Improving observation, awareness and planning ahead

How often have you had to brake hard or had a ‘near miss’ due to not identifying a hazard early enough or been a passenger in a car when you’ve been quite relieved to actually get to your destination in one piece!

Sufficient observation is key to identifying issues ahead . Only if this happens can the driver anticipate how the road situation is or could develop ahead. I probably should have added concentration to the title as a driver who doesn’t concentrate won’t carry out sufficient observation . To improve observation let’s look at the definition of a hazard .

A hazard is anything which is an actual or potential danger . They can be defined in three ways :

1. Physical features( e.g. junctions , bends, road surface).

2. The position or movement of other road users , drivers, cyclists, pedestrians , horse riders.

3. The weather , anything that affects visibility which can include bright sunlight , ice, rain, fog etc

Also look out for Road signs and markings ( such as hazard warning lines ) , prohibitive ( circular ) hazard signs ( triangular) and route and directional signs . Whilst driving we also look briefly at the speedometer , the mirrors , sat nav, in car audio touch screens and some ,the ultimate distraction, the mobile phone! But more on that later.

To observe effectively the driver needs to scan the road ahead , both sides and ahead . If you just focus on one particular area ahead you will be over focussed on that spot and may well miss seeing a hazard . always look well ahead in order to see the far distance (especially on faster roads) , middle distance and the area immediately in front . Late reactions can often be caused by not looking far enough ahead. By ensuring you do effective observation, anticipation will improve as you gain additional reaction time to developing situations and identify hazards early.

You may have to prioritise which hazard out of a number of hazards presents the most danger , for instance a child within a group of pedestrians or loose dog whilst at the same time assessing the position of approaching vehicles. Driving is very situational so you must continuously scan the road ahead and begin to assess each situation as it comes into view .

Around 95% of your observations will be visual but you should make use of your other senses such as hearing (for instance approaching sirens) , smell ( such as newly mown grass indicating a slow moving grass cutting machine maybe ahead ) and physical sensations ( such as juddering from the road surface indicating a poor road surface).

Observation links play a key role in improving anticipation . If you anticipate that something could happen you will be more ready to deal with it when it does happen .

The Observation link in the illustration is the shadow of an emerging car .

Other observation links to be aware of :

If a cyclist looks over their shoulder …..about to turn or swerve that way

A pedestrian looks over their shoulder close to a pedestrian crossing …..they are likely to cross .

Rubbish bags outside houses …..expect to come across the bin men and lorry .

Circular mirrors on grass verges / in hedges …..concealed entrance opposite.

Bus stops …….you are driving on a bus route ….expect buses and the hazards around a stationary bus at a bus stop ( pedestrians walking from blindspots in front , or running across the road to the bus). Also buses aren’t always able to use the bus stop correctly due to parked cars.

A car turns left out of a junction ahead on your side then slows……could be about to turn or looking to pull in .

Fresh horse muck on the road … or horses ahead .

Delivery van pulls in and stops ……what will happen next…..drivers door may open .

There are plenty more .

Physical features can also assist with observation :

The curved line of street lights indictates the likely route the road will go ahead.
Shop windows provide reflections of approaching vehicles. Also the same mirror effect on sides of cars and vans when parked near bends and junctions.

Spotting Hazard warning signs and speed limit signs are important to be able to anticipate and plan ahead . Did you know the common double bend sign will depict the direction of each bend .

Double bends ahead first to the right .

In rural areas take note of warnings for both wild animals and accompanied horses . Wild deer signs are only placed where an incident has previously happened Or very likely to happen. Next time you drive along the A21 see how many deer signs there are and consider how you would deal with such a fast moving situation. You may feel your right foot easing off the gas pedal as you consider that.

Observing speed signs and being aware of your environment will assist with your anticipation and planning. For instance if you are driving along a rural national speed limit road and see a village name sign ahead you can expect a mandatory speed reduction sign to follow . Likewise upon leaving the village expect the speed limit to increase if returning to the rural environment. Always consider whether your speed is appropriate . 30 mph in a 30 limit may not be the suitable speed in certain situations .

So you have observed and anticipated a hazard now it’s planning time. Your plan of action should ensure your safety and that of other road users at all times , taking account of :

What can be seen

What cannot be seen

What might reasonably be expected to happen

Which hazards represent the greatest threat

What to do if things turn out differently than expected ( a contingency plan)

Will deceleration be sufficient , will I need to brake , steer and change gear

If you plan your driving by using observation to gather information and anticipate you should be able to make timely decisions in a methodical way at any moment without hesitation. The key is looking well ahead .

Next time you drive try and do a commentary on your drive paying particular attention to road signs and markings, the road ahead and other road users . Telling yourself what you are seeing and what could happen but also what you are doing about it. If you find that hard then initially just spot the signs and road features and build on that. It’s a very useful technique and you will find it makes you look further ahead. As you increase your skills your driving will become smoother safer and more eco friendly .

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