08/25/2014 02:04 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

5 Back-to-School Tips for Safer Driving

Soon, millions of kids will strap on their backpacks and start another school year. But in communities across the country, there's an unexpected group of students also going back into the classroom. Each year, approximately 500,000 drivers, mostly 50 and older, attend a classroom-based Smart Driver course to refresh critical skills and learn new techniques for staying safe on the road. In the spirit of back to school, and the start of the fall season, here are a few tips from the Smart Driver course curriculum:

1. Understand the signals on a school bus. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the greatest risk for school children who ride a school bus isn't actually riding the bus -- it's approaching or leaving the bus. More school-age pedestrians have been killed between the hours of 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. than any other time of day. Make sure you know and understand these signals:

  • Flashing yellow lights: Indicate that the bus is preparing to stop to load or unload children. In this case, you need to slow down and be prepared to stop.
  • Red flashing lights and an extended stop sign at the front of the bus: Indicates that you must stop driving, no matter which side of the bus you are approaching. Wait for the sign to be withdrawn and for the lights to stop flashing before driving again.

2. Watch your speed in school zones. The speed limit in school zones is never more than 25 miles per hour, and it is often as low as 15 miles per hour. Remember that you must stop for school buses that are loading or unloading students, even in the opposite direction, unless the lanes are separated by a median.

3. Be careful of fallen leaves. For many parts of the country, the ground will soon be covered with leaves. After it rains, use extreme caution since leaves can become very slippery and present dangerous driving conditions. Dry leaves can also present a problem to your vehicle. Avoid parking your vehicle near leaf piles to prevent fires that could start from your vehicle's catalytic converter.

4. Prepare for shorter days. As daylight savings time ends, give your body time to adjust to the slight time difference. Driving drowsy is responsible for over 100,000 crashes a year, according to NHTSA. If you are not as comfortable driving in the dark, plan your driving accordingly.

5. Be on the lookout for deer. Deer activity peaks from October to December. Keep these tips in mind:
  • If an animal jumps out in front of you, brake quickly but do not swerve.
  • Be especially alert at dusk and dawn when visibility can be reduced; 90 percent of collisions with animals occur at these times.
  • If you see animal-crossing signs or if you are traveling through a wooded area, use reduced speeds. Remember that animals often travel together, so expect more than one animal to cross the road.
  • If you hit an animal, call local law enforcement from a safe area. Many states have specific requirements if you hit an animal. Know your state's and any state's rules that you are traveling to.

If you are interested in going back to the classroom to learn more tips like this, find a Smart Driver course in your area.