Learning to Drive


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Better Drivers Driver Ed. Course - Learning to Drive

What is good driving?

What is good driving? Everyone thinks they are a good driver, even though there are many who endanger others on the road with poor judgement and aggressive actions. For many drivers who think they are good drivers, safety is just something you hope for, but they make no attempt to cultivate a safe driving environment.

Since a young driver will be driving for fifty or sixty years, and car crashes are the most common killer of teens, we should be talking about long-term safety. My definition of good driving is to practice staying out of risky situations. There are specific ways to do this.

First, there are two distinct parts to good, safe driving: 1. Correct Driving and 2. Defensive Driving. They are  not the same thing. Correct driving is methodical, by-the-book driving and defensive driving means defend yourself against drivers who are not driving correctly.

First, Learn to Drive Correctly.

Correct driving has a value. It protects you against mistakes of others and reduces the chances of you making a mistake. Correct driving is what we teach beginners. Correct driving is what the examiners are looking for on the government driving test.

Almost every time there is a crash, it is because someone did something wrong. If everyone drove by the book, there would be no crashes. If all drivers obeyed traffic laws, rules of the road and followed correct procedures at all times, the driving environment would be very organized and quite safe.

So we see correct driving is a worthy goal. You can't make everyone drive correctly, but you can do your part to make the roads safer, even if you are a beginner. Why would you want to learn to drive incorrectly? What is the benefit? A new driver will find it is worth the effort to learn and establish the habit of driving correctly.

Let's look at some of the components of Correct Driving.

1. It is the opposite of sloppy, careless driving. It is methodical and precise. Because it is methodical, it does not take a great deal of creativity or imagination. It is easy to learn correct driving.

2. I have identified three components of correct driving:

  • correct procedures
  • rules of the road
  • traffic laws

Correct procedures assure you will do things in order. When you pay attention to correct procedures, you are attending to the task of driving.

Procedures reduce the risk in any endeavor where there is inherent risk. For example, police operations, surgery, piloting a helicopter, military operations, even food handling. The people doing these risky operations cannot just go in and start doing random things in no particular order. Driving is no different. You know driving is a risky, so it's worth the effort to actively reduce that risk by knowing and following correct procedures.

Some examples of procedures in driving: When backing, look around to identify any potential problems such as children, distracted pedestrians or vehicles driving too fast through the parking lot. Then, sound the horn and use the turn signal if you are turning. Turn your body and look behind, not only in the mirror as you slowly back up. Can you see how that procedure is much safer than looking in the rear-view mirror and launching your vehicle into the road?

The procedure for changing lanes: SMOG. Signal, mirrors, over the shoulder and go. Signal, then look in the mirrors to gather visual information. When it looks safe in the mirrors, double-check the blind spot by turning your head just a little more than 90 degrees. Then go over. Again, this methodical approach is better than just hoping for the best.

Rules of the Road apply to interacting with other vehicles. You must know which lane to turn from and which lane to turn into. You have to know the right-of-way rules so that you and the other drivers know whose turn it is. Following the rules of the road helps prevent crashes.

When driving, you should be predictable and consistent in your actions so other drivers know what you are doing and where you are going. When other drivers correctly anticipate your actions, it is an easy matter for them to give you time and space to complete your move with no interference. Communicating is part of correct procedure; you should have a habit of communicating with turn signals. But signalling is not enough. You need to be predictable in your actions as well. It is part of the process of communication.

Traffic Laws are also important. It is not very exciting, but the best way to be a safe driver is to obey traffic laws. After all, that is what laws are there for. Laws are in place to protect the community at large. When drivers show respect for traffic laws, they also show respect for the safety of the community.

If all drivers were to follow correct driving procedures, obey all rules of the road, including right-of-way rules and correct lane use, if all drivers could be counted on to communicate and behave predictably and obey all traffic laws, including speed limits, driving would be very safe and conflicts (crashes) would be rare.

So there are the three components of correct driving. It is easy to learn, and correct driving is the best way for a beginner driver to be safe.

Then Learn Defensive Driving

The second part of good driving, the part that protects you against bad drivers is defensive driving. The phrase is perhaps over-used and has lost some meaning.  Defensive driving means self-defense. Aggressive and sloppy drivers do not think about safety, so you have to learn to protect yourself.  This is where defensive driving comes in.

Defensive driving is more creative and takes more observation skills than simple correct driving. There are many aspects to defensive driving and there is no way to include them all here, but here is an overview of the main skills you need to build.

Good, safe driving is a function of good decision making. Defensive driving means making good decisions based on what you see happening on the road and what you anticipate will happen next. Anticipate is the other side of the "communicate" coin. But other drivers often do not bother to communicate, so it takes practice to figure out what they will do next..

Driving decisions are based on information, most of which comes from your eyes. That means you need to keep your eyes moving to notice and respond to developing situations. You learn to respond early so that you do not always have to react to an emergency. Bad drivers are surprised by everything because they do not look ahead and anticipate. They are oblivious to what is going on behind, around, and far ahead. Of course such a driver will be surprised by every unexpected thing that happens, and he will always be reacting and overreacting instead of thoughtfully responding to changes in the driving scene. A good driver cannot be oblivious.

Here are some inportant components of defensive driving:

1. Look ahead and gather visual information

2. Identify potential problems and hazards

3. Anticipate the likely actions of other drivers

4. Respond early. Slow down and cover the brake.

5. Leave a safe following distance.

It sounds easy to look ahead and gather visual information,   but it is a skill that must be practiced. Because decisions are the basis of good driving, you must be active in gathering visual information to feed to your brain so it can make good decisions. 

Train yourself to look far ahead on the road in front of you. If visibility is limited by a hill or a curve, slow down a bit and be alert. Try to identify anything you might need to respond to. Orange signs that may indicate a closed lane, brake lights indicating cars ahead are slowing for some reason. Pay attention to traffic lights, including green lights, which are notorious for turning yellow.

Look in the mirrors about once every five seconds. This is a good habit. When the light turns yellow and you are planning to stop, you need to know who is behind you and how fast they are going and how far away they are. The time to gather that information is before you have to make a split-second decision. You should make a habit of knowing what is going on around you at all times.

Don't fixate on any one thing. Keep your eyes moving so you get the full advantage of both your central vision and your peripheral vision. If you see a child on the side of the road, do not look at him. Beginner drivers tend to steer toward the hazard they are looking at. Instead, look toward where you are going, and let your peripheral vision keep track of the child.

Using your eyes effectively is an important skill. It is worth the effort to practice and form a habit of good observation.

As you look ahead, be sure to identify potential problems. If you see anything suspicious, take your foot off the gas and cover the brake. If you put your foot on the brake, you don't have to look for it when you need it.

What are you looking for? People on the road side, workers, slow vehicles, police action, broken down cars, maybe someone changing a tire on the roadside, vehicles approaching your road from the side: will they stop? What if they do not stop? Look for cars that may turn left in front of you. If they do, just take your foot off the gas and be ready to brake if the car stalls in front of you. Always be ready to respond to the unexpected. The way to do this is to slow down and cover the brake.

Anticipate the actions of other drivers. This takes practice, but it is well worth the effort. If you are in the right-hand lane, and suddenly a pickup cuts in front of you from the left, you want to know what he is going to do next. If he just jammed into the right lane without a signal, you can guess he will turn right at the next turn and you can also guess he will not use a turn signal. If you assume he did it for no reason, you may be surprised when he stomps on his brake right in front of you and suddenly turns without a signal.

Respond early. Usually the best response is to pay attention to the suspicious activity or situation, lose some speed and cover the brake. Those simple actions put you miles ahead of the oblivious driver who does not even notice anything unitl it is an emergency. By the time he realizes what is happening, decides to slow down, has to find his brake and then push the brake pedal, it may be too late. You need to learn to look ahead and respond early. You cannot stop if your foot is on the gas pedal. Covering the brake lets you lose speed and be ready to make an emergency stop. It is the best response.

Managing your space and time is also a critical skill to learn. The easiest way to ensure you have enough room on the road is to leave an adequate following distance from the car in front. Because this can be done methodically and habitually, it is part of correct driving. All you need is the two-second rule. Be sure you are at least two seconds behind in normal conditions. If visibility is limited, or the weather is bad, leave three to four seconds. If you are following a big bus or truck, stay back enough so you can see the color of the traffic light ahead; maybe five seconds. If you are being tailgated, add an extra two seconds so you can respond smoothly enough so the guy behind you will have time to slow down without hitting you.

As you can see, defensive driving is more complicated and involved than simple correct driving. When you are learning to drive, first practice correct driving and make a habit of it. Then you can learn to protect yourself against drivers who do not drive correctly.