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The New Rules of the Road

A few things have changed since you took your driving test

Man wearing a suit and helmet, driving tiny car

I still remember, with aching clarity, how I failed my first driver’s license exam: I was turning right in a four-way intersection, with the green signal. I carefully calibrated the steering wheel, slowed and smoothly rounded the curb. What I failed to notice was the pedestrian who’d just entered the crosswalk. 

Since I finally did acquire my license in 1986, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been cut off, or indeed nearly hit, by cars encroaching on my right of way as I tried to cross an intersection — and that includes as a driver and a pedestrian. Whatever Platonic ideal of driving perfection we present to that instructor on exam day — all rules and procedures followed to a T — we gradually drift toward our own school of driving. 

We all have our own mental models — our vision of what’s happening, or what should happen, on the road — says Ian Walker, professor of psychology at the University of Surrey.  

“Driver training,” he says, “can be seen as an attempt to standardize everybody’s mental models, and the further we get from this, the more people’s mental models are likely to drift apart.”

Even for the most experienced, above-average drivers, it’s likely been a long time since you were taught to drive. Things have changed since then, and your training hasn’t kept up. So here’s a quick refresher course.

1. Pedestrians have the right of way

Anywhere. Everywhere. Regardless of whether you have a green light. And anywhere streets intersect, there’s a default unmarked crosswalk, where pedestrians also have the right of way. 

2. Stay the hell back … 

You were likely taught this rule: Stay two seconds behind the driver ahead of you, at any speed (the National Safety Council, among others, recommends three). Even if the guy ahead of you is a lead-footed moron, a rear-end crash is always, legally, your fault. And even if you feel confident tailgating someone else, by doing so you reduce the reaction time of the driver behind you, increasing your risk of being hit.  

3. …Especially because of bot drivers! 

The number of cars semi-piloting themselves is growing, and they often have different characteristics. One study found that most crashes involving autonomous vehicles were rear-end collisions; they were struck from behind (see No. 2). Autonomous vehicles behave more cautiously than human drivers and brake more quickly or unexpectedly.

4. Forget some of your driver’s ed lessons

ABS brakes were a rarity when most Gen Xers became legal drivers (we were taught to pump the brakes), but now they’re a standard part of electronic stability control packages. If you hit a slippery patch of pavement, your car’s brakes automatically pulsate for you, so all your vehicle needs from you is steady pressure. 

Also, the presence of airbags means that the old 10-and-2 position on the steering wheel has shifted to a race-car-driver-style 9 and 3. 

5. Use turn signals religiously 

You’ve probably noticed a gradual increase in people failing to use their turn signals. Whether it’s due to distraction or their hands being occupied by a phone, ignorance, or some sign of creeping entitlement, it’s more than annoying — it’s a hazard. On many cars, it’s the turn signal that activates blind-spot detection.