One of the first things I noticed as a driving instructor was how people seem to become fixated on things. That’s a driving habit which could become deadly and most people don’t even realize they are doing it! When drivers fixate on something, they are not getting the big picture which means, they don’t have an escape plan and they lose track of where vehicles are around them. Don’t fall victim to this very common mistake!
The previous tip I gave was about looking as far down the road as possible. Equally as important is to look around and keep your eyes moving. In other words, don’t ever fixate on anything – even a potential hazard or emergency. Instead of staring at the road hazard, you should scan your mirrors, look left, look right, look way down the road, and look for escape routes. Of course, all of this happens in the course of a second or two.
How Far Ahead Should You Look?
Well for starters, do not stare at the car in front of you! Obviously, you’ll need to pay attention to what the driver in front of you is doing, but you should be scanning way further than that. What is the guy 3 car lengths ahead doing? And for that matter, if you are on the top of a hill and can see for miles, you should be looking miles ahead! Are there brake lights up there? Are there traffic lights? Are there merge points?
More commonly, though, you should always scan about 12 to 15 seconds ahead of your vehicle. To help you visualize that, here are some loose guidelines:
City Streets: When driving in a congested area, looking ahead 12 to 15 seconds is about one block at low speeds.
Highway Driving: While in uncongested areas, 12 to 14 seconds is about 1/4 mile ahead (at approximately 55mph).
Obviously, looking that far ahead won’t always be possible. It’s difficult to give driving advice about hypothetical situations, so use your own judgment. The main thing to take away here is that you should be looking much farther ahead than the vehicle in front of you. Most of my driving students didn’t do this, even though they thought they were looking far enough ahead.
How To Keep A Safe Following Distance
Don’t Fixate On Driving Emergencies
Even if you see something up ahead that looks like it could become a hazard, don’t stare at it. Yes, you need to pay attention to that hazard but you also need to start planning an escape route immediately. Is the lane next to you available? Is the shoulder free? Do the vehicles in front of you see the same hazard that you see (most drivers don’t look ahead!)? Are you about to be rear-ended by some driver who isn’t paying attention? The emergency or traffic hazard you see up ahead is only one piece of a very large 3D puzzle – and the pieces of that puzzle are constantly changing – so keep those eyes moving!
Having “Shifty” Eyes
Sometimes my driving advice actually stems from my private pilot training. As pilots, we are trained right away to consistently scan the airspace, our instruments, back to the airspace, etc. In a plane, we not only have to worry about what’s in front of use, but we also have to worry about what is above or below us! The same scanning techniques should be applied to driving and I wish this was taught more in drivers ed courses. Keep those eyes moving! Look left, look right, check your mirrors, look way ahead, look at the guy right in front of you, check your speedometer, look left again, etc.
What Does “Getting the Big Picture” Really Mean?
Just about everyone is taught in drivers ed to get the big picture, yet so many people forget to do this during day to day driving. Many driving instructors also don’t teach how to get the big picture. So what does that term actually mean?
The ultimate goal in driving is to never be caught off guard or surprised by something. Know where each end every vehicle is around you and spot all hazards early and often. By looking far enough ahead, allowing yourself an adequate following distance (at least 3 seconds in good weather on dry pavement), and keeping your eyes moving, you will greatly reduce the chances of being surprised about a traffic hazard. Don’t forget about your mirrors! As part of your scanning, you should quickly glance into your mirrors every few seconds. I know that sounds like a lot, but it only takes a fraction of a second and it will help you get a clear picture of your surroundings and available escape routes (such as having to make a quick lane change)
By the way, I can almost bet you have your mirrors adjusted improperly! Check out the article I wrote on how to properly adjust your car mirrors.
Making It A Habit
I know I’m starting to repeat myself, but most drivers don’t realize they fixate on things. Chances are very good that you are one of those drivers. Fixating on the vehicle in front of you is a very difficult habit to break, especially if you’ve been driving for a long time. That means, every time you drive, you’ll have to consciously make an effort to keep your eyes moving. After a while, it becomes second nature, but initially breaking your fixation habits could take some time and conscious effort.
These Defensive Driving Tips Are Used In Advanced Driving Courses
I’d like to make this very clear – my driving tips are not just slapped together. The advice I’m giving is stuff I learned through advanced driving courses. These are the things I was taught while becoming a truck driver and they are what I used to teach my truck driving students. I also apply a lot of aviation safety techniques in my driving tips. So these tips I’m giving you are the same tips professional drivers and pilots hear.