Steve Wallace: Distancing is important on the road, too

With all the recent emphasis on social distancing and isolation, it does remind me of the Smith System driving technique.

Just as we pedestrians are urged to keep our distance while walking in public, we should be aware of the spaces around our vehicle, which could serve as escape routes, particularly when a crash might seem imminent. Lane and route choice are some of the determining factors in avoiding a vehicular crash. On a multi-lane road, it is easy to take a lane that gives an opening for an escape from a potential head-on, rear-end or lateral crash involving another vehicle or pedestrian.

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Looking well ahead while walking is the same behaviour every driver should be doing while behind the wheel. A 10- to 15-second scan down the road can alert us to any potential hazards. Pedestrians might alter their path of travel to avoid violating the recommended health-distance bubble. Drivers must always be cognizant of traffic jams ahead and can rely on media for such warnings.

Human eyes work best at walking speed. It takes concentration and a system to elevate the performance at increased speed. Allowing for a reasonable two- to three-second following distance will reduce the chance of a rear-end collision. Four-way flashers can make those behind aware of any non-adherence.

Getting the big picture is another driving principle that is important for pedestrians. Scanning is much easier when walking with one’s head up when not distracted by a head-down cellphone-induced posture. See everything, look at nothing. This behaviour works equally well whether walking or driving. Cyclists use this method, probably out of self-preservation, when amongst those bigger and faster sharing the same road.

Lateral threats at intersections are the are most deadly. The side-impact crash can be avoided by looking to each side, in order of the relative threat. Left-right-left was a sequence we were all taught in school safety presentations. Drivers should instead look to the most threatening direction last. One-way streets, moving left, are a good example of an exception to this general rule. Visibility determines the sequence of checking laterally. It is best to determine the most visibly obstructed side and be sure to check it last. Pedestrians should also use this pattern of checks at intersections.

Keeping your eyes moving helps you stay alert. Doing it every few seconds is the best way of observing any threats and openings. The easiest checking system involves looking at the rear-view, speed and sides with an intermittent look ahead. This behaviour before and after an intersection, hill, curve, bridge, overpass, or any other road characteristic will keep a driver aware of emerging hazards and threats.

Make sure they see you. With so few pedestrians out and about, how could any driver miss seeing them? Just as all drivers should light up, both headlights and taillights, pedestrians should wear reflective clothing at night and bright colours during the day. This is very important when it rains. Pedestrians move more quickly in the rain. They often have visibility obstructed by umbrellas and protective headwear. Eye-to-eye contact is the best way to communicate with other road users. Lights, horn and hand signals, as opposed to unwanted gestures, work well to announce one’s presence.

Drivers must be especially alert when it rains. A very strange and odd thing happens to drivers in the rain. They subconsciously increase their speed. Yes, it is a fact. There are several theories as to why this is the case. Most driving safety experts believe the slapping of the tires on the pavement and the flapping of the wipers on the windshield creates a state of excitement leading to this illogical action. Loss of traction in the rain should never be underestimated.

Steve Wallace is the owner of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island. He is a former vice-president of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas, a registered B.C. teacher and a University of Manitoba graduate.

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