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This Holiday Season, Commit to Being a Smart Driver

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Mike Harrington via Getty Images
Mike Harrington via Getty Images

The holiday season is upon us, and so is an influx of drivers on America's roads. And while the headaches of holiday traffic are well-documented in popular culture -- from classic songs to those omnipresent parodies -- the dangers of holiday driving are no laughing matter.

If recent trends continue, we can expect nearly 100 million Americans to take to the roads this month. What's more, a host of recent studies show that aggressive driving and collisions increase during the holidays. In fact, according to the University of Alabama's Center for Advanced Traffic Safety, when it comes to our risk of auto accidents, we have more to worry about in the days leading up to Christmas than the days before or after Thanksgiving or even New Year's Eve.

For older American drivers, these risks exacerbate an already sobering trend. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) estimates that, on average, every day in America, 500 people 65 years of age or older are injured in automobile accidents. And according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the majority of traffic violations for drivers 55 or older are for a failure to yield the proper right-of-way. One third of all fatal crashes of older drivers occur at intersections.

Cars, traffic rules and the very roads on which we drive are constantly changing. And while there may be more opportunities for distraction on the roads, there are equally as many reasons to ensure that all drivers, especially those 50 and older, stay sharp on the basics as we head into the traffic-heavy holiday season.

Consider these five smart holiday driving tips:

Seatbelts: Buckle Up, No Matter How Short the Trip
Each year, seat belts save thousands of lives. According to NHTSA, properly worn seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger occupants by 45 percent. Fortunately, seat belt use has been increasing steadily in the U.S., and approximately 85 percent of drivers wear their seat belts. Wear your seat belt at all times, even during short trips within your neighborhood.

Medication: Beware of the Risks While Driving
Many prescriptions and over-the-counter medications can cause impairments such as drowsiness, dizziness and blurred vision, which can be dangerous for your driving. Even among drugs generally considered safe for driving, adverse reactions may still occur, especially when combined with other medications or alcohol. To help avoid drug-impaired driving, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about your medications, and keep track of how your body feels or reacts to the drugs and supplements you're taking.

Adverse Weather: Adapt Your Driving Accordingly
It is important to always be mindful while driving, but especially in limited visibility conditions like rain, snow and fog. Turn on your lights (not your high beams), and make sure there is plenty of distance between you and the car ahead of you. Try to keep a "space cushion" around your vehicle: no cars directly to the sides of you, and proper distance between the cars ahead of you and behind you. This provides maneuvering room in case of an emergency situation.

Right of Way: Stay in Control of Tricky Driving Situations
According to IIHS, 35 percent of traffic violations for drivers age 55+ are for a failure to yield the proper right-of-way. One in four traffic violations involve making an improper left turn; 15 percent involve an improper lane change, and 10 percent are the result of ignoring a stop sign or traffic light. Be extra cautious at intersections, while merging, and around pedestrian walkways. Consider taking a driver's education course, such as AARP Driver Safety's classroom or online course, to refresh your knowledge of the rules in tricky driving situations.

Three Seconds Can Save Your Life: Maintain a Safe Following Distance
A three-second following distance will help you spot possible driving hazards and give you time to react. For instance, if your car is traveling at a speed of 60 mph, in three seconds your vehicle will have traveled more than 250 feet -- that's just under the length of a football field. To achieve the three-second spacing between you and the car ahead of you, when that car passes a landmark, such as a tree or an exit sign, start counting. If you pass the same spot before you count to three, you're driving too close to the other car.

We take our vehicles in for maintenance every 5,000 miles, but we don't universally place the same emphasis on maintaining our skills as drivers. This holiday season, as we all hit the roads, what better time to start acting like a smart driver?