27 Apr 2017, 1:10pm
Automobiles Laws and policies Safety:
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DRIVING TIP #1: Scan the road

For this first bite-sized driving tip, I’m picking a topic that’s not even discussed on my Texas traffic laws page— scan the road.

Driving down the right lane of a major street recently, I crested the top of a hill and immediately saw a stalled truck in my lane nearly a mile down the road.  Traffic in both lanes was light enough to easily change lanes, so I moved to the left lane as soon as I saw the hazard.  There were two other cars traveling in the right lane ahead of me and BOTH of them continued down the lane until they were nearly on top of the broken-down truck.   At that point, they had to hit their brakes and make a sudden lane change to avoid hitting it.

“WTF?  Are these people blind?”

Probably not.  Instead, many– perhaps most– drivers are fixated either on the back of the vehicle in front of them or, if there’s nobody there, then they just focus on the pavement a few car lengths ahead of them.

This is an inherently unsafe way to drive.  Instead, you should be looking as far down the road as you can, or at least the distance you’ll travel in the next 20 to 30 seconds.  This allows you to spot potential problems well in advance and gives you plenty of time to plan what actions you might have to take and/or to take pre-emptive action to avoid the situation altogether (like changing lanes).  This is called “scanning the road” and is one of the most important defensive driving habits a driver can get into.  For me, it’s second nature– so much so that I get nervous when I’m behind a high-profile vehicle that I can’t see through, over, or around.

Expanding your field of vision
I suppose some folks worry that if they’re looking that far down the road they’ll miss hazards that may appear suddenly just in front of them.  But the beauty of looking farther down the road is that it expands your field of vision.  In doing so, your brain uses your peripheral vision to unconsciously keep track of what’s happening between you and where you’re looking.  The opposite, however, is not true– when you focus closer, your field of vision (and thus your peripheral vision) is much more limited, so your brain doesn’t process what’s happening beyond that.  Instead, there has to be something pretty dramatic happening out there to catch your attention.  In other words, where you’re focusing sets the outer boundary for what your brain sees– the further you’re looking, the more real estate your brain can “see” to keep tabs on.

Scan side-to-side
In addition to looking straight ahead, you should also be quickly scanning side-to-side in your field of vision.  For instance, as you approach an intersection, look each way to make sure a potential hazard isn’t approaching.  Numerous times I see and stop for an emergency vehicle approaching an intersection that everyone else seems oblivious to.  Besides emergency vehicles, this practice also protects you from drivers who may be about to run a red light or stop sign as well as pedestrians (especially kiddos), cyclists, or animals that may be about to dart into the roadway.  Scanning side-to-side also prevents getting “tunnel vision”, which further limits your peripheral vision.

Identify hazards
When scanning the road, try to identify hazards that may not be obvious.  For example, if there’s a car traveling down the road ahead of you in the next lane over and you see a hazard on the road in front of them, you can predict that they’ll need to get around it, so you should be prepared to move over or slow down to give them room to do so.  When you can do that without even thinking about it, you know you’ve become a sophisticated driver.

And don’t forget to check those mirrors every few seconds!  Keeping track of what’s going on behind you and to your sides is just as important as what’s happening in front of you.

More bennies
A couple of other benefits to scanning the road are that you see road signs (lots of folks seem to miss them, likely because of tunnel vision) and you might even see a police officer parked on the side of the road up ahead with enough time to check your speed.  (I’m not recommending that you intentionally speed, of course, but I think we all drift over the speed limit from time-to-time.)

So get into the habit of scanning the road until it becomes second-nature– it’ll make you a safer driver.

UPDATE (5/4/17): On my way to Houston this past weekend, I saw another example.  Headed east on I-10, I saw a white SUV with some kind of markings parked sideways in the median between the main lanes and access road nearly a mile in front of me– obviously a police vehicle.  I checked my speed and I was a few mph over, so I eased off the accelerator.  Meanwhile, several vehicles passed me on the left and each hit their brakes just before reaching the SUV.  Again, an obvious sign they weren’t scanning the road.

The fine print
As always, the tip above is my own layman’s opinion and is intended as general information that can’t cover every possible scenario, so always use your own best judgement.  If you need legal advice, consult a lawyer as I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV.

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