File picture: Henk Kruger / Cape Argus.

Johannesburg - For those who have long since acquired that little piece of plastic permitting you to be behind the wheel of a car, driving feels a lot like second nature. As such, it’s something done with little thought, and, in many cases, very little heed to legality.

In truth, while it might be easy to parallel park effectively and stay within the speed limit most of the time, many drivers either fail to heed or simply don’t understand all the rules of the road, something that can end up jeopardising the safety of all concerned.

So if you’ve ever wondered whether you should really be driving in the yellow lane or been surprised by a near-miss at a traffic circle, here’s a quick crash course on some of the most commonly broken traffic laws and how to avoid them. That’s, of course, apart from the two very obvious fatal moves of overtaking dangerously and driving under the influence, which require no explanation.

Amber doesn’t mean ‘go faster’

Too many drivers treat the amber traffic light signal as an invitation to tempt fate, rather than a calm suggestion to slow things down. In many instances, attempts to outrace the robot’s return to red in fact sees drivers running a red light, something that all too often ends in fatal collisions. In certain instances, particularly in high crime zones where safety is a concern, you might wish to disregard traffic signals; but if you’re feeling under threat, it’s still vital that you check all oncoming traffic before heading to safety.

Steer clear of pedestrians

Just because a car is larger than a human doesn’t mean the car always has right of way. Drivers tend to think the greater size implies a pecking order, but in some cases it’s in fact pedestrians who take precedence. Ignoring pedestrian crossings or turning at an intersection without any regard for those crossing the road is not only illegal, but also extremely dangerous, so make sure you pay close attention to traffic signs and slow down where appropriate. Remember, irrespective of the cause, you’ll still find yourself in a world of legal trouble should you knock down a pedestrian, so stay alert at all times.

Put away your cellphone

Despite countless studies suggesting a high correlation between cellphone usage and road deaths, very few people appear deterred, and as such, mobile usage on the road remains a massive problem. If you feel compelled to get in touch between Points A and B, ensure you have a fully functional hands-free kit or Bluetooth system installed that allows you to clearly see all road signs and pay close attention to fellow drivers and pedestrians. If you’re using your phone for its GPS functionality, make sure it’s mounted somewhere that doesn’t obscure your visibility or compromise you in any way.

Merge calmly

Bottlenecks tend to occur in places where lanes are reduced, as drivers compete for pole position in an imaginary race to the newly narrowed space. Essentially, whether you’re in the lane that’s merging or being merged into, you should give way to the car before you, as this will allow for an easier flow of traffic. Yes, it might initially cost you 2 or 3 seconds, but it’ll end up saving you and your fellow drivers plenty of time in the long run.

Keep a safe following distance

This is a concept much spoken about, but very poorly understood. Essentially, by putting at least 20 metres between you and the motorist in front of you, you can avoid the possibility of an accident in cases where sudden braking is required. Without this buffer between vehicles, an unexpected swerve or hard brake can escalate into a full-blown pile up, so make sure you don’t drive up your fellow motorists’ tails.

Give way in a traffic circle

Despite being a mainstay on South African roads for many decades, traffic circles remain a great mystery to the vast majority of drivers, resulting in many unfriendly exchanges and fender benders. However, the basic guiding principle is extremely simple: if it’s a large circle (the type where the centre is not mountable for heavy vehicles), always give way to cars approaching from the right. A mini-circle on the other hand, works much like a four-way stop, except you can actually yield instead of stop. In both cases you need to indicate where you’re going, although in bigger circles you should only do this when approaching the exit that you’re taking.

Remember, if you’re unsure as to the legality of your actions on the road, always take the path of caution, and pay close attention to your fellow drivers and pedestrians. If you obey road signs and traffic signals and do not endanger the lives of others, you’re likely to be on the right side of the law.

Nthabiseng Moloiis is MiWay Insurance Limited head of marketing and brand