Last week we discussed the importance of observation in defensive driving; this week we look at the by-product of observation by asking a simple question: I have observed the traffic around me, and I have seen what there is to see – now what?
During the observation process, you have gathered a lot of information – who the other vehicles around you are, what their position relative to you is, and so on. Now you have to make sense of the information, so that you can base your decisions on what you have learned. What you are aiming for is something called “reading the traffic” or “situational awareness”. Basically in means identifying patterns in the traffic flow and predicting how it will influence you.
So how do you achieve it? The trick is to take a ‘mental snapshot’ of the traffic around you and update it every few seconds by further observation. Remember the white car on you right-hand side? Is it still there, or has it dropped back? Is it still in the same lane or has it changed lanes? And the red one on the other side – has it perhaps accelerated into your blind spot?
If you do this all the time, you’ll soon begin to form a complete picture of the surrounding traffic – who is where and what they are doing. Because of the constantly-changing nature of traffic flow, remember that it is necessary to update your ‘snapshot’ continuously – things can change within a matter of seconds.
Having such a picture has obvious benefits: in an emergency situation for example, when there is little or no time to check the surrounding traffic before taking evasive action, you’ll have a fair idea of who is where. In tight traffic, such as when you’re lane-splitting, situational awareness can reduce the number of times you have to take your eyes off the traffic ahead for valuable seconds to check your mirrors.
It also helps you to cover your blind spots – if you check your mirror and the car which was back there a moment ago has now gone missing, chances are it has moved into your blind spot. Obviously, situational awareness is not intended to replace observation. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to look in your mirrors anymore – it is just one more arrow in your quiver to use in the battle against the dragon called Traffic.
Developing situational awareness takes a bit of practice if you’re not used to it, but it is a habit well worth acquiring. Apart from the other benefits, it will also help to build your confidence in dealing with extreme traffic conditions. And it might just save your life one day.
It is better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.