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Aggressive drivers get a bad rap, and usually rightly so. But even well-intentioned, polite motorists have developed some ingrained habits that jeopardize themselves and others, or at least contribute to the general aggravation on congested roadways.

Perhaps the worst of these transgressors are the drivers — and they are legion — who don’t exert themselves to be aware of traffic more than a couple of car lengths away.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced it: Zipping down a surface road, we see a vehicle pull up at a side street intersection, clearly intending to pull out. The driver hesitates, then guns it and whips into the lane ahead of us, forcing us to brake or otherwise alter the rhythm of our driving to make room . The punch line: We glance in the rearview mirror and there is no one behind us for a quarter-mile or more.

Why? Why did the other motorist charge out into our lane, when waiting a few seconds would’ve given him a safer and more leisurely entrance to the road?

Answer: Because the driver chose to observe traffic conditions within too short a distance, looking only at what was in the near vicinity of his intended action.

Similarly, we’ve all had to hit the brakes for motorists who zoom down the entrance ramp to an expressway and barge their way into faster traffic rather than slowing down if necessary to blend in smoothly. Again, this is a failure to assess the highway traffic pattern and to adjust speed and approach accordingly. The highway motorists, not the merger, have the right of way in this situation but you wouldn’t know it to observe the many near-mishaps at highway entrance lanes.

One more example of the same faulty mindset: I was on a winding country road the other evening, chafing a bit at being stuck behind a horse van that was holding up my vehicle and three others. As is my habit, I’d allowed a good margin of safety between me and the third vehicle behind the horse trailer.

Naturally, some guy in a silver sporty sedan zoomed around a curve up onto my hatchback’s tail and then impatiently crossed the yellow line to swerve around me and into my safety gap — only to find himself stuck behind the horse trailer and its unwilling entourage.

I laughed a bit maliciously as his brake lights flashed long and hard, but again, here’s another driver incapable of assessing the traffic pattern more than one car away from himself. He probably saw the open pavement in front of my car, leaped to the conclusion that I was the holdup and didn’t raise his eyes high enough to see the other four slow vehicles ahead.

This is what racing instructors call “driving off the hood of your car” — looking just at the patch of asphalt immediately in front of your headlights — and it leads to clunky performance at best and accidents at worst.

In a 2010 study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that out of some 787,236 intersection accidents it studied, more than 44 percent were caused by such “inadequate surveillance,” as experts term it. It’s when a driver fails to look ahead – or looks, but does not really process – at what is going on around him.

A similar study in the United Kingdom of 700,000 accidents from 2005-09 found that by far the first cause of fatal crashes was not, as researchers may have expected, speeding.

Rather, it was “failure to look properly,” which often led drivers into situations where they had nowhere to go — because they hadn’t accounted for the presence or behavior of other motorists.

In other words, if you are going to execute a maneuver in a vehicle, be it changing lanes, merging onto a crowded highway or pulling out from a stop onto a busy street, you first have to raise your eyes from the road in front of you and assess your position relative to everybody else on the road.

Kinda like my buddy on the winding country road the other night. Not to mention his choice to try to pass on a two-lane road at twilight when many oncoming vehicles didn’t yet have their lights on.

When you’re behind the wheel, it’s not all about you and your immediate gratification.

Thinking more than a few feet around your car, or a few seconds ahead, is a lesson that many drivers need a refresher on — so that the rest of us don’t have to learn the hard way.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com

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