Defensive Driving Crash Course
Different Space Management Systems

Space Management for Driving: The Smith System, IDPE and SEE

Updated Dec. 15, 2020

The idea of “maintaining space” on the roadway around your vehicle has been a recurring theme throughout this course, but what is space management and why is it so important? Effective space management is a driver’s most powerful line of defense against hazards and traffic accidents.

To avoid conflicts and collisions, you must:

  1. Be able to see potential hazards
  2. Have enough time to respond to them appropriately
  3. Have enough space to stop, turn or maneuver as necessary

Space management is a strategy that will ensure you have all three of these things in every roadway environment, leaving you with the lowest possible level of risk and well-prepared to deal with unexpected emergencies.  There are several different space management systems commonly taught in driver’s ed programs. Each of these systems works to achieve the same goal: maintaining a safe “bubble” of space around your vehicle.

Why do you need a space management system?

When used properly and consistently, a space management system serves as an almost infallible guard against most roadway hazards. Short of completely unforeseeable environmental events like falling trees and flash floods, managing the space around your vehicle effectively should protect you from all accidents, collisions and emergencies. Drivers who endanger themselves by failing to manage space and yet still avoid collisions do so through good fortune alone. With a space management strategy in place, you will not have to rely on luck.

Space management is the cornerstone of defensive driving. It will allow you to gather the maximum amount of visual information about the road, ensure the most important details do not escape your attention and give you the necessary time to make sound judgments on an appropriate course of action.

An effective space management system is easy to use and can be applied in all road environments. The methods discussed across the next couple of modules will work whether you’re traveling on a high-speed expressway or a busy, residential street. In time, you will learn to apply space management strategies subconsciously, every time you hop into the driver’s seat.

Vehicle operating space

As discussed in previous modules, the area immediately around your car is referred to as the vehicle operating space. This area can be divided into seven distinct “zones”. You will need a solid understanding of vehicle operating space to understand and apply a space management system. The different zones around your vehicle are either in the adjacent lanes to the left or right of your car or in the same lane:

  • Zones 1, 2 and 3 cover the area ahead of your car. Zones 4, 5 and 6 cover the area to the rear of your car.
  • Zones 1 and 6 are in the same lane as the vehicle. Zones 2 and 4 are in the left-hand lane, while zones 3 and 5 are in the right-hand lane.
  • Zone 7 describes the space which your vehicle is currently occupying.

The variety of space management systems

Here we describe three of the main space management systems in common use, though there are dozens more out there. Even though they may seem different at first glance, all space management systems follow the same basic principles.

The variety of space management systems on offer simply provide different ways of thinking about the same issue. It is up to each individual motorist to adopt a system that suits them best. We refer to the SEE space management system throughout the remainder of this course, as it one of the simplest and most popular systems available.

The Smith System

The work of Harold Smith, founder of the Smith System Driver Improvement Institute in 1952, the Smith System is one of the earliest space management strategies to be developed. Smith recognized something which many new drivers still do not realize today: most traffic accidents and collisions are caused by bad driving behavior. With the creation of the Smith System, he was among the first people to take an academic approach to solve this issue.

The Smith System can be divided into five essential steps:

  1. 1

    Aim high on the roadway.
    Scan 12 to 15 seconds ahead of your vehicle.

  2. 2

    Keep eyes moving and avoid fixating on one spot.
    Search the road methodically to look for hazards.

  3. 3

    Focus on the big picture.
    Form a mental image of everything on the roadway around and ahead of your vehicle which may warrant changes in driving behavior.

  4. 4

    Make yourself visible to others.
    Use all available means, including signal lights, hand signals, eye contact and the horn, to communicate your intentions to other road users.

  5. 5

    Always have an escape route.
    Leave enough space around your vehicle that you can change your course of travel if you or somebody else on the roadway makes a mistake.

The IDPE process

The acronym IDPE stands for “Identify, Predict, Decide and Execute”. This space management system focuses on the mental and visual processes a motorist must follow to drive defensively. Whether you think about it in these terms or not, IDPE is a step-by-step guide to the way you must behave every time you drive, to perceive and avoid hazards.

Let’s look at this process in more detail:

  1. 1

    Spot potential hazards in the roadway environment.

  2. 2

    Draw a conclusion about where and in what manner the hazard may cause conflict.

  3. 3

    Based on the above information, choose the action which will best help you to avoid danger.

  4. 4

    Follow through with the action you have decided on.

The SEE system

The SEE system is a more modern, simplified and equally effective version of the IDPE system – plus, it has a catchier name! SEE stands for “Search, Evaluate and Execute”. The three stages of the SEE system can be broken down as follows:

  1. 1

    Conduct an organized visual search of the roadway to identify potential hazards and changes in road or traffic conditions.

  2. 2

    Based on what you see, consider where conflicts may occur and what action you can take to avoid those conflicts.

  3. 3

    Take the safest course of action to avoid conflict and stop potential hazards from becoming immediate threats.

With the SEE system, drivers can avoid reflexive or habitual actions. Through search and evaluation, you can ensure you always choose the correct speed, lane position, path of travel and communication techniques to minimize danger. We will delve into the SEE system in greater detail in the next module of this block.

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