What is the best safety feature in your car?
Updated: Jul 17
It might not be what you think.
Some of the most common responses I get to that question are seat belts, air bags and ABS (Anti-lock Braking System). Yes, these are important safety features however they are not always foolproof, and sometimes we can become complacent with our driving because we believe we are now enclosed in a safety capsule that will protect us no matter what happens.
In reality, seat belts and airbags will keep you in your seat and save your life, however they can also cause severe injuries in a crash. ABS will not necessarily shorten your stopping distance in an emergency, it will only give you steering control. If you are going fast and running out of road there is still the possibility of a fatal crash; and the effectiveness is reduced on loose road surfaces such as gravel.
So, what is the best safety feature in your car?? Your eyes.
If you are aware of everything that is happening up ahead, behind
you and all around you at any given moment, then you have time to make the necessary decisions and take action to avoid a possible crash situation before it becomes an emergency. How often do people at the scene of a crash say they didn't see the other car, the motor bike, the bicycle or the pedestrian...they appeared to come from nowhere.
This demonstrates the importance of good vision habits when driving.
It is possible, and incredibly beneficial, to start teaching your learner driver to use their vision effectively from the time they first get into the car with you. The added bonus is that it not only helps them develop the important safety benefits that our eyes can provide when driving, it will often alleviate some of the car control issues that many new learners struggle with, such as correct car positioning after completing a turn (you don't want to end up on the wrong side of a narrow street facing an oncoming car), and maintaining a steady course reducing lane 'wander'.
Tip: Observation is also one of the areas that many learners fail to do correctly on their driving test. If good vision habits are reinforced from the start, they will become a normal part of their driving, and be there for them even under the stress of a driving test when performance can drop dramatically.
How to teach your learner driver to use their eyes to develop good vision habits.
What you will notice with your learner driver is their vision tends to be limited to about 20 to 30 metres in front of the bonnet of the car, and that is why they don't see what you see (and the reason for some car control issues). Eventually they will learn to expand their vision but this can prove to be a long and stressful process with you yelling at them when they miss something important on the road; and through a multitude of scare experiences on their own once they are licenced.
Following are a few key steps to get them using their vision correctly.
1. Teach your learner to raise their vision and look ahead - look right down to the end of the road, then walk your vision back towards you.
If they know what is coming, they have time to plan the correct course of action.
Tip: When teaching cornering in a quiet location, before your learner proceeds with the turn, ask them to tell you what is the furthest thing they can see - it will teach them to look ahead.
To give you an idea why raising vision is so important, let's look at a complex road scenario.
In this photograph of a city street, we are looking as far down the road as we can see. What are the possible hazards up ahead that a driver will need to identify, and what decisions will need to be made before reaching these hazards?
Hazards: Major intersection with traffic lights, traffic congestion.
- where am I going?
- when do I indicate if I am turning?
- which lane will I need to be in?
- who has right of way?
- if I am going straight ahead, is the car already at the intersection turning right?
- should I get into another lane now?
- when is the next intersection?
- how congested is the traffic up ahead?
- am I in the correct lane to deal with that?
However this is only part of the driving picture and if you stay focused here, you will still miss out on possible dangers.
2. Teach your learner driver to widen the scope of their vision to be aware of everything happening around them - see the 'big picture'.
If you expand the original photograph, you can see there is more than just the road ahead that may hide a hazard.
What can you identify as a possible hazard now, and what additional decisions do you need to make?
Hazards: Wet road, getting dark, parked cars pulling out, oncoming car veering into your path if limousine decides to suddenly pull out; people on the footpath who are hard to see as it is getting darker and they may decide to run across the road without looking.
- do I have time to stop if that van pulls out or a pedestrian runs across the road, particularly if the road is slippery from the rain?
- if I stop quickly, will the car behind run into the back of me?
- if the oncoming car veers into my lane, will I hit a car as I swerve left to avoid it?
- should I change lanes now just in case?
- if I move left, will it put me in the path of a pedestrian stepping off the footpath?
- should I slow down just in case, particularity because they are hard to see?
- if I slow down now, will the car behind run into the back of me?
As you can see, there is a lot to observe (in front, behind and all around), and a lot of decisions to make to avoid a crash. If your learner driver has their vision stuck 20 to 30 metres in front of your car, they will miss virtually all the hazards we identified, and have no time to make a good decision.
Even on quiet streets, there are hazards lurking up ahead and all around.
What can you identify as a possible hazard and what decisions do you need to make?
Hazards: Side streets, line of parked cars, quiet location (other drivers and pedestrians presume that if it is quiet they don't have to be as vigilant), block outs (eg. fences on property corners).
- do I have time to stop if a parked car pulls out without indicating?
- do I have time to stop if a person steps out from between the parked cars?
- is there a car approaching from a side street?
- if a car approaches from a side street, how do I know they will stop and give way to me?
- if they don't stop, what should I do?
- if I stop suddenly, will the car behind me have time to stop?
- if a parked car on the other side suddenly pulls out into my path, what should I do?
So, you need to teach your learner to be aware of the 'big picture' by bringing it to their attention as you drive - talk about what you see and ask them questions about what they observe. This may happen as you are driving, when you have stopped at an intersection or pulled over in a safe spot on the side of the road when things are getting complicated and you both need to take a moment and evaluate the complexity of the road around you.
This dialogue will encourage them to not only look, but also acknowledge and understand the road environment around the car, which leads into the final key step.....
3. Keep their eyes moving at all times.
The photographs are simply a snapshot of the 'big picture'. In reality this is a moving picture that is constantly changing, where there is little time to contemplate a possible hazard and think about a course of action to follow to avoid a possible crash situation.
The key here is to keep your eyes moving all the time, don't fix them on one spot for too long otherwise you miss out on important information. Your brain can deal with the constantly changing environment as long as your eyes move about to take it all in.
Looking ahead, around you and behind, and checking your rear vision mirror, side mirrors and blind spots, is a constant cyclical process that experienced drivers do without thinking. Your responsibility is to start getting this process happening right now with your learner driver so they can see the 'big picture' as well, hopefully avoiding the need for too many scare experiences and shouting matches.
See you on the road!