Defensive Driving Crash Course
Identifying Road Hazards

Identifying Road Hazards: Defensive Driving Tactics for Safe Driving

Updated Dec. 15, 2020

In driving theory, a hazard is any object or situation which warrants a change in driving behavior, or which has the potential to cause harm. The presence of a hazard on the roadway may cause a driver to alter course, adjust their speed, change lane position or stop. You will quickly learn that hazards are everywhere, in every driving environment. As you become more confident behind the wheel, spotting hazards and making the necessary adjustments to your driving behavior will become as instinctual as breathing. Though, you must never allow yourself to “switch off” while driving – no matter how confident you become. The only way to ensure you avoid all hazards is to remain attentive and focused on actively scanning the roadway.

Different types of hazards

Hazards come in many different shapes and sizes. While driving, you must scan the road ahead and around your vehicle, looking for anything which demands a change in speed, path of travel or lane position. Pay special attention to anything which threatens to block your line of sight. When identifying hazards, it is useful to group them into categories:

  1. Physical roadway features (i.e. changes in road surface, hills, curves, barriers, medians and the layout of the road)
  2. Other vehicles (including cars, trucks and motorcycles)
  3. Vulnerable road users (i.e. pedestrians, animals, bicyclists)
  4. Traffic control devices (i.e. road signs, signals, traffic lights and pavement markings)

Now, let’s discuss each of these hazard groups, the risks they pose and how you must alter your driving behavior to reduce the chances of an accident or collision occurring. Maximizing the space around your vehicle and reducing your speed are two steps you can take to cut back the risk associated with most roadway hazards.

Traffic control devices

Traffic control devices such as pavement markings, road signs and signal lights are an important part of the roadway landscape. The presence of these devices helps to keep traffic moving in a safe, orderly fashion. Taking note of traffic control devices while you’re driving will enable you to predict how other drivers and road users will behave. Of course, you can never assume that another motorist will stop, yield or alter speed just because a road sign demands it. It could be that the other motorist is distracted and has failed to spot the road sign or simply does not intend to follow the rules.

Generally, traffic control devices indicate that driving conditions or the rules governing a specific section of the roadway are about to change. You must always be on the lookout for warning signs, construction signs, signal changes and devices indicating how a lane should be used. It is important to take note of these devices as soon as possible so that you have plenty of time to prepare for the upcoming changes.

Physical roadway hazards

Train yourself to look for changes in the surface or layout of the road, as they will usually warrant a change in lane position or speed. Even if new physical roadway conditions do not warrant a change in your driving behavior, they may demand additional caution or vigilance. Remember that what does not directly affect you may still affect somebody else using the road.

Here are some examples of physical roadway hazards:

  1. 1

    At intersections, alleys, crosswalks and driveways, other road users may seek to join the road or cut across your intended path of travel.

  2. 2

    Objects such as tires, garbage, branches or debris from a collision may be present on or near the roadway. They may distract other drivers or warrant a change in lane position.

  3. 3

    Road surface changes like potholes, loose gravel, mud and ice may demand a shift in lane position and a reduction in speed.

  4. 4

    Weather changes could reduce traction or limit visibility. You may need to activate your headlights and/or windshield wipers or slow down.

  5. 5

    Look out for hills and curves in the road, so that you can change speed, shift gears or alter your lane position appropriately.

Often, you will need to contend with several different hazards in quick succession or at the same time. This frequently occurs at intersections. Always check for traffic moving in every direction before entering an intersection, even if you should have the right-of-way. Do not cross into the shared area of the intersection until you are certain it is safe to pass the point of no return. When turning at an intersection, scan the roadway to look for obstructions along your intended path of travel before completing the maneuver.

Other vehicles

There are few hazards on any roadway more dangerous than other vehicles. Cars, trucks, motorcycles and buses are wildly unpredictable as they are all controlled by individual drivers with their own priorities, thoughts, concerns, distractions and free will. To stay safe, you must be able to predict the movements of other vehicles to determine where, when and how they may present a hazard. It is a difficult but not altogether impossible task – providing you pay attention.

Space is your first and most effective line of defense against the threat posed by other vehicles. If you allow other motorists enough room and keep a safe bubble of space around your car, you should be able to avoid a collision even if another driver behaves in a dangerous and unpredictable manner.

Here are some tips to help you stay safe around other vehicles:

  1. 1

    Do not drive side-by-side with vehicles in adjacent lanes, or in a “pack” of vehicles.
    Allow yourself more escape room by staggering yourself with adjacent vehicles, taking care not to occupy their blind spots wherever possible.

  2. 2

    If you spot another motorist driving recklessly (e.g. changing lanes without signaling), give them more space than you would usually.

  3. 3

    Keep an eye out for brake lights in the line of traffic ahead of you.
    This will allow you to begin braking early when you need to slow down or stop. Always tap your brake pedal a couple of times before applying the brakes properly, to warn drivers to your rear that you intend to slow.

  4. 4

    Leave a greater following distance behind trucks and other large vehicles.
    Driving too closely behind a large truck could render you invisible to the driver and will likely obstruct your view of the road ahead.

A defensive driver will always be on the lookout for motorcyclists. They are less commonly encountered and much harder to spot than larger vehicles. If you’re not paying complete attention to the road, you may miss a motorcyclist ahead, driving alongside your vehicle or approaching from behind. Keep in mind that motorcyclists often stop, pass and change lanes more abruptly than other vehicles.

Vulnerable road users

When scanning for roadway hazards, you should give priority to vulnerable road users such as pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. Exercise additional caution in the following situations:

  1. 1

    When sharing the road with cyclists.
    Look out for them on the right-hand side of the road and check the right side of your vehicle before executing a right turn.

  2. 2

    While driving through an area where pedestrians are likely to step out into the road.
    Keep speed to a minimum in school zones, near play areas, on residential streets and near bus stops.

  3. 3

    Around construction or road work zones.
    Be prepared to encounter workers in the roadway. Reduce your speed and adhere to traffic control devices.

  4. 4

    When horse riders or horse-drawn vehicles are on the road.
    Slow to 20mph or less, depending on the width of the road. Horses startle easily and can cause serious damage. Give horses as much room as possible and follow any instructions given by the rider; they may ask you to stop, wait or pass.

Particular care must be exercised around vulnerable or unprotected road users, as they are more likely to be seriously injured or killed if a collision were to occur. As a motorist, it is your responsibility to do everything within your power to protect them.

Practice identifying hazards

You can practice the technique of scanning the road and identifying hazards, even when you are not driving yourself. Next time you ride as a passenger with a parent, friend or another driver, focus on the roadway around 10 to 15 seconds ahead of the vehicle and along your path of travel up until that point. Do not stare blankly ahead but take stock of traffic signals, road signs, other road users and changes in the roadway layout that may warrant a change in speed, course or lane position. Which of these potential hazards is most likely to lead to conflict or a collision?

Then, consider what action you would take to mitigate the risk posed by the hazards you have observed. If you find that the driver of the vehicle takes some other action, ask them to explain why – if you can do so without distracting them! It could be that their driving experience has led them to evaluate the hazards on the roadway differently. Make identifying hazards a habit before you begin driving yourself and it will come naturally when you are behind the wheel.

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