10 Common Road Hazards and How to React to Them

iStock.com/LeManna
iStock.com/LeManna

James Solomon has been a defensive driving expert with the National Safety Council for 34 years. He has taught driving courses for 47 years. And one of the best pieces of advice he can give has absolutely nothing to do with an automobile.

“If it sounds like there might be inclement weather the next day,” Solomon tells Mental Floss, “set your alarm an hour early. You’ll have enough time to get up, clean your car off, and drive slowly.”

That's especially sound advice for a good part of the country, as the winter season means more driving perils, including poor visibility, snowbanks, and ice. Other road hazards like fog, deer, and road-hogging commercial trucks never seem to take a break. For some practical advice on what to do in these situations, we asked Solomon to break down 10 common driving obstacles and the best ways to cope with them. Here’s what he had to say.

1. DRIVING ON ICY ROADS

A sign warns of a slippery road ahead
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Nothing can jolt a driver like the sudden loss of control of their automobile after hitting a slick patch of pavement. While some ice is noticeable, “black ice”—which occurs when ice has thawed and re-frozen—can be hard to spot.

What to Do: If your car goes into a skid or loses traction, the best thing to do is remove your foot off the accelerator. “You don’t want power of any kind going to the wheels,” Solomon says. If you have standard braking, keep your foot entirely off the brake. If you have an automatic braking system (ABS), which is pretty much standard in most newer cars, you want to push the pedal down and wait for the car to regain traction. Don’t pump the pedal: The ABS can pulsate the brakes faster than your foot can.

You also want to turn the wheel in the direction you want the front of the car to go. “Once the vehicle begins to straighten out, counter-steer in the opposite direction,” Solomon says. “Steering and counter-steering should be done three to five times while braking.” Keep doing it until you feel the wheels grip the pavement.

2. GETTING STUCK IN A SNOW BANK

A car tire is stuck in snow
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After a heavy snowfall, you might return to your car to find the wheels surrounded by snow. As they spin, they can’t find any grip on the slick powder, and you’re going nowhere fast.

What to Do: A little foresight is best here. Solomon advises you keep a shovel, brush, and a pair of traction mats in your trunk. (Kitty litter may also work for traction, but the mats are reusable.) If you’re stuck, make sure you have enough room to move the car forward and backward and that there isn’t any snow blocking the exhaust pipe. Clear the snow away from the wheels and try moving forward or in reverse. If that doesn’t work, put the mats under the front wheels (for front-wheel drive) or under the back wheels (for a rear-wheel drive). Once the wheels are on the mat, try turning to get away from the snow. Solomon cautions to watch out for passing traffic, as other drivers might have trouble spotting you.

3. DRIVING IN HEAVY RAIN

Heavy rain falls on a car windshield
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People don’t always think of a torrential downpour the same way they think of a snowstorm, but heavy rain can impede visibility and cause hydroplaning, where the wheels come off the pavement and onto the surface of the water, causing drivers to lose control.

What to Do: For any type of driving in the rain, make sure your tire tread depth is no less than 5/32 of an inch, and preferably much more: new tires typically start around 10/32 of an inch. A worn tire at 2/32 of an inch is asking for a crash, as the stopping distance of a car is increased and traction is reduced. You can estimate depth by sticking a penny upside-down in the tread: If the top of Lincoln's head is visible, it's time for new tires.

Solomon also recommends changing your wipers regularly: a more durable winter blade, a March rain blade, and another August rain blade. And make sure they’re not being held back by your cleaning habits. “If you’re going through car washes and they’re using wax, the wipers are going to be sliding over that,” he says. A wax stripper found at automotive stores can erase that residue, clearing your windshield and allowing your wipes to make better contact with the glass. “The first time you spray it on, you’ll get a crusty, filmy look, which is all the wax you’re dissolving.”

If your windshield is clean but the rain is still obscuring your vision, then you’re probably driving too fast for the wipers to clean the glass efficiently. If it’s that bad, pull over to the side of the road and wait for the downpour to ease up. But never, ever park under an overpass. “You’re a sitting duck there,” Solomon says. “You’re stopped with a guardrail or pillar next to you and your transmission locked. If you’re struck by another vehicle, there’s no place for your car to go. That’s a huge amount of weight hitting you.”

4. BLINDED BY GLARE

A driver observes sun coming through the car windshield
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Winter or summer, the sun sometimes has a way of shining through your windshield just the right angle to effectively blind you. Keeping a pair of sunglasses handy is the best solution, but there are a few other ways to cope.

What to Do: “All cars come equipped with a sun visor,” Solomon says. “The problem is when people pull it down and the edge is pointed at your nose. In a collision, your face will slam right into it.”

Instead, pull the visor down and then push it all the way toward the windshield, then slowly bring it forward until it blocks the sun. (The bottom should still be pointed away from you and toward the windshield. Solomon also keeps a baseball cap in his car so he can use the bill to block the sun without obstructing his view. If glare is coming from the left-side window, remember that most visors are detachable on one end and should be able to pivot and block peripheral light.

5. A TIRE BLOWOUT

A car tire rests on the ground after a blowout
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While some tires may pick up a stray nail or sharp object and deflate slowly, others lose pressure suddenly. If you’re down to three good tires, you’re no longer in a position to drive safely on the road.

What to Do: “The big mistake people make with a sudden loss of pressure is to hit the brake and stop to save the tire,” Solomon says. “But if the air went out that quick, the tire is gone.”

Instead of trying to salvage the tire, focus on getting off the road. If you’ve lost pressure, you want to continue traveling in a straight direction until you can stop. If the tire’s sidewall blows out, the car will probably move in the opposite direction of the break. A blown front right tire will cause the vehicle to drift left, for example. “Drive with two hands on the wheel, put your emergency flashers on, check your mirrors, and get over to the right shoulder of the road if at all possible,” Solomon says. “If you’re in a skid, you may have to keep your foot on the accelerator a little bit to force the wheel to move forward.”

Check your tire pressure at least once a week, especially in winter, when the pressure can drop. But if it suddenly turns warmer, make sure to let the air escape. An overinflated tire can cause the side tread to leave the surface, leaving only the center tread in contact with the road. Your owner's manual or a label inside of the driver's side door will tell you the correct tire pressure for the vehicle.

6. BRAKE FAILURE

A foot presses on a brake pedal
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The ability to stop a vehicle is probably the most important function of all, and when it fails, it’s easy for panic to set in. If you’re pushing the brake pedal and nothing is happening, you need to take immediate action.

What to Do: First, don’t assume your brake lights are still working. “Hit your emergency flashers and pump the brake quickly three or four times,” Solomon says. If that doesn’t work, you need to take a lightning-fast look at the floor mat. It’s not uncommon for the mat to get bunched up behind the brake pedal, making it hard to move. Dislodging it while the vehicle is in motion is dangerous, so prevention is key: Make sure your mat is the right fit for your vehicle, is snapped in place if that option is available, and that you haven't stacked mats on top of each other.

If that looks clear, then go into neutral. “You want to deprive the car of forward motion,” Solomon says. Once you’re in neutral, take your emergency brake—typically a lever with a button on the side console—and begin pumping it up and down. (Some cars have an electronic brake that only requires a button push. Read your owner’s manual.) The brake should lock up the rear wheels and allow the car to come to a stop.

7. SOMEONE IS TAILGATING YOU

A car is seen in a rearview mirror
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Having a vehicle riding too close to your rear bumper can be a nerve-wracking experience. If you need to brake suddenly, the car is likely to collide with yours. If you honk, flash your lights, or make an insulting hand gesture, you run the risk of antagonizing someone who is already behaving irrationally.

What to Do: “What I want to do is encourage them to pass me,” Solomon says. “If I can, I’ll signal, move to the right-hand lane, and that will generally take care of it.” If you can’t, wait for an intersection so you can make a right turn or drive into a service station. Just don’t engage them: “There’s nothing you’re going to do to stop them from tailgating you. Tricks like tapping your brakes—well, no, you’re dealing with an aggressive person and you’re only going to make them more angry.”

8. GETTING STUCK BEHIND A COMMERCIAL TRUCK

Commercial trucks take up both lanes of a road
iStock.com/esemelwe

Feeling the rush of wind that accompanies a passing 18-wheeler can give you a healthy respect for these road behemoths. If you’re behind one, they can make it difficult to see what’s ahead. If you’re behind two, or in the middle of them, you might start to feel trapped.

What to Do: It’s important to determine whether the truck driver is aware of your existence before you attempt to pass. “If I can’t see the driver’s rear-view mirror, he can’t see me,” Solomon says. “If I can see their reflection, then they can probably see me.”

A good rule of thumb is to add an extra second of following distance to the recommended three seconds for most drivers. (Following distance is the amount of time it would take for your car to pass a landmark, like a roadside sign, after the driver in front of you has passed it.) In bad weather, Solomon says to increase it to seven or even 12 seconds to avoid debris and snow hitting your windshield.

If you’re stuck between trucks on a three-lane highway, decrease your speed by about five miles and let both trucks overtake you. Eventually, one will go faster than the other, and you’ll be able to choose your lane. The same holds true for buses.

9. DRIVING IN FOG

A road is covered in fog
iStock.com/Cha_DZ

It makes for fine gothic horror movies and ‘80s music videos, but fog is otherwise a hazard. Driving through it can reduce visibility in a manner similar to a bad snowfall.

What to Do: Your instinct might be to put on your high beams to better illuminate the road ahead. Don’t. “You’ll wind up seeing less,” Solomon says. “The beam shines further into the fog and reflects off the water particulates, shining the light right back into your eyes.” Instead, keep your lights dim and slow down.

10. DEER CROSSINGS

A deer crossing sign is posted next to a road
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Back roads can often be nestled directly in the path of deer, animals that have no understanding of passing traffic and can appear out of nowhere. Even if you manage to avoid hitting one, a yearling could be nearby, ready to do serious damage in a collision. In this case, responsibility falls strictly on you to avoid an accident. “Deer don’t look both ways before crossing,” Solomon says.

What to Do: If you’re in deer country and it’s dark, you can try flashing your headlights to get a deer’s attention. They might take it as a sign to hang back. If you see a deer up ahead, take your foot off the gas to slow your speed, then flash your lights. This may make it run off the road. If not, it’s time to brake: Swerving off the road at highway speeds is risky and can cause serious injury to the driver and passengers. Always read the road ahead. You don’t want an animal that large smashing through your windshield. And as bad as it may sound, it will be even worse if they survive the impact. “If it’s not dead, it will be kicking, with sharp hooves and antlers,” Solomon says.

Get to the side of the road immediately and exit the car. If traffic is high or the road is narrow, go through the passenger’s side door. Above all, take the deer crossing signs seriously and go slow. “When you see those signs, it wasn’t because the state or county had some extra money and thought they’d go put them up,” Solomon says. “It means there have been problems with deer crossing the road.”

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.