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John Ducker: As a driver, it’s your responsibility to see what's out there

A few years ago when I bought myself a newer used vehicle I started having regular close calls with pedestrians in crosswalks or cars coming in from my left or my right, say at a four-way stop.
A pedestrian uses the crosswalk at Blanshard Street and Kings Road. Before making a turn, try leaning back and forth three to four inches to look “around” your front window posts for pedestrians, writes John Ducker. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A few years ago when I bought myself a newer used vehicle I started having regular close calls with pedestrians in crosswalks or cars coming in from my left or my right, say at a four-way stop. I’d start to pull forward only to find a wide mouthed pedestrian almost in front of me and usually not wishing me a nice day. Car drivers whom I cut off seemed to prefer more interpretive physical expression, usually involving one finger.

It took me a few weeks to figure it out. This was a newer vehicle, equipped with side curtain airbags, and in order to house them the front window posts needed three or four more inches of width. My world driving view had suddenly been reduced by six to eight inches. Doesn’t sound like much but it is, actually.

A while ago I heard a radio pundit excoriating Toronto drivers and the way they were mowing down pedestrians like wheat. It felt like he was asking for something just short of the death sentence for offending drivers. I thought of my own close calls and wondered. Maybe one day someone should look into the enlarged window-post syndrome and its possible effect on the Toronto numbers.

The point, however, is that the size of your airbag posts, the shape of your windows, the obstruction from the bobblehead on your dash are irrelevant. As a driver you are responsible for the conduct of your car and you are legally responsible to see what’s out there. Like the traffic court judge often said to a violator who claimed they honestly didn’t see something on the road, usually a red light or a speed sign: “Interesting excuse … but no defence.”

For me, it meant that I had to re-train myself to how I look at the road in front of me because my window into that world had changed. While this might seem like a simple hurdle, proper roadway vision is a big deal and it’s particularly important for new young drivers who need time and experience behind the wheel to properly look at the road.

Research on young drivers by Chloe Robbins and Peter Chapman from the University of Nottingham discovered that our driver ed systems are good for evaluating whether drivers have the necessary motor and reactive skills to move through the standard licencing process. But they also found that it can take years for a driver to fully develop a “higher cognitive process” which allows you to properly look at the road.

Simply put, experienced drivers scan a wider swath in front of them because their experience has taught them that threats or obstacles on the road can come from anywhere, often at great speed. We’ve all been there. You stop at a stop sign. You look left, you look right and move out, only to find that you should have looked left a second time before pulling out because a delivery van is suddenly right there.

These researchers found that “failure to look properly” is one of the most common causes of driver error reported to police. Young drivers need to figure this problem out fast because traffic fatalities remain one of the leading causes of death for people between 15 and 29. Of course, these issues are dramatically compounded by drug and alcohol use.

Motorcyclists and cyclists are particularly vulnerable from drivers who have failed to look but for different reasons. Two wheelers still represent a small percentage of all the vehicles other drivers encounter on the road. The car driver’s brain is programmed to see cars, pedestrians and construction zones. Bikes with their lower and narrower profiles become camouflaged to the visual sense until the last second. This is why it’s so important for all cyclists to be as visible as possible.

So I’ve now taken to leaning back and forth three to four inches and look “around” my front window posts when I’m faced with a cross traffic or potential pedestrian crossing situation to artificially restore my usual field of view. I’ve received far fewer fingers now, so it’s probably working.

When turning, lane changing or performing any manoeuvre which could bring you into contact with something else on the road, deliberately say to yourself: “Is there a bike or a motorcycle or a skateboarder there?” Snapping your usual visual scanning process out of routine mode and into something more deliberate, more mechanical is a simple skill and one which young drivers need to start practicing immediately. For the rest of us, let’s build on our greater road experience, scan more and better, and possibly save someone from a life altering injury or worse.