How's your driving?

How's your driving?

Public roads are shared by drivers with widely differing abilities and perceptions, in charge of various types of vehicles. Where there's plenty of room for all, driving is relatively easy, but high traffic volume and physical road layout limitations can create stress and frustration. Experienced drivers usually adopt a comfort zone that they feel balances risk, safety, and the law.

This perception generally underestimates the danger involved. Perception of our own driving ability and our attitude towards other road users has a big influence on everyone's road safety. Involvement in an automobile accident is not, by itself, an indication of unsafe driving. However if drivers adopted safer driving practices they would certainly be involved in less accidents.

Is legal driving safe driving? - The definition of legal driving is a simple one; driving within the limits of the law. Safe driving, on the other hand is defined as the absence of unusual maneuvers and the non-occurrence of accidents and near-accidents. However, some "legal" behavior is clearly not safe behavior. For example:

  • Jack-rabbit starts - A driver stopped at a red light who responds to a green signal by stomping their accelerator (providing they yield to others already in the intersection), is practicing legal but unsafe driving. It is not a rare event for vehicles, especially heavy trucks, to run a red light. Looking both to the left and right before proceeding, especially if first in line at a green light, is an absolutely essential safety habit, but is not required by law.

Is illegal driving unsafe? - Unsafe or risky driving can be defined as any action or lack of action on the part of the driver that increases their risk of a collision. Exceeding the legal speed limit is not necessarily unsafe, because safe speeds must be judged with reference to prevailing traffic and weather conditions. The problem is that those who regularly drive too fast do not perceive themselves as being unsafe. They're happy with the way they drive and see no need to change. Let's examine a few of the common illegal driving behaviors that many drivers admit to:

  • Aggressive drivers - Many drivers who are too fast, aggressive and inconsiderate do not perceive themselves as being unsafe. They're happy with the way they drive, and see other drivers as the problem.
  • Safe driving distance - One of the most common risky driving acts is following too closely in traffic (aka tailgating). Experts have determined that under ideal conditions, a minimum safe following distance of two seconds (Smart Motorist recommends three seconds) is sufficient to avoid most rear-end collisions. However, the law only requires that drivers follow at a reasonable distance, taking all relevant highway conditions into account. Drivers who tailgate may not know they are driving illegally. Due to its vagueness, tailgating laws are rarely enforced, so this reckless behavior continues.
  • Speeding - The vast majority of drivers find it acceptable to drive in excess of posted speed limits. With confidence, our perception of speed changes, and legal limits become a source of frustration. We know that the higher a car's speed, the longer it will take to bring it to a stop, but the risk involved feels acceptable. The fact that excessive speed is a factor in nearly one third of all fatal crashes doesn't hit home. Speed -- defined as exceeding the posted speed limit or driving too fast for conditions -- reduces the amount of available time needed to avoid a crash, increases the likelihood of crashing, and increases the severity of a crash once it occurs.

What is safe driving? - Safe driving is the act of maintaining adequate margins of safety around a vehicle at all times and in all circumstances.

When confronted with a potential road hazard coming into sight, safe drivers respond by covering their brake pedal with the right foot, applying only enough pressure to turn on their brake lights. The benefits are three-fold. The right foot is ideally situated to commence a panic stop, the stop-lamps alert other drivers to potential danger, and the gradual slowing of the vehicle allows more time for emergency maneuvers.

Attitude determines how knowledge and skills will be used. It shapes our style towards being cooperative or competitive and therefore how safely and well we drive. Our behavior on the road is first influenced at a young age by watching how our parents and other road users drive, then by the people we mix with socially and at work. Smart motoring is achieved through the habitual use of safety protocols by drivers who understand the limits of driver-car-roadway interactions.

Safety protocols are needed - 95% of road collisions result solely or partly from human error. Regardless of the numerous uncontrollable variables in each situation, a safe driver always consciously drives within a safety margin that is largely under her control. Her conscious adjusting of safety margins protects her from negative consequences of her own or others' errors.

Collision occurrence in relation to increasing speed and speed variability strongly suggests that drivers are overestimating their skills and/or underestimating the safety margin appropriate to the situation.

Safety protocols stress that all drivers and pedestrians are equally at risk when they neglect the basic rules of road safety. A minimal amount of skill is required to learn them and once acquired, they are habitual and don't require the conscious participation of the driver.

Safety protocols should focus on the correct driver responses to each potential collision situation, and not on driver error. There is a limited number of common collision situations, so the protocol guidelines need not be complicated to be fairly exhaustive. Both collisions and near-collisions can be studied from the perspective of these protocols in order to refine and update the safety rules, especially as new car technologies are implemented.

A valid set of safety protocols would be superior to the official (read legal) rules of the road in that it would not ask drivers to have faith that other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers, etc will behave predictably.

The 4 levels of driving ability

  1. Novice - Although safety is a primary consideration, much of the novice driver's attention must be devoted to acquiring driving skills, and on learning the rules of the road. Basic driving skills are learned by direct feedback, with minimal instruction. New drivers have a tendency to underestimate thinking (reaction) time and braking distance.
  2. Intermediate - The advanced beginner learns to distinguish between a threatening driver (aggressive - distracted - drunken) driver and a non-threatening one.
  3. Competent - In the third stage, a driver no longer merely follows the rules, but drives with a goal in mind. They follow other cars more closely than before, enter traffic more daringly, and knowingly violate the law if it fits into his/her agenda.
  4. Expert - All the rules necessary to the task have been acquired, and driving becomes autonomous. The expert driver becomes at one with the vehicle, his/her performance is inflexible and automatic. Unfortunately the highly skilled, expert, driver does not necessarily become a safer one.

Perception of ability - Advanced driver training is about improving our perception of what is happening on the road. Better perception increases awareness and should therefore improve our judgments; decisions and ability to cope, so reducing accident risk. Some drivers argue that an increased level of skill removes the fear or respect for danger, creating more competent risk taking. However if you look at race car drivers, you'll find that the opposite is true. The more risks professional drivers take on the racecourse, the more accidents they experience. Racing drivers are known to have an above average number of traffic violations and collisions off the racecourse as well.

Reckless driving behavior may also be a result of personality, observation (learning from a parent), or uncorrected dangerous habits picked up along the way. Perhaps risky drivers were not shown safe driving skills at critical periods in the learning stages and may never develop safe driving habits. The only way an expert driver's performance can be measured against their perception is by enrolling in a professional driving school and passing top level driving skills tests. However, many of us, having passed the driving test see ourselves as motoring experts. Our accreditation is our driver's license. Driving enthusiasts argue that an increased level of skill removes the fear or respect for danger, creating more competent risk taking.

New drivers need to practice perceptive driving - Perceptive driving is about being prepared for every eventuality. A clear road ahead is never empty! In order to respond to a problem, we have to see it. The frequency of the comment 'I just didn't see you' at the scene of a road traffic accident suggests a poor perception of the hazard because of weak observation. Experienced drivers adopt a certain comfort zone that they feel balances risk, safety, and the law. Perception of our own driving ability and our attitude towards other road users has a big influence on everyone's road safety.

Driving and observational skills needed to cope with everyday driving:

  • Assumptions - The fact that a large proportion of motor vehicle accidents occur within 10 miles of our own home brings to light the fact that familiarity breeds complacency, especially when we are comfortable with our surroundings. Insurance industry statistics show that owners of high performance vehicles tend to drive faster and take more risks than owners of family sedans. The extra accidents and speeding fines incurred by their drivers show up in their insurance premiums.
  • Depth perception - We need good vision and an ability to accurately judge the speed and distance of approaching traffic and other roadway hazards. Knowing how fast our vehicle can negotiate tight corners on different types of roadways, and in varying weather conditions, minimizes our chances of crashing.
  • Experience - New drivers lack the ability to divide their attention between control and safety functions. Teen-age drivers in particular, perceive safety as being in direct conflict with their ultimate goal - mobility. Their choice of enhanced mobility, derived from driving at greater speed or in a more daring style, is made more attractive when the risks of detection by the police or involvement in a collision appear small. New drivers have a tendency to underestimate reaction time and braking distance.
  • External distractions - Many rear-end and multi-car accidents occur when a rubber-necking driver becomes distracted by a roadway accident or rescue equipment in the opposite lane. A lapse of attention caused by girl or guy watching, competes with the concentration about something else other than our driving, or letting someone else attract our attention will remove our concentration.
  • High standard of alertness - Senses impaired by alcohol, anger, drugs (prescription or illicit), fatigue, or illness reduces our risk perception.
  • In-car distractions - Whenever you're driving a vehicle and your attention is not on the road, you're putting yourself, your passengers, other vehicles, and pedestrians in danger. Cell phones have gotten a lot of negative media attention recently -- but other more low-tech distractions cause many traffic accidents. Have you ever spilled hot coffee on yourself? Dropped something on the floor while driving? Read the paper on the way to work? These are some of the distractions drivers cited most frequently as reasons for their road traffic accidents. Teen drivers need to be aware that the pressure to show-off placed on them by other occupants of their vehicle unintentionally places all of the car's occupants and everyone else on the road in danger.
  • Vehicle characteristics - Looking away from the road ahead to find or operate controls in an unfamiliar vehicle while driving can seriously limit the reaction time available to avoid an unexpected roadway hazard. Take a minute to carefully note where all the important instruments and vehicle control systems are located prior to operating any unfamiliar vehicle. Make sure the rear and side view mirrors are properly adjusted, your seat and steering wheel settings are comfortable, and the climate control settings are appropriate for current conditions. Fiddling with an unfamiliar radio or climate control system is an oft-mentioned reason for having an accident.
  • Visual capability - Uncorrected defective eyesight restricts the ability for drivers to make satisfactory distance judgments. Darkness and inclement weather can aggravate poor vision capabilities as well. Excellent reflexes and good driving skills are of little use if our eyesight is poor.
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