The Vigilant Driver
Attentive Driver

The Vigilant Driver: Why Choosing To Be An Attentive Driver Is Important

Updated Dec. 15, 2020

Negligent drivers are responsible for the overwhelming majority of traffic accidents, collisions, road-related deaths, injuries and property damage.  Safe and responsible drivers attend to vital aspects of the driving environment both inside and outside the vehicle. Being attentive is more than simply being alert – though that does help! It is understanding that all aspects of the driving environment must be closely monitored and knowing how to split your attention between a variety of different targets effectively.

It is also understanding that you – the driver – are the weak link in any safe-driving scenario. If you are involved in an accident or collision, it is most likely because your ability to attend to the driving task has been impeded by a physical limitation, poor driving behavior or a distraction. Always remember that most traffic accidents could be avoided if the drivers involved made better decisions.

Why paying attention is important

For many decades, driver’s education programs have centered around fostering a keen knowledge of road rules and sound vehicle control skills in their students. These attributes are, of course, essential. Though when it comes to preventing road accidents, “attentiveness” is key. We know that around 90 percent of traffic accidents are attributed to driver error. Of this percentage, an alarmingly high number are caused by one or more of the drivers involved not paying due attention to the driving environment.

The fact is that anybody can learn to control a vehicle effectively – even monkeys have been taught to drive cars! Unfortunately, having these skills does not necessarily mean you will use them. If you are not paying attention to the situation around your vehicle or on the roadway ahead, there is no way you can make sensible, safe driving decisions. In this section of the course, you will learn about the visual and mental skills required to effectively engage with the task of driving and become an attentive driver.

Good vision is essential

It is impossible to drive attentively without good vision. Through our eyes, we collect a wealth of complex and valuable information about the world around us which enables us to evaluate risk and make safe life-preserving decisions.

A driver must be able to see and comprehend road signs, other road users, pavement markings, traffic signals and hazards at some distance in order to operate a vehicle safely. This is achieved through central vision (which allows us to pick out fine details by focusing our eyes at a specific object) and peripheral vision (which allows us to gather general visual information from the outer edges of our eyes).

You can learn more about the way we collect visual information and the minimum vision requirements for licensure here.

The danger of visual impairments

Having an existing visual impairment – whether that be mild shortsightedness, color blindness or eyesight problems related to another medical condition – will adversely affect your ability to perceive the roadway environment and make safe driving choices. Though, most people who live with visual impairments are still eligible to drive; it may just be that you are awarded a “restricted” license which requires you to wear corrective eyewear or take other precautions while driving. Learn more about how a visual impairment may affect your license application in this module.

We also discuss some of the main hereditary and acquired conditions that can affect a person’s vision. As a driver, you will need to pay close attention to your eyesight and address any decline in your vision immediately. Even if you have perfect 20/20 eyesight right now, that may not always be the case.

Vision, memory and understanding

In addition to having good vision, attentive drivers must be able to make sense of what they see. Acquiring visual information is only the first step in an astounding decision-making process that takes your brain a tiny portion of a second to complete. This is where your knowledge of road rules and driving techniques come into play!

Having gathered information about the roadway, your brain will compare what it has seen with existing information already stored in your memory and use the findings from this comparison to decide what to do. For instance, a knowledgeable and attentive driver may process visual information as follows:

  1. 1

    You see a pedestrian stood between two parked cars by the roadside, facing toward the road.

  2. 2

    Based on your driver’s training and general life experience, you remember that this poses a hazard as the pedestrian may choose to step out into the road.

  3. 3

    Using this information, you decide to slow down so that it will be easier to avoid a collision if the pedestrian steps out. You also know that this will reduce the severity of the incident if a collision does occur.

If any stage of this process is weakened (through poor vision, limited road safety knowledge or poor cognitive ability) it is unlikely that you will be able to make effective, defensive driving decisions. Vision is perhaps the most important aspect of the “vision, memory and understanding” trinity, as you cannot hope to remember relevant training or decide on appropriate action without first seeing the danger.

Sometimes, driving experience can impede your ability to make safe decisions based on visual information. Find out why and how to avoid the trap in “Mental Skills for Driving Safely”.

What about our other senses?

Hearing, sense of smell, sense of touch and taste – yes, even taste – all play a part in your attentiveness to the driving task. Learn how and why a sensory impairment may affect your ability to make safe driving decisions in our final article on senses and attentive driving. You can also find out about kinesthesia, the “sixth sense” which enables us to control our bodies and gauge the position of the car we are driving on the roadway.

Visual targeting and attentive driving

Having good vision and focusing your attention on the road does not automatically make you an attentive driver. You must learn how to use your vision strategically to gather as much information about the roadway environment as possible. To do this, you will use a technique known as visual targeting.

Visual targeting involves picking a distant spot on the road up ahead and monitoring the area around that spot, known as the target area. You must also periodically scan your intended path of travel between your current location and your chosen visual target, looking for any changes in roadway conditions which may warrant adjustments to your speed or position. As your visual target approaches, you will begin the process over again by selecting a new target area further along the road.

Using this technique to actively collect information rather than staring passively ahead, will help you to ensure that no important details escape your attention. In this lesson on visual targeting, you will learn how to select an appropriate visual target and keep a clear line of sight along your path of travel.

Safe visual search strategies

The process of gathering visual information about the environment around and ahead of your vehicle must be both active and methodical. The challenge of effective visual searching is that any time spent not focusing on a specific area is time in which you could miss vital events unfolding on that part of the road.

You should avoid focusing on any one spot for too long by alternating your gaze between the immediate, secondary and target area ranges. These refer to the space right in front of your car, the space 12 to 15 seconds ahead of you and the space around your target area, respectively. This second module on visual searching will teach you how to monitor and respond to events in these three ranges.

Setting a safe following distance

Maintaining a safe following distance between yourself and the vehicle ahead of you is an essential aspect of attentive driving. You will not be able to see the roadway ahead or respond to changing conditions in a considered and timely fashion if you are too close to the car in front. So, how close is too close? This is an issue discussed at length in our easy-to-follow module on following distances.

In good driving conditions and at average speeds, drivers should leave at least a three-second gap between themselves and the vehicle they are following. However, there will regularly be situations in which you must leave a larger gap, sometimes up to five or six seconds. Whenever driving conditions are poor, the roadway is slick, there is an increased number of hazards in the area or you are driving at high speed, your following distance must be greater.

How speed affects attentive driving

The faster you are traveling, the harder it will be to gather visual information about the roadway environment. At high speed, you will have more information to absorb in a shorter time and reduced peripheral vision. It is therefore important to set visual targets at a greater distance and turn your head to view the road to the side of your vehicle more often while traveling on a high-speed road.

Communicating with other road users is also more of a challenge at higher speeds. Driving attentively demands keeping your speed to a minimum without disrupting traffic flow, as you have a greater chance of missing important information the faster your vehicle is moving.

Interacting with other motorists

Other drivers are the most unpredictable aspect of any driving environment. As an attentive driver, you must watch for other motorists signaling their intention to turn, merge, change lanes or stop and do everything within your power to safely facilitate the maneuver. Using your signal lights and by assuming the correct position on the roadway, you must also communicate your intended maneuvers to other drivers in a clear and timely manner. Driving is a hazardous enough activity without road users taking each other by surprise.

It is human nature to make mistakes; you must always be prepared for other drivers to make unanticipated maneuvers. It is possible to avoid collisions even under such circumstances if you manage the space around your vehicle effectively. Above all else, remember to be courteous to other drivers and treat them as you would wish to be treated yourself – even if they make mistakes. Nothing increases the risk on a roadway more than a bunch of angry, distracted motorists.

Choosing to be an attentive driver

When it comes to promoting road safety, nothing matters more than your commitment to remain actively focused on the task of driving. You could have the best vehicle control skills in the state and still create danger wherever you go, if you allow yourself to become distracted or do not follow proper visual searching procedures. Staying safe on the roadway is a choice which only you can make.

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