Is legal driving safe driving?
By: Pierro Hirsch
Date: Wednesday, 06. December 2006
Pierro Hirsch is owner/operator of a driving school in Montreal, Quebec,
and is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Health at the Université de Montréal.
Legal and/or safe: a personal choice
How do we learn to drive?
The driver's license exam
Safety margins and safety protocols
Some potential benefits of developing safety protocols
A survey of traffic accident literature reveals a marked lack of agreement
on what constitutes a valid measure of driving safety. The only consensus shared
by researchers seems to be that involvement in an automobile accident is not,
by itself, considered a reliable indicator of "unsafe" driving. This discussion
paper suggests that one of the reasons for this lack of clarity may be the
tendency to confuse the interrelated but distinctly different concepts of "legal" and "safe" driving.
I will attempt to demonstrate how this confusion hinders the effectiveness
of driver education and potentially perpetuates risky driving behaviour. Mayhew
(1990) has correctly noted that defining the act of safe driving
in terms of its outcome does not explain what it is about the act that is critical
to collision avoidance. It is precisely my hope that the discussion of the
differences between legal and safe driving will shed some light on the nature
of safe driving behaviour. In conclusion I will propose a cognitive approach
to collision-prevention training and driver licensing based on the teaching
of safety protocols.
Return to table of contents
Legal and/or safe: a personal choice
Legal driving is defined by the letter of the law. Safe driving, according
to Quenault (1967), is defined as "the absence of unusual manoeuvres and the
non-occurence of near accidents". Conversely, Quimby (1988) defined unsafe
or risky driving "as any action or lack of action on the part of the driver
that increases their risk of a collision".
Depending upon the circumstances, legal driving can be either safe or risky,
and safe driving can be either legal or illegal. Take speed as an example.
According to Quimby (1988), exceeding the legal speed limit is not necessarily
unsafe, because safe speeds must be judged with reference to prevailing traffic
and weather conditions. Implicit in Quimby's definition is the importance of
road configurations in assessing safe driving behaviour. Summala (1987) observed
engineers exceeding the speed limit, quite safely we assume, en route to a
road safety conference. And, if one index of safety is the fatality rate per
unit distance traveled, then German Autobahns, with average speeds of 132 km/h
(82 mph), well in excess of U.S. limits, were as safe as U.S. Interstates.
And what is the ideal (both legal and safe), following distance between vehicles?
Experts determine that under ideal conditions, total driver reaction time plus
braking distance demands a minimum safe following distance of two seconds (Evans,
1991). However, the law only requires that drivers follow, "at a prudent and
reasonable distance", taking all relevant conditions into account (Highway
Safety Code, 1984). Due to its vagueness, the legal definition is not often
enforced, thus automatically validating all subjective assessments of the meaning
of "prudent and reasonable". Quimby (1988) and Wasilewski (1979) both note
that one of the most common risky driving acts is following too closely in
traffic. Drivers who do so may not even be aware that they are driving illegally,
and due to the rare nature of collisions, they may not even be concerned about
their safety. A driver stopped at an intersection who responds to a fresh green
light by pressing on the accelerator (after first yielding to any vehicles
and pedestrians already in the intersection), is practicing legal but unsafe
driving. It is not a rare event for vehicles, especially trucks, to run a red
light (Evans, 1983). Glancing left and right at the intersection before proceeding,
especially if first in line at a green light, is an absolutely essential safety
habit. But it is not required by law, and, therefore, new drivers who take
the necessary time to check intersections during their licence exam, may be
penalized for "excessive" caution.
By far the most pernicious example of risky legal driving concerns children.
Howarth (1985) noted that drivers behave as though it is the child's responsibility
to avoid the collision. Evans (1991) states that:
"If drivers adopted safer driving practices...such a behaviour change would
spare large numbers...the burden of having to claim, with legal correctness,
that the six year old child was killed because it was the child's fault." p.157
Evans (1991) contends that the legal categorization of 'not at fault' collisions
tends to convey "an erroneous impression that these drivers are helpless vicitims
of crashes which occurred entirely outside their control." He suggests a third
categorization, one denoting that the collision-involved driver, while not
legally at fault, could have avoided the collision by driving in a more appropriate
Momentarily disregarding the conspicuous minority of illegal risky drivers,
the question arises; why would anyone ignore well publicized safety habits
(i.e. the 2-second following rule) and drive as though their responsibility
for collision involvement was limited only to legal driving rules? One reason
might be the very powerful influence of insurance liability regulations and
societal laws that exonerate the not-at-fault party in a collision. But this
alone is not enough to account for risky driving behaviour that potentially
threatens the lives of the driver, his passengers and other road users. I believe
that other significant causal factors for this behaviour are related to how
these individuals initially acquire their driving skills, the standards of
the driver licence exam, and the rare nature of traffic collisions.
Return to table of contents
How do we learn how to drive?
Comprehensive answers to this question are obviously outside the scope of
this discussion, but some aspects of the process may provide insight into the
failure of driver education and the development of risky driving habits. The
early or cognitive phase of skill aquisition (Fitts, 1967) concerns itself
with psychomotor coordination and the development of vision habits (Mourant,
1972). At this time, new drivers are learning the rules of car control (Dreyfus,
1986). Although safety is a primary consideration, much of the novice driver's
attention must be devoted to acquiring driving skills, and on learning the
rules of the road (Evans, 1991). Driving is a "self-paced task," however, and
the basic skills are learned by direct feedback, with minimal instruction.
Evans (1991) observes that most people could probably learn by trial and error.
Next is the intermediate, or associative phase, when new patterns emerge and
are corrected. (Fitts, 1967) Dreyfus (1986) call this the advanced-beginner
stage, where the new driver learns, for example, to distinguish between the
behaviour of the distracted or drunken driver and the alert one. He also outlines
additional stages of competence, proficiency and expertise, which correspond
to Fitts' third and final autonomous stage. According to Dreyfus, when a driver
"He is no longer merely following rules designed to enable him to operate
his vehicle safely and courteously , but drives with a goal
in mind. If he wishes to get from point A to point B very quickly... He follows
other cars more closely than normally, enters traffic more daringly, and even violates
the law . " p.24 [Italics Added]
McKnight et al. (1984) note that new drivers lack the ability
to divide their attention between control and safety functions. It is probable
that, as is reflected in the preceding paragraph, safety is often perceived
as being in conflict with mobility, the real goal of driving. The choice of
enhanced mobility, or at least the appearance of it, derived from driving at
greater speed in a more daring style, is made more attractive when the risks
of detection by the police or involvement in a collision appear small. The
initial success of this behavioural choice is self-reinforcing, and may have
a profound influence on the manner in which new driving skills are acquired.
In other words, the observation of McKnight et al. (1984) about limited abilities
to divide attention may also be reflective of our transportation value system
and the youthful exuberance of his study population.
In the final stage of driving skill acquisition all the rules that are considered
necessary to the task have been acquired, and driving becomes autonomous. Performance
is inflexible and automatic (Fitts, 1967). The expert driver becomes "one with
his car" (Dreyfus, 1986). But he does not necessarily become safer. Race car
drivers have been known to have an above average number of traffic violations
and collisions (Williams, 1974). Is this because safe driving rules were not
introduced or reinforced at critical periods during the acquisition of their
driving skills? How much is reckless driving behaviour a result of personality
and self-induced exposure and how much is simply due to the force of habit?
The final stage of driving skill acquisition corresponds very well to the concept
of "automaticity," which has recently emerged as a central construct in cognitive
psychology to explain driver behaviour (Ranney, 1994). According to this concept,
all activities are assumed to combine fast automatic components with slower,
more deliberate, controlled processing. Thus a driver can read a book and still
drive smoothly. Any important situational factors that he perceives will increase
his uncertainty and trigger a shift in attention from automatic to controlled
processing. Perhaps some risky drivers, racers for example, never develop automatic
safe driving habits, and, as a result, they experience safe driving as stressful
because it requires the intervention of slower, controlled processing which
cannot be maintained comfortably for long periods of time?
Why are some driving habits acquired more quickly and easily than others? One
obvious answer is through the frequency of their repetition and reinforcement.
Evans (1991) points out that drivers tend to stop and wait at red lights even
when no police car or other vehicle is present. Why aren't other safe driving
habits more automatic? One potential reason, also suggested by Evans (1991),
is that "safety cannot be learned by direct feedback but requires the absorption
of accumulated knowledge and the experience of interactions with others...".
This explanation is both vague and discouraging. Firstly, the learning mechanism
of "absorption" does not explain how to teach safe driving or even what it
is, and secondly, if the others with whom new drivers "interact" are not themselves
safe drivers, then patterns of risky driving behaviour will be learned and
Evans (1991) remarks that "the difference between skillful driving and avoiding
crashes is so basic as to suggest a course focused more specifically on safety..." (p.
156). This is ironic, since Evans himself found,"no convincing evidence that
driver education, or increased driving skill and knowledge, increase safety." (Robertson
1980, Lund 1986, Potvin 1988) However, he considers that these failures do
not negate the potential of driver education and cites the claim by Michon
(1989) that cognitive rule-based approaches hold promise. This promise will
only be realized when we know more about the nature of the cognitive rules
for safe, or collision-avoidance driving, and how they compare with those for
risky driving. And when we know which factors determine whether drivers acquire
safe or risky habits, and what role, if any, the licence examination plays
in the process?
Return to table of contents
The driver's licence exam
Generally speaking, driving exam standards "are not extreme" (Mayhew, 1990).
They merely test minimal, legal, car control skills. In Quebec, the entire
road test is no longer than 30 minutes. And under the current system, the investment
of time and money made by individuals preparing for their licence exam, and
the standards of driver education, are determined largely by the standards
of the licence exam. These standards are arguably low. But stricter classifications
are also arguably vague and would result in lower pass rates and the exclusion
of large segments of the potential driving population. Public policy makers
are naturally reluctant to implement any changes in this system that are certain
to decrease mobility while only potentially increasing safety.
Despite its relatively low standards, for most teenagers and many young adults
the licence exam is generally considered to be, even by the parents of teenage
drivers, the final proof of driving competence, sometimes referred to as a
rite of passage into the adult world (Plato, 1983). Aside from its potent symbolic
value, does the fact of passing a driving exam indicate any real accomplishment
in terms of safe driving skills? Macdonald (1987) observed that "passing the
test will not predict safe driving behaviour...", and that "the desire to pass
the road test can supersede the way (new drivers) will drive later, therefore,
the performance during the test may actually reflect a very unrepresentative
display of driving".
It is possible that MacDonald's (1987) observation relates to the difference
between controlled and automatic processes described by Ranney (1994). Behaviour
is, more or less, the automatic, natural response to a situation, and performance
is the controlled response. New drivers perform for their licence examiner.
In other words, the controlling function directs their psychomotor activities
to execute each driving manoever with special care. The fact that this is not
a normal way to drive may account for some of the nervousness examination candidates
But, as was previously stated, the standards of the licence exam are not too
demanding. If this level of driver performance had not become automatic prior
to the exam, how would drivers behave after, when they are no longer under
pressure to perform to external standards? One could reasonably expect legal
driving behaviour to deteriorate after testing. Wittink and Twisk (1990) did,
in fact, observe that young drivers seemed to have forgotten most of what they
learned, presumably about legal driving, when they underwent a 3-month post-licence
It is not known at what stage of the learning curve most drivers acquire their
licence or whether or not all drivers develop equal levels of automatic behaviour.
Nor is it understood why some drivers exhibit safe behaviour, accumulating
few, if any, collisions or infractions, while other drivers exhibit risky driving
behaviour that does not decrease with age (Rajalin, 1994). It is probable that
part of the difference between the two groups is associated with different
exposure conditions during the transition from beginner to expert driver. The
life-time peak performance of legal driving skills exhibited by most drivers
could very well occur during their driver's licence examination. Later on,
illegal driving behaviour would be mediated by deliberate or intuitive safe
driving behaviour, for example rolling through stop signs while checking the
The question remains, how much influence would a more thorough licence exam
have on the early and subsequent development of safe driving skills? If the
present driving exam does not seem to have a long term effect on post-test
legal driving behaviour, would a different exam, one that required a more comprehensive
demonstration of safe driving skills, have a different or more pronounced influence
on the subsequent, unsupervised behaviour of newly licensed drivers? Could
such a standard of driver behaviour be developed and enforced without first
legislating new driving regulations for all drivers, in order to bridge the
gap that presently exists between legal and safe driving rules?
Or would all these efforts be in vain due to the fact that risky drivers possess
certain inherent psychological traits that would interfere in some manner with
the critical formation of "safe" habits? Once automaticity is reached, are
driving habits relatively fixed and stable or can they be changed and adjusted
at any time? For example, consider a driver's habitual or automatic driving
behaviour at interesections. Viano (1990) has speculated that the increased
incidence of side-impact collisions involving older drivers might result from
the fact that "subjective safety margins learned in youth continue to be applied
even as the senses and information processing capacities decline". Perhaps
a clue to the answer to some of the above questions lies in understanding the
role of habitual or automatic safety margins in driving behaviour.
Return to table of contents
Safety margins and safety protocols: a preventive
measure for car collisions
Sabey (1979) concluded that 95% of road collisions result solely or partly
from human error. Regardless of the numerous uncontrollable variables in each
situation, a safe driver is always conscious of the fact that he is driving
within a safety margin that is largely under his control. The conscious adjusting
of safety margins (for example, when older drivers reject a higher percentage
of gaps during on-road merging ) is an example of the use of safety margins
to enhance personal safety (Wolffelaar, Rothengatter, and Brouwer 1987). According
to Brehmer (1990), drivers select safety margins to protect themselves against
the negative results of their errors. Collision occurence in relation to increasing
speed and speed variablity strongly suggests that drivers are overestimating
their skills and/or underestimating the safety margin appropriate to the situation.
In consideration of the above, and in response to Mayhew's (1990) criticism
of circular definitions, I submit that the act of safe driving is precisely
the act of maintaining adequate margins of safety around the car at all times
and in all circumstances. This goal is achieved through the habitual use of
safety protocols, or nested groupings of associated driving rules, which, in
turn, are based upon the primacy of the role of vision in safe driving (Smith
1956, Mourant 1972, Owsley 1994), and upon the empirically and experientially
determined limits of driver-car-roadway interactions.
The following is an example of one safety protocol that combines vision and
anticipation habits. A safe driver habitually looks 12-15 seconds ahead as
he drives down the road. If he notices a potential hazard in his lane, i.e.
a double-parked delivery vehicle, he responds by covering his brake pedal with
his right foot, applying only enough pressure, to activate his brake lights.
He instantly accomplishes two risk-reducing benefits. By decreasing his speed,
he increases the available time and space he may need to execute a lane change,
and he warns the driver behind him that he may have to stop if a lane change
is not possible.
In reality, this safety protocol requires far less time than it takes to type
one word, and it can be performed without interrupting conversation. Safety
protocols could be among the "susceptible skills" that Sivak (1981) recommended
as a countermeasure for the negative consequences of transient human states,
such as stress and fatigue, on driving behaviour.
Return to table of contents
Some potential benefits of developing
Many research directions in traffic safety are difficult to investigate because
of the multifactorial nature of the concepts, the lack of precision and control
over relevant variables, and the everpresent difficulty of collecting reliable
data. An empirically determined and validated set of safety protocols, designed
to ensure each driver the maximum safety with the maximum mobility, could become
a useful "gold standard" for many research projects and safety interventions.
Once established, these safety protocols could provide an observable measure
of safe driving skill that is not dependent for immediate validation upon negative
outcomes such as collisions and demerit points. Arbitrarily establishing public
health standards based upon valid scientific principles is not unprecedented
and seems imminently justifiable in the face of the importance of the public
health threat represented by driving.
Consider Mayhew's (1990) recommendation for graduated licensing:
"...no consensus exists on exactly what balance should be given to motivational
versus skill based factors in course content. Moreover, precisely what
the critical factors are that contribute to the collisions of young
and older novice drivers remains elusive. Even so, formal instruction continues
to hold promise, particularily to the extent that its rationale and content
more closely align and articulate with licensing systems , especially
graduated ones." p.156 [Italics Added]
A valid set of safety protocols might potentially answer many of requirements
expressed above. It resolves, at least temporarily, the question of skill versus
motivational factors in teaching, because safety protocols, properly instituted,
are a balanced blend of both. Only a minimal amount of skill is required to
learn them and the motivation to practice and perfect them is determined by
their prominence in the driver's licence exam. Once acquired, they are habitual
and do not necessarily require the "conscious" participation of the driver.
Moreover, safety protocols have the potential for creating an improved learning
and driving environment by stressing that all drivers and pedestrians are equally
at risk if and when they neglect the basic rules of road safety. This would
remove some of the traditional focus from young drivers, as is recommended
by Rothe (1991).
Safety protocols, hypothetically, are the positive expression of critical risk
factors that, when neglected, contribute to collision involvement. They objectively
and constructively represent the sensitive problem of driver responsibility
for collisions in that they focus on the correct driver reponses to each potential
collision situation, and not on driver error. There are actually only a limited
number of common collision situations, so the protocol guidelines need not
be complicated to be fairly exhaustive. Both collisions and near-collisions
can be studied from the perspective of these protocols in order to refine and
update the safety rules, especially as new car technologies are implemented.
This is a particularly timely need, since old driving habits and new cars are
not always compatible. Consider the case of experienced drivers who pump the
brakes of their A.B.S. equipped cars, thus failing to maximize their safety
benefit. A standard user-friendly and regularly updated protocol of safe driving
routines would serve as a useful interface between drivers and automotive engineers.
A protocol of driving safety that has been validated by the research community
might also satisfy Mayhew and Simpsons' (1990) requirement for a driver eduation
program "whose rationale and content could align and articulate with licensing
systems". The protocols can provide a common reference point that is potentially
superior to the official, legal rules of the road in that the former does not
ask drivers to have faith that other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers,
etc... will always behave predictably.
Return to table of contents
As Ranney (1994) summarizes:
"No comprehensive model of driving behaviour has been developed, and, given
the wide variety of driving situations and associated combinations of component
skills, it is unlikely that one will emerge soon."
Without a theoretical basis, it is highly unlikely that any effective educational
programme can be developed to reduce the incidence of driver error in traffic.
And without a validated system of screening risky drivers, licence exam standards
will remain as they are, and driver education cannot become more effective
because the general public will only make the minimum investments necessary
for licence exam preparation, or insurance premium discounts, where applicable.
In brief, major improvements in the field of driver education do not appear
to be forthcoming.
For all the above reasons, I believe that the establishment of a set of safety
protocols holds great promise. Following the guidelines of the OECD (1994),
safety protocols avoid the unclear concept of drivers' "attitude" and the panoply
of inefficient countermeasures which that concept has generated. Protocols
are composed of individual rules or habits, so they are easily segmented and
lend themselves to simple and relevant messages which emphasize proper planning
and anticipation on the part of the driver. And protocols are factual. They
stress the positive aspects of each driver's ability to control his own level
of safety, regardless of the driving environment. If properly and consistently
implemented in all relevant areas, ranging from educational curricula and licence
testing to driver improvement programs, safety protocols could influence the
way people think about the role of the driver in collision avoidance. And that
might be the necessary first step towards improving the way people drive.
Return to table of contents
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Showing 1 - 6 comments
Barry was a fantastic inrtsuctor! Barry gave me so much confidence. Even now nearly two year on still hear Barry check your mirrors.. Barry was so patient and explained things to me in a way I could understand! My family think barry's fantastic. Barry would explain things to you untold amounts of times so that he knew you understood. You feel at ease and can have a great laugh, makes it easy and fun to learn and everything you are taught is really thorough. Barry helped me with my theory and helped put it in to practice whilst out on the road an I passed my theory first time!! Same as my practical I passed first time with only a fee minors. Every hour was well spent and I learned so much every time. I recommended Barry to my family and would recommend him to every body out there!!!! Barry is the best inrtsuctor for you if you're willing to learn and have fun.. I absolutely loved my lessons and looked forward to them every week. Thank-you for teaching me to drive Barry x x
People who believe using a cell phone while divirng is just basic multi-tasking and doesn't affect their divirng are sadly deluded. Every person who talks on a cell while behind the wheel should be forced to watch a video of him/her self. It absorbs enough of your attention that your reactions, unbeknownst to you, are slowed. It only takes a fraction of a second delay at 60 mph to kill or be killed. We will never know what percentage of accidents are caused by cell phone use, but you can call any police force you want, and find traffic officers that have attended accident scenes and found cell phones on the floor, TURNED ON, and sometimes STILL CONNECTED! Nobody sees the driver throw it there, but there is no other explanation. I will not use the cell phone in traffic, or on the highway, except in emergency. Twice I have used it while divirng to call police.
the state of Florida. di u know that many can't have driver license and because thy don' have legal status,
and many officerrs take advantage of this, they just stand by the neighborhoods and stop every body who look like latins taking them to court or arresting them. I think that is not fair, because is the state who don't give the document!!!!
It would also help if the community in which you live, supports safe driving habits and enforces traffic laws. If you like to drive fast and recklessly, come to Aspen, CO. The Sherrif here does nothing to help a very serious situation.
In the driver training world we don't talk about car lenghts any more, we talk about seconds. It's a lot easier and more accurate because safe following distance is all about perception time and reaction time. If the car ahead of you hits the brakes suddenly you have to see, figure out what's happening, and then get your foot to the brake. That takes 1 - 2 seconds no matter how quick you are, and that's only if you are paying attention. You'll find the 2-second rule described here ...http://www.drivers.com/article/218/#defensive
What is the safe driving distance in car links?