More than 1.3 million people die annually in road accidents, tens of millions of others are injured, and the numbers continue to increase; in the UK we have a much lower accident rate than many countries but there are still thousands of accidents and fatalities every year. Our cars may boast ever-improving safety standards and gadgets designed to minimise accidents, yet the biggest cause of death is human error. Advanced driving courses provide a means of boosting your own driving skills, but can often prove expensive or difficult to fit in. In this article, we explore a number of ways to both improve your own driving standard and also help mitigate for the poor driving of motorists around you.
Hazard Perception Skills
Providing a vocal commentary as you drive is an integral, mandatory part of many advanced driving courses, whether it’s for a qualification such as that offered by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) or when you’re learning to become a driving instructor. Essentially, the technique involves speaking out loud throughout your journey, outlining every hazard and upcoming decision that you’ll need to make during your time behind the wheel.
Driving commentary makes you consciously focus your full attention on every decision you make while driving, from gear changes and mirror checks to explaining why you are selecting a gear, slowing down, changing road position and so on. This ensures that you concentrate extremely hard on what you’re doing and, crucially, the rationale behind it – for example, as you approach a junction, it is important to explain what you can see, the type of junction, any speed or gear changes you need to make, choosing the correct road position, the presence of other motorists or pedestrians and how they can affect your decisions, good use of mirrors or indicators, etc. This not only emphasises the astonishing array of decisions we make throughout a journey, but brings into sharp focus the need to both react to a developing situation and ensure that you’re as prepared as possible for the actions of anyone around you.
It’s also important to describe any potential hazards you are looking out for – for example when driving close to a school you’ll need to consider many factors such as the time of day which will influence the volume of students or children around, extra cars, people running out from behind or between vehicles, double parking and its associated hazards, and adjust your driving accordingly. By vocalising all the elements that you can see, it helps to reinforce what you need to do to proceed smoothly and safely.
Commentary driving is a perfect bridge between driving theory and applying it to everyday situations. It also helps to sharpen the mind and keep you aware of every possible hazard and developing situation around you. It’s all too easy to become distracted while driving, for example “tuning out” to listen to the radio or chatting to passengers, but by commentating on the journey, you put any minor distractions out of your mind and fully take charge of the drive. Many accidents happen as a result of drivers reacting to situations, rather than anticipating what might happen.
In essence, the technique makes you observe, anticipate and plan in equal measure: for example imagine that there’s a car parked on the left side of the road ahead, just before a mini roundabout; the roundabout is also located close to a row of houses which makes visibility along another approach road difficult to see. By carefully looking ahead you can work through the possible hazards – how will you overtake the car safely while checking the roundabout for other vehicles, could a child or other road user emerge from behind the car, could other cars be approaching the roundabout from near the houses, are there any other potential dangers such as pedestrians? You can therefore anticipate someone stepping into the road or another vehicle approaching the roundabout, perhaps someone in the car might open a door unexpectedly, so it’s important to select an appropriate speed and road position to navigate safely. It’s vital to understand not only what you can see, but also what you can’t! By observing and planning, you’re much better prepared for any incident or change in situation.
A good way to practice commentary driving is by recording yourself on a portable device. It may sound a little silly, but it is the first step towards a major improvement in your driving skills – you’ll be able to analyse the dozens, if not hundreds, of decisions you made during a short time, and as you work through the exercise more, you’ll not only become more skilled at talking through your actions, but you will begin to act upon them without thinking. There’s a good reason the technique is an essential part of most advanced driving courses – it works!
Holding The Wheel Correctly
Some advice that has changed in recent years concerns the ideal position in which to hold the steering wheel. The former adage of a “10 to 2” clock face position is now dangerously outdated and drivers who continue to hold the wheel like this risk added injury should their airbag deploy; as the bag is deployed at a speed of around 200mph, having your hands smashed into your face at this speed will only add to any potential injury.
Modern advice is to hold the steering wheel at positions 9 and 3 on a clock face. This not only removes the risk of your hands being thrust into your face by an expanding airbag, it allows you to safely steer using the “push and pull” method.
To make a left turn using the push and pull method mentioned above, position your hands at 9 and 3. Slide your left hand over to your right, then pull your left hand back to position 9, hold through the turn and as you exit then turn let the wheel slide back to its normal position. With most cars now enjoying the benefits of power steering, this is the best way to manoeuvre and makes it easier to maintain full control of your vehicle in challenging situations.
Keep Flashing To a Minimum
Most people reading this will have flashed their headlights to advise another motorist that they have right of way, or to acknowledge being allowed to proceed through a junction or switch lanes on the motorway. In fact, most drivers flash their lights at other cars daily. However, what has become common practice on the roads could actually reduce your safety and cause more accidents.
Picture the scene: you see a car sat at a junction on the left waiting to turn out in front of you. As has become the norm, you decide to be “courteous” by slowing down and flashing your lights to tell them to advance. The driver pulls out … right into the motorcycle or car that has just sped past you, thinking that your speed reduction meant you were about to turn off the road. Sound familiar?
The Highway Code Rule 111 specifically states: “Never assume that flashing headlights is a signal inviting you to proceed. Use your own judgement and proceed carefully.” The key words there are “proceed carefully”. Too often we notice someone flashing and pull out without properly observing the roads around us. Flashing your headlights is not an instruction to proceed without a care. Always pay attention to the road conditions and fellow traffic. You’ll probably also have seen the situation where two cars attempt to merge into the central lane of the motorway at the same time, one from the inside lane, one from the outside and have a near miss – precisely because the vehicle in the middle lane has flashed its headlights and each driver has assumed the signal was meant for them.
The solution is this – when you intend to give way or invite a driver into the lane ahead of you, slow down and let them take the initiative, but do NOT flash your lights; the other driver will almost certainly take longer to advance as they will be assessing the situation properly. Finally, take extra care when pedestrians are by the side of the road – they may even think you’re flashing to let them cross when you’re actually signalling to another vehicle.
A vast number of accidents happen when vehicles attempt to overtake on single lane carriageways or roads; from misjudgements of speed or distance to the unpredictable behaviour of the driver whose car you’re overtaking, any passing manoeuvre carries an element of risk. However, a few key tips will ensure that you maximise your safety and lower the risk of disaster.
Firstly, how many times do you see drivers wind up and accelerate right up to the back of the car in front before pulling out? This is reckless: if the driver ahead hits his or her brakes you’re almost certain to end up crashing into them, and remember it’s also highly stressful to see a car speed up close to your bumper. Do not advance closer than a second’s worth of distance behind the car (with appropriate judgement based on the relative speed you’re travelling and the condition of the road).
A second tip is to choose your overtaking place carefully. A good place to overtake is after a bend when the vehicle in front is moving at a slow speed. However, you must then also remember that the car you intend to overtake may accelerate during the manoeuvre. It’s also vital to get as much information as possible about the driver ahead – have you spotted them glancing at a phone, drinking from a can, or steering erratically? If so, common sense dictates that you take extra care when attempting to overtake as they may not be 100% focused on the road.
Finally, do not swerve back in front of the vehicle you have just passed. Leave plenty of space throughout and ideally only pull your back back in front when you can see them in your rear view mirror. This will minimise the danger of the other driver losing concentration or reacting aggressively. Wide gaps are especially important when overtaking horses or animals, as they will be much more unpredictable. It’s also essential to realise that you are not committed to an overtaking manoeuvre until it is in progress – if you sense that something is awry, abandon the decision to overtake immediately, fall back to the correct road position and wait for another opportunity.
Slip Road Safety
The incorrect use of motorway slip roads is another prime cause of trouble. How many times have you seen a motorist suddenly cut across two lanes of the motorway and half a dozen cars to make an exit, or accelerate down the slip road in a desperate urge to get “just one more car ahead”? When you’re planning to leave the motorway, it’s excellent advice to get into the left hand lane well before the junction, and certainly before the countdown markers which begin 300 yards before the exit. It’s important to enter the slip road as soon as possible, and carry out your braking there – do not be tempted to slow down significantly while still on the motorway (unless of course you can see congestion on the slip road), as this may well cause problems for the traffic behind you.
It’s also important to stay safe when using a slip road to enter the motorway – a good tip is to identify a vehicle that you wish to pull in behind, accelerate gradually to match their speed, and try and enter the motorway moving at good speed and around 50 to 70 metres behind the target vehicle. While such a smooth procedure may not always be possible, it’s vital that you don’t accelerate too rapidly just to get ahead of an extra car or two as this can also provoke a reaction from the vehicles already on the motorway. Also beware a vehicle in the left hand lane flashing its lights, apparently to signal you onto the road – as mentioned earlier, this may not be meant for you and you may find yourself entering the motorway just as a car from an outer lane pulls across into your path.
You see a broken down vehicle ahead of you and have no choice but to hit the brakes. As you’re slowing down you realise that you’ll almost certainly not have enough room to stop so you yank the wheel left or right while under braking – almost certainly this change of direction will cause a greater loss of control and probably result in a worse situation than the original issue. There’s a very good reason for this, and it’s easily explained by the forces acting upon your car at this time.
When you initially hit the brakes, you were travelling in a straight line and so the downforce was exerted equally on the front of the car and equally at the back. However when you steer hard left, the downforce on the right front tyre becomes dramatically higher than that of the rear left, and there’s an uneven distribution of force across the vehicle. A loss of control will almost certainly result, with your car spinning or even tipping over.
The ideal way to handle such a situation is to brake hard initially, release the brakes to steer away from the obstacle, and as soon as you’re travelling in another straight line, brake again to ensure equal downforce on your vehicle. The reality may well be that you don’t have time to avoid the obstacle, but by braking while turning, you risk a far greater loss of control and danger to those around you.
Avoid a “Racing Line” While Cornering
How many of us know someone who claims to be an “advanced driver” and who boasts of using racing lines through corners? For every individual that makes such a claim and drives unscathed, there will be countless others who have found that such techniques can lead to serious injury – and worse. The key to effective cornering is to assess road conditions well in advance of the bend and to drive through the bend in an optimum way so as to minimise the need to change direction or speed – if you need to brake or swerve while cornering, there will almost certainly be an incident or collision.
It is extremely foolhardy to cut across a right turn. This is known as “clipping” and unless you have a clear line of sight, by moving across the central line you are placing yourself into the path of any oncoming vehicles. Should you then need to swerve or brake to avoid another vehicle, chances are you’ll end up off the road entirely – or involved in a horrific collision.
So what’s the best way to take a right hand bend when visibility is compromised? The answer is to remain on the nearside position for as long as possible – this maximises visibility, and allows you to see through the bend more than if you cut across. Just as important, it also ensures that drivers coming in the opposite direction have the best possible view of your car too. By travelling in a wider arc, you also minimise forces on your car which means less wear and tear on tyres, and also keeps you under greater control.
For a left hand bend, however, moving towards the centre of the road can be advantageous – it allows you to see around the bend better and again exposes your vehicle to the line of sight of drivers coming the other way. Staying left means your arc around the bend is tighter, possibly resulting in your car straying across the carriageway, and you have poorer visibility of oncoming traffic. However, do not stray across the middle line and, as you enter the bend, move through it smoothly and do not change your speed unnecessarily.
A common misconception is that you should accelerate through a bend or turn – this is absolutely not the case. You should only accelerate when you have moved through the hazard or phase and are moving onward again!
A quick note at this point about the use of gears. Many older drivers were taught to sequentially move through the gears, both upwards and downwards – for example when slowing down to a junction, drivers were encouraged to move from 4th to 3rd to 2nd to 1st, both to aid braking and also to select the right gear for each speed; modern cars are optimised so that you only need to select the correct gear appropriate for your next action. So when approaching a junction, your brakes alone will reduce your speed and you need only select a different gear when necessary. So you can be cruising happily in 4th or 5th gear, slow down to a junction, and move smoothly to 1st or 2nd gear to proceed without needing to use the interim gears. Not only is this a much more efficient way to drive, it will also help the longevity of your vehicle’s various components; replacing worn brakepads is cheaper than buying a new transmission!
Dealing With a Blown Tyre
If your tyre blows while you’re driving, it can be a truly scary experience, especially if the incident occurs at speed. As someone who survived an uncontrolled spin and crash following such a situation, this next tip is one I wish I’d known. Human nature and our reactions suggest that when any dangerous situation arises on the roads, reducing speed is the way to go. However, if your tyre suddenly blows up, hitting the brakes is precisely the last thing you need to do, even if you’re travelling on the motorway at high speed!
Let me explain. If you’re running on a burst tyre, your car has just lost 25% of its previous grip on the road, and will handle erratically, with an immediate loss of directional control and stability. If you hit the brakes, the problem is actually compounded – weight is transferred forwards onto the burst tyre and, in a worse case, the metal wheel rims, which will cause a bigger loss of control, with the car veering towards the side where the flat has occurred. The car will spin and may even flip over.
So what do you do if your tyre explodes? The best thing to do is to gently step on the accelerator! This may seem like madness, but actually it will help restore some control and help keep the vehicle moving forwards. Once you have the vehicle under control, the safest thing to do is to ease off the speed again and try and bring the vehicle to a safe rest on the left side of the carriageway.
Note that you should not hit the accelerator hard, especially if you’re already at some speed – the key is to gently accelerate to try and get your car under control. The increased drag from the remains of the burst tyre should then help you decelerate and bring the car to a safe speed very quickly. Note that it’s also vital not to attempt to turn the wheel or change lanes until the car is fully under control.
Brake failure is a nightmare scenario that most drivers will worry about, but total failure is actually pretty rare. However should this happen to you, there are a number of ways to help mitigate a catastrophe and bring your vehicle to a safe rest.
The first thing is to remain calm and don’t panic; as with any other driving situation, you should first assess your surroundings, noting in particular any traffic, pedestrians or intersections around you. Key advice is to pump the brakes immediately – you may actually be able to rebuild enough brake pressure to slow down your vehicle plus you will send a warning to other vehicles behind you. Turn on your hazard lights and use your horn to warn other drivers that you may present a danger. Find a clear place to steer towards so damage to yourself and others will be minimal. You should also shift to the lowest gear possible to engage engine braking, and you can also gently engage the handbrake. Finally, if you still cannot stop, look for something soft to guide your car into.
Driving in Fog – Don’t Follow The Leader!
Another trap motorists fall into is blindly following the lights of the car in front when driving in foggy conditions. The presence of lights up ahead is often reassuring, but this can lead to problems. The main things to worry about in fog are your own speed and awareness of what’s happening around you. The temptation to accelerate and follow the lights of the car in front may be obvious but that person could be driving far too quickly; should they have an accident, you may be too close to them to avert the incident yourself. Driving too fast also means that you could suddenly hit a problem without sufficient warning – so reduce your speed accordingly.
Fog lights are also often used at the wrong times. The Highway Code suggests using fog lights only when visibility is reduced to under 100 metres, otherwise you may be a distraction to other road users. The beams of fog lights are flat, wide and positioned low on the car and designed specifically to light up the surface of the road. Don’t forget to switch them off when you exit the fog!
It’s important to use low beams in milder fog: high beams can actually cause light to reflect back off water droplets in the air which further obscures your view. It’s essential to use your windscreen wipers and turn on your screen heaters to help you see clearly and reduce glare from oncoming vehicles.
The UK presents relatively few of the major winter hazards that you can expect in other nations, such as months of snow and blinding blizzards, yet when the first flakes appear our roads often plunge into chaos.
Oversteer and understeer skids are common in icy weather. An oversteer skid is when the rear tyres lose traction and the rear of your car begins to slide out; if not corrected this can result in a complete spin out which will endanger you and any others around you. To correct an oversteer, first take your foot off the accelerator completely and also off the brake. The next step is to look where you want the car to go – your eyes and your hands will work together so where your eyes go your hands will follow -then “countersteer” the vehicle. This means that you should steer in the direction of the skid, not the opposite. So if the left rear of the car slides out, turn the steering wheel to the left to escape the skid.
An understeer skid is when the front tyres lose traction and the vehicle cannot be safely steered on its original course. To correct this type of skid, come off the gas and the brake, straighten the wheel, and only then reintroduce your steering in order to recover from the skid.
It’s also advisable to carry an emergency pack in your car during colder weather; this could include warm blankets, hot drinks, some extra sleeping bags, a flashlight with extra batteries, a first aid kit, a knife, non-perishable food such as energy bars, extra clothing, a bag of sand or cat litter, snow shovels, a windscreen scraper, a brush, a toolkit, some towchains and jump leads. It’s important to always take a coat and a phone with you, so if you do break down you have means of communication and also a way to stay warm.
It’s also very sensible to have a mechanic check your car at the start of winter and get any routine maintence done on your vehicle before the bad weather arrives. It’s important to check your fluids, keep tyre pressures at the correct level, make sure any defective windscreen wipers are replaced, regularly check your tyre treads, and keep your headlights nice and clean. When driving in poor conditions, use your lights, and make sure that you allow plenty of time even for short journeys. If you have access to online traffic reports, it can also be advisable to check for any hazards on your route before setting off, and plan an alternative route if necessary.
Drive in a higher gear than usual. Wheel spin is very common in icy weather, and driving in a high gear can help to reduce this; setting off in 2nd gear is a good general rule. Secondly, do you know how much your stopping distances are affected by ice? A good rule is to keep up to 10 times as much distance between yourself and the vehicle in front as you would normally, accepting that this may not always be possible.
Did you know that it’s actually more dangerous to drive in someone else’s tracks than it is to make your own way through thicker snow? Tyres will compact snow and ice under their weight and so you may find the conditions and grip much worse beneath your wheels, particularly when there’s no grit or salt on the roads.
Staying Safe on Flooded Roads
Loss of control, aquaplaning, reduced visibility and enhanced stopping distances are just some of the hazards of driving in the rain, but when the weather is severe you need to be even more vigilant. Should you encounter a flooded road, then a few useful tips will help you avoid running into problems.
Those fortunate enough to have a vehicle with cruise control should disable it before entering any flooded section, as it can adversely react if you start to aquaplane. It’s also important to make sure you can see a clear way out of the other side of a flooded area before entering, especially if there is a bend in the road. Always enter and try to proceed at the highest point (generally the crown of the road), making sure that there are no oncoming vehicles. Having exited the flooded section, it’s vital to check and dry out your brakes by testing them as soon as possible, making sure of course there’s nobody behind you when you do. That way, should you need to use your brakes further down the road, you’ll be confident they’ll work as expected.
It is easy to misjudge floods and it is better to turn around if you have the chance. But if you have decided to proceed through a deep flood, position your vehicle towards the middle of the road where the camber (slope) is at its highest, stay in first gear at a slow speed and keep the revs reasonably high to stop spray causing the engine to cut out. Remember, water is also quite dense and it can take a reasonable amount of engine power to push your vehicle through it.
Learn From Your Mistakes
One of the biggest problems with many drivers is that they repeat the same mistakes – over and over again. If you have a near miss, or are unlucky enough to have an accident, an essential part is to analyse how you drove or reacted to a particular situation and learn from it. Passing your driving test does not make you a complete driver, nor does a decade’s worth of experience on the roads. We can and should continue to reflect and learn from our mistakes and personally grow to become truly safe, effective and efficient advanced drivers throughout the rest of our driving lives.