Get The Big Picture When Driving

Guidelines for Driving: Get the Big Picture

Getting the Big Picture

As a driving coach, I've observed that many individuals tend to focus excessively on specific things while driving. This could be a dangerous habit, and the worst part is, most people aren't even aware they're doing it! When drivers become overly focused on one thing, they fail to grasp the overall situation, which means they don't have a backup plan and lose track of other vehicles around them. Avoid falling into this common trap!

The previous advice I shared was about looking as far down the road as you can. It's equally crucial to keep your eyes moving and avoid focusing too much on any one thing – even potential hazards or emergencies. Instead of staring at a road hazard, you should check your mirrors, look left and right, look far down the road, and look for escape routes. Naturally, all of this happens within a second or two.

How Far Should You Look Ahead?

Understanding the Complete Scenario

First and foremost, don't just stare at the car in front of you! Of course, you need to be aware of what the driver in front of you is doing, but your gaze should extend much further than that. What is the driver three cars ahead doing? If you're on top of a hill and can see for miles, you should be looking miles ahead! Are there brake lights in the distance? Traffic lights? Merge points?

More often than not, you should aim to scan about 12 to 15 seconds ahead of your vehicle. To help you visualize this, consider the following guidelines:

City Streets: When driving in a congested area, looking ahead 12 to 15 seconds is about one block at low speeds.

Highway Driving: In less congested areas, 12 to 14 seconds is about 1/4 mile ahead (at approximately 55mph).

Of course, it won't always be possible to look that far ahead. It's challenging to provide driving advice for hypothetical situations, so use your judgment. The key takeaway is that you should be looking much further ahead than just the vehicle in front of you. Many of my driving students didn't do this, even though they believed they were looking far enough ahead.

Maintaining a Safe Following Distance

Avoid Focusing Exclusively on Driving Emergencies

If you notice a potential hazard ahead, don't just stare at it. Yes, you need to be aware of the hazard, but you also need to start planning an escape route immediately. Is the lane next to you open? Is the shoulder clear? Do the vehicles in front of you see the same hazard you see (most drivers don't look ahead!)? Are you at risk of being rear-ended by a distracted driver? The emergency or traffic hazard you see up ahead is just one part of a larger, constantly changing 3D puzzle – so keep your eyes moving!

Having "Wandering" Eyes

Some of my driving advice actually comes from my private pilot training. As pilots, we are trained from the start to consistently scan the airspace, our instruments, and then back to the airspace, etc.

In a plane, we have to be aware of not only what's in front of us, but also what's above and below us! The same scanning techniques should be applied to driving, and I wish this was emphasized more in driver’s ed courses.

Keep your eyes moving! Look left, look right, check your mirrors, look far ahead, look at the driver directly in front of you, check your speedometer, look left again, etc.

What Does "Understanding the Complete Scenario" Truly Mean?

Most people are taught in driver’s ed to understand the complete scenario, yet many forget to do this during their daily driving. Many driving instructors also don't teach how to understand the complete scenario. So what does this phrase really mean?

The ultimate goal in driving is to never be caught off guard or surprised by anything. Be aware of every vehicle around you and identify all hazards early and frequently. By looking far enough ahead, maintaining a sufficient following distance (at least 3 seconds in good weather on dry pavement), and keeping your eyes moving, you will significantly reduce the chances of being surprised by a traffic hazard. Don't forget about your mirrors! As part of your scanning, you should quickly glance into your mirrors every few seconds. I know that sounds like a lot, but it only takes a fraction of a second and it will help you get a clear picture of your surroundings and available escape routes (such as needing to make a quick lane change)

Forming a Habit:

Maintaining a Safe Following Distance

I know I'm starting to sound repetitive, but most drivers don't realize they focus too much on certain things. There's a good chance you're one of those drivers. Focusing on the vehicle in front of you is a hard habit to break, especially if you've been driving for a long time. This means that every time you drive, you'll have to consciously make an effort to keep your eyes moving. After a while, it becomes second nature, but initially breaking your fixation habits could take some time and conscious effort.

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