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drive, she said

While a lot of students have headed off to live in residence, many are also commuting. I was a commuter; I never understood why my parents used to worry, but as I grew older (and more aware) and drove alone a great deal, I finally figured it out.

The road is a different place for women. While anyone can be vulnerable, sometimes increasing your safety is as easy as planning ahead. I travel by car – alone – often. I like it. But I also understand that it's up to me to minimize any danger, and be responsible for myself.

After working in North Bay one afternoon, I noticed I had half a tank of gas. I mentioned that I'd have to gas up before leaving. A colleague told me I had more than enough fuel to get to Barrie; I told him it would be dark in Barrie. He shrugged. I told him I don't leave my car after dark unless I absolutely have to.

Any woman gassing up at a highway rest stop after dark allows those who notice such things to know she is driving alone. Are most people decent and kind? Sure. But unlike neighbourhoods, the nature of the highway is that nobody looks out of place, nobody stands out. It's a transient setting. There's no need to draw the attention of the few who aren't so decent.

After decades of driving, there are many checks you do automatically. But if you have a new driver or commuter in your household, especially a female, get them to consider the following:

  • Keep your car tuned up, check your tires and keep your gas tank full. Use winter tires.
  • Make sure you have roadside assistance; most new cars come with it, but CAA is great no matter what you drive.
  • Know where you’re going, especially if it’s somewhere new. Have a proper map, as well as setting and testing your navigation system. If you’re heading to a hotel, have a reservation. Try to get in before dark.
  • If your doors don’t automatically lock, lock them when you’re in the car. Lock them when you’re out of the car. Don’t leave your car unlocked even for a moment.
  • Set your interior lights to come on when you unlock your car. This will let you see in before you actually get in. Keep your valuables off the front seat.
  • Carry a cellphone and a car charger, but don’t talk on your phone, even hands-free. Stay aware of what’s happening around you. Note highway exits, so you can tell someone where you are if you have to.
  • If someone is following you, exit at a police or fire station (they’re marked on main highways) or another well-lit, busy venue. Stick to major routes. This isn’t the time to discover little-used back roads.
  • For students, especially: If you have a night class or work at a mall, pay attention to where you’re parking during the day. After dark, that lot will look far different. Consider the lighting. Most cars now have remote key fobs, and most of those fobs have a panic button.
  • In the event of a breakdown, call for help and stay in your car. You have a phone, you have roadside assistance, so don’t get out for anyone who can’t identify themselves as someone you’ve called, or the police.
  • Don’t walk across a dark parking lot while texting. Don’t, don’t, don’t.

It takes time to learn about the car you drive. A problem can be compounded by being far from home. Knowing that if your key won't turn you probably need to straighten out the steering wheel; knowing which side a fuel door is on by checking for the arrow on the picture of the pump on your dash; neglecting to check the weather for where you're headed, not just where you are.

We have a lot of technology that wasn't even imaginable when I was a student. Much of it is safety-oriented, and much of it we take for granted. But the fact remains that some of the best tips are still the most basic: a topped-up fuel tank, a tuned car, a proper map, someone knowing where you're going and someone expecting you on the other end.

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