5 fundamentals of defensive driving

Spencer McDonald
The most common motorcycle accidents involving another vehicle is the intersection crash, where the vehicle driver turns left in front of the motorcyclist who is going straight through the intersection. Frequently, the driver claims “I never even saw him,” and he didn’t.

In fact, the excuse after any kind of crash involving any type of vehicle is often, “I didn’t see you.” It’s the most common excuse after an accident.

The very first of the Thinking Driver Five Fundamentals of defensive driving is “Think and Look Ahead.” The basic premise is that if you don’t see something or someone, you won’t do anything to avoid it.

When we get licensed to drive, we also get our eyes tested, and by and large, everyone on the road has acceptable eyesight. So why do we miss so much of what is going on, often with catastrophic results?

Think about it this way: while you may have good eyesight, you may no have very good vision. Vision is a learned skill and will never develop into a level of excellence without practice. I promise you, there are many things happening in traffic around you that you simply miss. Most will have no impact on you (no pun intended), but from time to time you are surprised, right?

Most drivers adopt a passive approach to observation when they drive. They keep their eyes open, and wait for something that catches their attention. This isn’t the most effective way to stay safe. A more effective approach is to become an active observer. This means to train yourself and your eyes to actively search for hazards.

There are some basic principles to becoming successful at this:
1.    Keep your eyes up. It’s tempting to look down and over the hood of the car at the centre line or the taillights in front of you, but this can cause several problems. When your eyes are looking downward over the hood, steering can become choppy and require many more adjustments, and frequently, you will either cut corners or run wide. It’s much more effective to keep your eyes up. This practice prepares you for the next technique.

2.    Eye lead time. Look 12 to 15 seconds ahead of where your vehicle is at any given time. As your speed increases, so will the distance you look ahead if you always look for this time interval.

3.    Move your eyes. This takes practice and intent. Look left, right, ahead and into the mirrors, and as you look, identify potential problems so that you can decide what you will do about them. Moving your eyes is particularly important to see things to the side because your peripheral vision becomes increasingly ineffective as your speed increases.

4.    See the big picture. By moving your eyes, you get a “big picture” perspective of the traffic environment and your place in it. Pilots call this ‘situational awareness’ and it helps you to make good decisions about speed and movements such as lane changes, well in advance.

5.    Eye contact. The only way to know if another driver sees you is to make eye contact with them. If they are looking at you and you see them making eye contact with you, you can be fairly sure (but not guaranteed) that they see you. If another driver is moving into your space and you want to establish eye contact, a light tap on the horn will attract their attention.

So practise your vision skills. The good news is that the more you make the effort to get better at this, the less you have to exert that effort as the skill becomes second nature.

Pretty soon you will be doing it naturally without effort. When that happens, you will have moved to the next level of driving excellence. Both you and your passengers will be that much safer and all the “invisible” people and vehicles that you didn’t see before will be right in front of your eyes.