By hazard perception, I refer to the ability to see potential problems before they become hazardous or dangerous. We can all do this at some level.
These tips are about taking it to a level where you know nothing will take you by surprise? You can achieve this by creating certain habits.
The process of hazard perception starts with the use of our five senses. I have cataloged them in order of importance to the task at hand. For our purpose, here these are…
Sight, Hearing, Touch, Smell, and Taste.
Sight: For a driver, this is the most important of our five senses. However, what one can see does not necessarily mean that one sees everything necessary to observe safe driving.
To improve your hazard perception skills, you need to know how to use your site effectively.
Some things to check regularly when driving are your mirrors, peripheral vision, and activity motion around you.
Under hazardous weather driving conditions, continuously do visual checks of the road surface to catch wet or icy patches.
All this adds to your ability to respond appropriately.
Hearing: It seems that some drivers, those with Boom Boxes for cars, do not consider hearing or listening essential for driving.
How can you hear a siren, a horn, or a bicycle bell when your stereo is literally ‘shaking the street?’
Hazard perception is about listening, not only to your car but to other sounds on the street to help you drive safely.
Turn it down! We are not impressed.
Touch: Yes, specific hazards can be perceived by touch or ‘feel.’ An example is when your car pulls a little to one side.
If it happens consistently while braking, it could indicate it’s service time for your car’s brakes.
Or it is an indication of low tire pressure on that side.
Feeling, or sense, this gives you time to check it out before it becomes hazardous.
Sensations like vibrations, jumping, or shaking could indicate more serious, potential problems, like loose suspension components.
Mentally record the sensations and whether you felt them through the steering wheel, pedals, or the car’s body. Describe these sensations to your mechanic. Listen to his assessment.
This is how you start to build your knowledge about your vehicle. Fix a critical problem immediately.
Smell: It is useful to distinguish the various odors that can come off an engine.
Three prominent, distinctive smells are hot oil, hot antifreeze, and burning rubber. The first two may come with either blue smoke from the tailpipe or a white vapor from the engine or tailpipe.
Hazard perception here is to tell the difference between average operating emissions and a usually strong smell indicating some problem.
Hot oil could point toward a leak from the engine. Hot antifreeze points to a leak in the cooling system, and burning rubber could mean a rubbing tire of burning wiring.
Any of these could lead to severe problems if not checked.
A caution here is to make sure that any sudden odor, or noise, is not coming from a passing vehicle. In that case, it is not your problem.
Taste: I do not recommend tasting any liquids you may find around your car.
Identify them through sight and smell and save the taste buds for enjoying your dinner.
Other hazard perception tools include:
The depth and Relative Speed Perception.
One of the road risks is cars in front of you with their brake lights not working. The problem is that you won’t know that until they slow down.
This is why it is essential to pay attention to the cars’ relative speed in front of you. You will ‘sense’ them slowing down before even the working brake lights come on.
As you scan the traffic around you, tune in to the flow. Become aware of the rhythm of the traffic. Become mindful of your scanning rhythm. Depth of field and relative speed perception become a context for that rhythm.
Hazard perception becomes easier since any potential problems will interrupt that rhythm. They get your attention. And you have time to respond safely.
It becomes much more difficult to see everything around you at night, especially at a busy intersection or on a rainy night.
This is why lights are so important. Car lights are more for visibility to others than for lighting your way, especially in lit-up urban areas.
That is also why intelligent cyclists, joggers, and walkers wear reflective markings or flashing lights on bicycles, clothing, and running shoes. To Be Seen!
Hazard perception at night involves noticing light patterns, including shadows. All light available at night, from moonlight, oncoming traffic to street lamps, creates a certain rhythm in how they interact.
I think of this as surround sensing, using both my peripheral and normal vision. Turning my head back and forth as I check mirrors increases my range of sight.
Anything that interrupts that rhythm gets my attention. Often it is a shadow that momentarily blocks oncoming lights. Something like a pedestrian is jaywalking, or a deer are crossing a country highway.
As you develop the ability to sense the rhythm, hazard detection becomes like a game. You will get to the point where you feel like you can see in the dark.
Other Hazardous Driving Conditions
Fog can make things suddenly disappear. Moisture often starts with a few wisps across a low lying area of the road and quickly becomes ‘pea soup,’ a common term for thick, impenetrable fog.
This makes any hazard perception impossible.
When caught in this, slow down, engage your four-way flashers and find a spot to get completely off the road.
The best advice for driving in ‘pea soup’ fog is DON’T!
High winds have their unique dangers. The weather report may have called for gusty weather (gusts up to, say, 70 mph), so they are expected.
Hazard perception here involves an awareness of what is coming and keen observation of conditions around you as you drive. Know that these particular gusts of wind are random events.
You may see leaves and such blowing around and feel a little shaking of your vehicle. Then suddenly, the car goes sideways.
By being tuned in, you can react much faster to the sudden wind effects on your vehicle. With experience, you will also develop the ability to respond safely.
Here are some more tips on how to prepare yourself for such windy weather surprises.
Rainy weather reduces visibility day and night. This is because all rain and thunderstorms absorb light, so there is less light for reflection or seeing things.
Combine reduced light with heavy downpours, and driving again reaches unacceptable risk levels. Find a place to pull over and wait.
If the weather report calls for severe weather conditions, like thunderstorms, then get off the road before they start or stay put.
The same goes for snowstorms. Snowstorms not only create visibility problems, but they also create substantial mobility problems. Again, if snowstorms are called for, get off the road, or stay put.
By getting off the road in stormy, icy conditions, you not only protect yourself. You also assist the professionals whose job is precisely the roads and those helping who were not smart enough to stay home.
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When you take the time to pay attention to conditions, you will be in a calmer frame of mind. You will be better able to spot other potential problems.
As you practice these simple habits, your overall skill at knowing what is going on around you grows.
Things like an aggressive driver coming from behind or across lanes beside you.
You’ll pick up on flashing lights far ahead that could indicate a hazard, like an accident. Brake lights ahead would also confirm this. You’ll have time to consider evasive action.
As hazard detection becomes habitual, you will be more confident, relaxed, and healthier.
You may also find yourself perceiving hazards in many other areas of your environment.
You will undoubtedly become a safer driver.
As always: drive safe, drive smart.