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As Tolstoy wrote, all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The same can be said about driving behaviour: Good drivers usually go unnoticed, but the bad ones each create a unique history, written in bent metal.

Not long ago, I dodged a pickup truck that was backing up on the Gardiner Expressway after missing a turnoff. A few days before that, I watched a minivan T-bone a car that was pulling a U-turn across one of Toronto's busiest streets at the height of rush hour. On the way to Guelph, Ont., I watched an SUV tailgate a truck so closely that it looked like it was attached to the trailer hitch.

After decades on the road, I've come to the conclusion that most bad driving can be broken down into a series of categories. Here's a guide to Low Percentage Driving Moves that can get you hurt (or worse):

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U-turns

Safety analysts from around the world agree that the U-turn is risky, because it's an unexpected manoeuvre, and because it sets the stage for a side-on collision. Putting yourself in a position where you can be hit from the side is like a medieval knight throwing off his armour and running into the path of a battering ram – the crumple zone in a car door offers little protection. However, this doesn't stop drivers from pulling off U-turns. I've witnessed several U-turn crashes over the years, and one of my favourite motorcycle columnists, Andrew Trevitt of Sport Rider magazine, is now in a wheelchair after a car pulled an illegal U-turn in front of him on California's Angeles Crest Highway. If you want to live a long life (and spare other drivers), turn onto a side street to change directions without a U-turn.

Tailgating

One key to staying alive is maintaining a "cushion" of space around your car. This give you time to react to what happens in front of you, whether it's a collision, an object falling off another car or a plane landing on the highway (don't laugh, this happened recently in Vancouver). Tailgating removes this critical space cushion. When something goes wrong, it will be like a video game playing at triple speed – but with real-world consequences.

Distraction

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that at any single moment, there are nearly three-quarters of a million distracted drivers on the road. After more than four decades of driving, it seems as though I have personally encountered nearly that many – such as the woman I saw on the I-75 eating dinner behind the wheel, with a foam plate balanced on the dash. Texting is the deadliest distraction – drivers who read or write text messages while operating vehicles are 23 times more likely to be in a crash than non-distracted drivers, according to researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI). The National Safety Council estimates that texting while driving causes 1.6 million accidents in the United States every year. And according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 11 teenagers die every day while texting in a car.

Red-light running

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This is the king of low-percentage driving moves, setting you up for a right-angle collision with another driver who has erroneously assumed that a green light means the way is clear.

Hesitant merging

Highway merge lanes are designed so you can accelerate up to the same speed as the passing traffic. But many drivers slow down, overwhelmed by the pace. This creates a large speed differential, setting the stage for a high-speed rear-ender. The IIHS says that right-of-way violations are the top cause of accidents among drivers aged 70 and older, particularly on freeway merge ramps.

Speeding

Because the force of a collision is equal to mass times velocity squared, the problems created by excess speed should be obvious. But there's more to it than that. Few drivers adhere to the posted limit on major highways. On these roads, the key is to be in step with the traffic flow, so the speed differential between yourself and the majority of other cars is as low as possible. In congested areas, where there are children and side streets, slower is always better.

Driving tired or under the influence

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Our niece, who just graduated from Osgoode Law School, is a smart young woman. But she almost died a few years back when she fell asleep at the wheel on a highway trip in Nova Scotia. Impairment is also deadly: In my first year of university, three friends died on their way to a party at my parent's house when the car they were in sideswiped a bridge abutment. The driver, who lived, was approximately three times over the legal limit.

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