid or a rear-wheel skid, or one caused by excess speed for the circumstances or by either harsh braking or excessive acceleration. So there is confusion. Perhaps the writer is referring to a vehicle suffering wheel spin when the driver is trying to pull away from a standstill, but the press release does not clarify this.

If this was an attempt at explaining skid control, it is the most feeble and one of the most inaccurate we have ever seen.

The most typical, terrible advice about skid control that one sees in America — including the fact that it is included in some state drivers’ manuals — is:  “If you skid, select neutral.”  This is diabolical, and for anyone naive enough to believe it, it should be followed by the phrase:  “Now contort yourself and kiss the rear end of your anatomy goodbye!”

You may be in grave danger if you get into a skid on a slippery surface or on a public road. And if you do so, it is almost certainly because of your impaired driving (i.e., not driving slowly enough for the road conditions). The one major exception to this is spilled diesel fuel which is often virtually impossible to see in time.

But if you ever get into a skid, the last thing you should do is take a hand off the steering wheel to mess around with the gear selector.


January 2005 – press release – 01    Subject: Advice on Front-Wheel Skid Correction  Source:  national press release, U.S.A.

“…What should you do if your car starts to skid on the road? You should steer toward the skid to stop if you drive a rear-wheel drive vehicle. But with most of today’s vehicles being front wheel drive, you need to steer in the opposite direction of the skid….”

D.S.A.:  Firstly, the phrase “you should steer in the direction of the skid to stop” is misleading. Steering in the direction of the skid — if the driver is accurate enough and does not make the common mistake of over-correcting — will only help regain directional control, after which the driver may be able to make the vehicle stop within a reasonable distance. Steering in the skid’s direction does nothing to help the car prevent, and any attempt at braking during this phase will result in total loss of control.

Secondly, the suggestion that in a front-wheel drive vehicle, a driver should “…steer in the opposite direction of the skid…” is simply rubbish. When driving on a public road, there is no occasion that a skidding driver should ever steer in the opposite direction of the skid! Apart from anything else, it is far from clear what the writer even means with this highly ambiguous instruction.


August 12, 2004 — Misleading press release from a major U.S. government body

                                  (Not driving advice, as such, but dangerous, none-the-less.)

At the NTSB “Standards in Driver Education” Forum, in October 2003, an invited speaker — a professor of road safety — made the utterly baseless claim that America leads the world in road safety.

Not only was this a remarkable claim, given that at that time the U.S.A. lay in 26th= position out of the 30 member- countries of the OECD, for the per capita road death rate, and in 5th position out of just nine countries deaths-by-distance- traveled (known in the U.S.A. as the V.M.T. rate), but it was also dangerously misleading. [1988-2002 figures — data here. Also 2002 IRTAD — data here.]

People around the world are all conversant with their own cultural version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so what possible good can come from implying that the U.S.A. is performing well in the field of road safety when in fact the opposite is much nearer the truth?

Yet still this myth refuses to die! On August 12, a press release from a government road safety body was issued in which it was stated: “America’s leadership in highway safety is not yet established but we’re going in the right direction.”

Oh, really?

Why is it that in 2003 figures, the U.S.A. has slipped back two places to be in 28th position out of the 30 OECD member-countries for the per capita death rate (and also in 40th position out of 50 known countries overall)? [2003 data here.]

At D.S.A., we would be as delighted as anyone to see the U.S.A. performing brilliantly in terms of road safety for it would mean tens of thousands of lives saved. Judging by the latest available figures [i.e. 2003], if the U.S.A. could match the leading OECD nation — Sweden — for the per capita death rate, a stunning 25,500+ lives could be saved annually in America.

It simply is not good enough for official bodies to hide behind the V.M.T. rate — a measurement which is not only relatively meaningless to the average person, but also is couched in small figures (n.b. currently “1.48”) that sound insignificant but in reality equate to around 43,000 lost lives each year.

In all other developed nations that the staff at D.S.A. are aware of, success is primarily being measured how much the number of actual deaths has been reduced over past years — not just on whether the rate sounds good — and whether significant goals have been set for ambitious further cuts in the number of deaths over the next few years. In America, however, no such practical targets on actual human lives are brought to the forefront and no such measurements are routinely given.

Maybe, for financial reasons or whatever, that’s the way it has to be. But we wish for pity’s sake that people in positions of responsibility or authority would stop crowing about how well the U.S.A. is doing in terms of road safety. We all wantthe country to do well but pretending that this is currently the case is not only ludicrous but it is also a dangerous disservice to American people.

Eddie Wren, Executive Director, Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.