Hazard Perception
An Essential Driving Skills

By hazard perception I am referring 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 that 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 5 senses. I have listed them in an 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. Just because one can see, though, does not necessarily mean that one sees everything that is necessary to observe for safe driving.

To improve your hazard perception skills you need to know how to use your sight effectively.

Some things to check regularly when driving are your mirrors, your peripheral vision, and the motion of activity 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 at times that some drivers, those with Boom Boxes for cars, do not consider hearing or listening important 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, certain 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 be an indication of low tire pressure on that side.

Feeling, or sensing, 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 body of the car. Describe these sensations to your mechanic. Listen to his assessment.

This is how you start to build your own knowledge about your vehicle. Fix a critical problem immediately.

Smell: It is useful to be able to distinguish the various odors that can come off an engine.

Three major, distinctive smells are hot oil, hot antifreeze and hot rubber. The first two may come with either blue smoke from the tailpipe or a white vapour from the engine or tailpipe.

Hazard perception here is to be able to tell the difference between normal operating emissions and an usually strong smell indicating some sort of problem.

Hot oil could point toward a leak from the engine. Hot antifreeze points to a leak in the cooling system and hot rubber could mean a rubbing tire or burning wiring.

Any of these could lead to serious 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:

Depth and Relative Speed Perception.

One of the risks on the road 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 important to pay attention to the relative speed of the cars 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 aware 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.

Night Vision.

At night it becomes much more difficult to see everything around you, 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 the way the patterns 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 jaywalking, or a deer 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. Fog 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 own 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 individual 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 sudden effects of wind 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 elements of 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 is calling for severe weather conditions, like thunderstorms, then get off the road before they start or just stay put.

The same goes for snowstorms. Snowstorms not only create visibility problems, they also create huge mobility problems.Again, if snowstorms are called for, get off the road or just stay put.

By getting off the road in stormy, wintry conditions you not only protect yourself. You also assist the professionals whose job it is clear the roads and those that are there helping those 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 certainly become a safer driver.

As always: drive safe, drive smart and…

Enjoy Your Ride