Learning to drive safely

Learning to drive safely

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.

The 4 levels of driving ability

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.

Intermediate - The advanced beginner learns to distinguish between a threatening driver (aggressive - distracted - drunken) driver and a non-threatening one.

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.

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.

The driver training paradox - perception versus ability - 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.

Experienced drivers tend to adopt a certain comfort zone that they feel balances risk, safety, and the law. This perception usually 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.

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.

Road tests, a rite of passage or a display of driving skill? - Generally speaking, driving exam standards test minimal, legal, elementary car control skills. Unless drivers have gone through a graduated licensing program, or an intensive training regimen, passing a driving exam does not indicate any real-world competence in terms of skill or safety. For most teenagers and their parents, passing the road test is a rite of passage, as well as legal proof of their driving accomplishments. However teenager fatality facts prove otherwise.

Automobile crashes are the number one killers of teens - accounting for more than 5,000 deaths per year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a 16-year-old driver is 42 percent more likely to be involved in a crash than a 17-year-old with just one additional year of driving experience.

In addition, 16-year-old drivers were involved in 10,337 crashes per 100,000,000 vehicle miles of travel. The rate for 17-year-olds was just 3,229. These are alarming statistics when almost 50% of US 16-year-olds hold a driver's license.

Teen drivers may drive cautiously when mom or dad is in the car, but when they're on their own or with other teens, immature behavior, such as speeding and reckless driving, is often the norm. As a group, teens are more willing to take risks and less likely to use safety belts. Additionally, they are more likely to underestimate the dangers associated with hazardous situation and less able to cope with such dangers.

In the US, an alarming decline in driver's education has made a bad situation worse. Because of budgetary cutbacks and reduced federal aid, a minimal investment of time and money is spent on teaching young drivers to drive. Less than 50% of US high schools offer driver education, down from 75% in the mid-1970s.

Current testing procedures are arguably elementary and stricter standards would result in the exclusion of large segments of the potential driving population. Public policy makers are reluctant to implement any changes in the current testing regimen that decreases the mobility of the electorate, no matter what the benefits might be.

Graduated licensing - Traditionally, most states have required beginning drivers to have very little to no driving experience before obtaining a driver's license. The only thing standing between a teen and a car is a parent's signature on the learner's permit.

California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, and Ohio, have led the way by adopting some provisions of graduated licensing. Regulations dictate a minimum of 6 months of supervised learning, followed by an intermediate phase where unsupervised driving isn't allowed at night or with other teens in the car.

Other countries have enacted stiffer graduated license laws with some success. Aside from the aforementioned rules, they mandate crash-free, conviction-free driving, zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol, provisional color-coded drivers' licenses, and successful completion of a comprehensive driver education course.

Teenagers need safe vehicles - Teenagers should drive vehicles that reduce their chances of a crash and offer state-of-the-art protection in case they do crash. The first years teenagers spend as drivers are very risky. Don't let your teen drive a small vehicle. Small vehicles offer significantly less protection in crashes than larger ones. If you don't believe me, compare Crashtest.com's safety ratings for small, mid-sized and larger cars. Avoid older vehicles, as today's cars are better designed for crash protection than cars of 6 to 10 years ago. A newer mid-size car with airbags would be a better choice than an older, larger car without them.

Don't let them drive sports cars or other vehicles with high performance features, as they encourage speeding and risky maneuvers. Avoid unstable vehicles like sport utility vehicles and tall 4WD pick-ups. Due to their high center of gravity, SUVs are inherently less stable than cars. Abrupt steering maneuvers -- that can occur when teens are fooling around or over-correcting a driver error -- can cause rollovers or a sudden loss of control (bad tires weren't the only reason that Ford Explorers killed over 200).

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.

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