Five Habits of a Master Driver

Knowing how to keep an eye out for any potential danger is what makes master drivers. These five habits can help you to expect the unexpected.

Habit #1 – Observation: look, look, look

Take care with where you look – look a lot! As a master driver you need to look ahead to anticipate where you will be driving in the next 12 seconds. This distance should cover about a city block if you are travelling at a normal traffic speed. If you are travelling on a motorway, the distance should be around one kilometre. You will need to look to the top of the road, and do a figure-of-eight with your eyes, scanning left to right. As you do so, move your attention closer and closer to your vehicle, until your vision is at your car. Then repeat. I would advise doing this with your vision every time you view a new road.

Take care with the way you look – look thoroughly. This may sound remedial, but I mention it for a reason. Often a student will tell me they are looking, but I suspect they are simply turning their head. This is not enough. As a master driver, you need to look not only at vehicles, but also for things behind the traffic. In most vehicles there are blinds spots behind pillars. At most intersections we can be blinded by trees, parked vehicles, tall fences. In addition, there can also be smaller cars travelling behind taller cars. We need to look carefully through the traffic, and the best way to do so is to look, look again, and keep looking until totally clear.

Look for solutions or gaps in traffic. For instance, you should do this when you approach roundabouts that are quite easy to view, or when entering a highway merge. These types of places require planning ahead. If you are able to look for a gap in the traffic, you will be able to help yourself, and other vehicles around you, make safer choices.

This approach should also guide the way you look for an exit plan. This is not something that is always necessary, but is useful in areas that you know may be hard to view. Take for instance a blind corner. I would advise you to roll out very slowly to enhance your view of the corner. And, if turning left, you should head close to the kerb, so that if a vehicle does come, they have room on your right to overtake.

Another example would be if you find yourself at a roundabout where the sun is directly in your eyes. Once again, you should enter slowly to give yourself a better view until you’re committed to the decision, and then try to stay close to the kerb.

Another example would be driving on the motorway in dense traffic and rainy conditions. You should always be on the ball about possible solutions to a traffic pile-up on the highway. Always leave appropriate distances, or even larger distances if you realise the vehicles behind you are closer than is safe.

Habit #2 – Positioning of left foot

Whenever driving becomes dangerous we only get a few moments to react in the best possible way. Having our left foot grounded on the foot support gives the driver better balance. It turn, this helps the driver with better posture, allowing them to keep control of the vehicle in emergency situations.

Habit #3 – Using the brake first to slow the car, and changing gears second

Research shows that drivers who brake first, and change the gears second, have better control in cases of emergencies. It’s also interesting to note that manual drivers are more likely to overuse the gears, whereas auto drivers are more likely to underuse them. One explanation could be that we tend to switch off more when driving an auto, and that driving a manual car tends to keep the driver more in touch with what the car is saying to us. When driving through areas with hilly landscape, gravel, or slippery road surfaces, it is best to slow the car down with our brake before changing gears down in an auto, just like a manual.

Habit #4 – Keeping appropriate safety margins to the vehicles ahead

When driving on a dry surface it is recommended that we allow a distance of 2 seconds to the vehicles ahead. This margin is vital. It’s purpose is to give the driver adequate time to react to any avoidable situations happening in front. Learner drivers must be able to recognise whether conditions are safe or dangerous. Master drivers can assess the level of risk with ease. Unfortunately, many accidents occur in wet weather, or on slippery surfaces, because drivers are not aware that they need to double that distance in order to stay safe. To gauge this, you should watch the vehicle ahead. When they pass an object on the side of the road, count to yourself: ‘one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two’. Hopefully you don’t find yourself past this object before you get to ‘one thousand two’. And, obviously, if conditions are wet, we should increase this time to four seconds.

When problems arise, our ability to stop can be affected by three factors:

  • The driver recognising the need to brake
  • The actual movement of the foot to the brake
  • How long it then takes the vehicle to stop.
  • Out of these three factors, it’s the first that shows the most variance. A driver who is distracted can take anywhere up to 5 seconds to react. Faced with the same situation, an alert driver can react in one-third of a second.

If and when situations occur in the traffic ahead, you should brake so as to flash your lights and warn the vehicle behind you. Then, try to slow your vehicle gently. If you are going to manoeuver around to avoid a situation, you should be hyper vigilant before changing your course of travel. Making a fast move while approaching a dangerous situation just spells trouble. Avoiding a situation by changing lanes can be a great option, but only if it is done safely.

Habit #5 – Accurately judging whether you are able to stop in time

When travelling at 60 km/ph it generally takes three seconds to stop the car. At 100 km/ph it generally takes four seconds to stop. Observation is once again the key, but now we need to be able to judge how far we are able to view. Then, in turn, we can judge how long we would take to safely stop. As you approach a bend in the road, a crest, or any place with limited vision, you need to be adjusting your speed to help plan for the unexpected.