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Moms' 7 Biggest Driving Mistakes

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Remember those plastic yellow "warning" signs people stuck on their cars back in the '80s  -- "baby on board"? Maybe it's time they came back in style. Only this time, let's stick them on our foreheads. Because let's face it: In our constantly rushed and sleep-deprived state, we moms often don't drive as safely as we should. Whether we're trying to get our kids to the doctor, a playdate, or daycare, and ourselves to work, the supermarket, or pickup, we've got a million things on our minds. And we're running late.

This makes us, and our kids, more vulnerable to accidents. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for those ages 3 to 33. And nearly 80 percent of accidents result from driver distractions of just three seconds, like handing a child a sippy cup! Here's how to avoid the biggest mistakes you could be making behind the wheel:

Chatting on your cell phone

It's tempting to use free minutes to arrange a playdate, but talking on your cell in a car is even worse than driving drunk. In a recent University of Utah study, the group using cell phones in a simulated environment had three accidents, while those who were inebriated had none. Why? Talking on a phone slows your reaction time (drunk drivers tend to be more aggressive, but they're not impaired the way cell-phone users are).

You're not off the hook if you use a headset. It doesn't matter how many hands you have on the wheel if you're not focused on the road. And while dialing a number is twice as dangerous as talking on the phone, we spend so little time dialing and so much time gabbing that they're equally risky, says Charlie Klauer, Ph.D., senior research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, in Blacksburg. So:

  • Don't talk on your cell, unless you absolutely must.
  • If you need to make a call, keep it short. "The longer you're on the phone, the higher your risk goes up," says Klauer. A quick "Hey, I picked up some tacos and I'm on my way home," is okay. But "So I told her that I couldn't find the report, but she just walked away like she didn't even hear me, and then I was like, 'Well, I guess I'll have to write an e-mail to somebody's supervisor ¿'" is not.
  • When your phone rings, let the person leave a message, and call her back later. Or look for a safe spot to pull over so you can return the call.

Feeling overconfident

Think it's mostly men who drive like maniacs? Think again. According to a University of Minnesota study, while women tend to say they're pretty tame drivers, once behind the wheel they drive just as aggressively as men.

Of course you want to be in charge while you drive, but cockiness can lead to accident-prone maneuvers, such as tailgating, blocking another car from your lane, and speeding. Be honest about your driving skills. Do you know evasive moves for avoiding an accident? If not, contact your state's department of motor vehicles for a list of approved defensive-driving courses  -- some of which you can take online. A bonus: Many insurers offer policy discounts if you complete the course.

Driving while drowsy

More parents than nonparents say they drive while tired, according to the National Sleep Foundation. That's no surprise, considering how little sleep we get! But you should never underestimate how drowsiness can hamper your driving, and:

  • As much as possible, get a good night's sleep  -- seven to nine hours is best.
  • When you can't get enough rest, carpool or ask someone else to come. There'll be another person to look out for hazards or take over.
  • Don't drive when you're naturally most drowsy. That usually means nighttime and that coma-inducing lull right after lunch.
  • Take a quick nap, especially before a long trip. A cup of coffee may give you a jolt, but it won't help you stay alert, says Kristin Backstrom, president of Safe Smart Women, a driver-safety nonprofit in Silver Spring, MD.
  • If you're driving and feel sleepy, sing out loud or roll down the window for some fresh air, and get to a safe rest area right away. Then take a walk, stretch, or nap.

Speeding

It's 5:15 p.m. Your child's daycare is a 20-minute drive away. If you don't get there by 5:30, they charge you $1 for every minute you're late. Worse than that is the look the daycare provider shoots you when you walk in the door. Worse than that is the look your child shoots you. So who can blame you for going 55 mph in a 35-mph zone?

We sympathize. But roughly 30 percent of all fatal crashes are due to speeding, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The faster you drive, the longer it takes to slow down if something unexpected arises. And most drivers don't realize how long it takes to reach a full stop. You need 300 feet to stop your car when you're going 60 miles per hour. And if you're driving an SUV  -- which is basically a truck  -- it can be harder to handle sudden stops.

To tell if you're keeping a safe distance:

  • Use the three-second rule during the day, in good weather and easy traffic. Choose a fixed object ahead of the car in front of you. After that car reaches the object, count "one-one thousand, two-one thousand..." If you get there before three seconds, you're following too closely.
  • Make it six seconds at night or in bad weather or heavy traffic.
  • In really bad weather, make it nine seconds.

Snacking while steering

Sometimes, the only real meal moms get is the coffee and bagel we scarf down while driving our kids to daycare or school. "But when you look down at your food for a second, you're missing what's in front of you," says Arlene Greenspan, senior scientist at the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, in Atlanta. "And that's how accidents happen."

One NHTSA study found that eating is nearly as distracting as reading! If you really have to eat, keep food to the side and take bites only while you're waiting at a light.

Attending to your kids

How safely would you handle these mini-crises that pop up with kids in the car?

1. A car honking next to you wakes up your baby, and she starts to wail. You're just 15 minutes from home, so you:
A) Sing every lullaby you know the words to, and make up the ones you don't.
B) Reach back with your right hand to provide your pinkie for her to suck on.
C) Pull over at a parking lot to nurse her, figuring it might calm her.

2. You and your toddler are taking his friend home after a playdate. The friend lobs a sippy cup at your son. You:
A) Tilt the rearview mirror to look back and say, "Do that one more time, and..."
B) Turn around at a stoplight to get the cup from your son's revenge-seeking grip and to tell his friend, "Don't you do that again."
C) Say, "Stop that," turning around to grab the cup.

1. Either A or C is safe. "If your baby is crying but you know she's going to be fine, keep driving. If you want to check on her, you need to find a gas station or other safe place  -- not a shoulder  -- and pull over," says Backstrom.

2. Only B is safe. Why? The problem with using your rearview mirror to look at the backseat is that you're not looking at what you're supposed to be looking at: the road ahead. And, of course, never turn around while driving.

Slacking on car maintenance

In 2005 there were 660 fatalities and 33,000 injuries due to tires that were underinflated, overinflated, or that had worn treads  -- which can make cars harder to handle. To be safe, you need to take care of your car, which is actually easy.

Every time you fill up the tank:

  • Check the air in your tires with a pressure gauge. (Read your car manual for specifications.)
  • Inspect your tire tread. When it wears down to 1-16 of an inch, the reduced traction can cause you to lose control when you brake or turn (especially in an SUV). Insert a penny into the tread with Lincoln's head facing out; if you see all of his head, get a new tire. Every time you get your oil changed (typically, every three months or 3,000 miles):
  • Ask the mechanic to also check your car's power steering, brake, transmission, and coolant levels.
  • Turn on your headlights and turn signals; make sure they work. Check your brake lights.

Don't let it slide when:

  • You're out of windshield fluid or the wipers are getting old. In a storm your view would be impaired.
  • Your brakes feel "mushy" or in any way out of the ordinary.
  • The "check engine" or any other warning light comes on.

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