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To be an advanced driver you need to become a skilled observer. Good powers of observation, which demand practice and thought, can keep you out of trouble in 90 per cent of all potentially dangerous incidents. You need to absorb all the information you see around and ahead of you when you drive, and select what is useful. All drivers do this to a certain extent, but the real value of skilled observation does not come until it has been developed into an art. Just as a ship's master reads his chart in difficult waters, you must read the road ahead so that you can anticipate potential dangers.

Your eyesight

The importance of good eyesight

The importance of good eyesight

The top picture shows the view from behind the wheel of a person with average eyesight. Everything is clear, and peripheral vision is adequate. The centre picture shows the effect of long-sightedness, with the foreground blurred and the distant objects in focus. Short-sightedness is even worse, as is illustrated by the bottom picture. Everything ahead of you is dangerously blurred.

Making sure that your vision is satisfactory is the first step you must take. Not only do an alarming number of drivers have eyesight shortcomings, but many of them are also totally unaware that anything is wrong. Eyesight usually deteriorates so gradually that a person who 20 years ago read a number-plate without difficulty when passing his test may now be suffering from a potentially dangerous defect in his vision, and possibly compensating for it subconsciously. Many people who try to avoid driving at night, because they are not happy about their vision in the darkness, ought to acknowledge that their daylight vision might also be less than perfect.

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Reading a number-plate for the requirements of the Government test is not demanding enough. The standard is to be able to read a number-plate with the old 31/2in letters at a distance of 75 feet (22.86 metres), or a plate with the newer 31/sin letters at a distance of 67 feet (20.42 metres). It is possible to pass this requirement with little or no sharp sight in one eye, yet such a serious defect prevents good judgement of distance. Tunnel vision, the tendency to concentrate only on the view directly ahead and remain oblivious to anything more than a few degrees to the side, also does not stop you reading a number-plate at 25 yards, yet it seriously restricts the powers of observation which every driver must have.

Good peripheral sight is essential in order to see what is happening at each side of the car. Long sight and short sight are extremely common (and proportionately worse at night), but too many drivers remain unaware of it until eventually they are forced to have an eye-test. Colour blindness also causes serious problems, particularly if it takes the form of an inability to distinguish red; as well as brake lights and traffic lights, red is used for all danger signs on the road. If you have not been to an optician for two years, it would be wise to go for a proper check whether or not you already wear spectacles. There will probably be nothing wrong; but if there is, it is better to find out now rather than after a possible serious accident caused by your defective sight.

Tunnel vision (top) is a less common defect, but potentially disastrous. The view straight ahead is fine, but peripheral vision is badly affected. The hazards of such a defect need no elaboration. Finally, some people suffer from double vision, which can greatly affect your judgement on the road. If you suffer from these or other defects, it is in your own interest, as well as that of all other road users, to do something about it.

If you need glasses for driving, wear them always. It is a good idea, too, to keep a pair of dark glasses in the car all the year round, for the glare from the setting sun in winter can be just as hard on the eyes as the brightness of a sunny day in summer. Economy is pointless, as it is with anything to do with road safety. Polarised glasses are the best, but try them in your car first to make sure that they do not excessively emphasise the stress patterns which can be seen in car windscreens when this type of glass is used. If you normally wear spectacles, the ideal is a second pair with tinted glass lenses. Sunglasses with cheap plastic lenses can scratch easily and make parts of your vision `foggy', and they tend to impair your perception in shade.

Sunglasses are useful in reducing eyestrain, but never be tempted to wear them at night if you are bothered by dazzle. Glare from oncoming headlights is reduced, but so is your perception of everything else which is marginally lit. Failing to see a pedestrian, an unlit cyclist or even just the kerb could have fatal results. If your eyesight is good and oncoming headlights do dazzle you, you are probably making the elementary mistake of looking right at them. With a little willpower, you can train yourself to look away from the headlights and towards the nearside of the road instead.

This ability comes naturally with plenty of night driving experience, and in time you will appreciate the headlights of passing traffic for that little bit of extra light they throw into your path. The inevitable reaction to headlights coming towards you is to concentrate your attention on the part of the road directly in front of your car illuminated by your own headlights. At all other times, however, you must look further ahead, day or night.

Where to look

Many inexperienced drivers spend most of their time behind the wheel looking at the part of the road immediately in front of them, thereby failing to notice sufficiently early the approach of junctions, roundabouts, parked cars and any other potential hazards. You should concentrate your gaze on a point some way ahead, while at the same time taking in events even further in the distance, closer to you and on either side.

This selective vision requires concentration and has to be developed with practice, so it is a good idea to train yourself to cast your eye over as wide a field of vision as possible. An advanced driver with excellent peripheral vision can often point out objects at the side of the road (such as a dog on the verge) that even his passengers have missed, while at the same time keeping the centre of his gaze focused on the road ahead. This centre of focus must be adjusted constantly according to speed and how far ahead the road is visible.

You must also be observant about what is going on behind you. The interior mirror must be used frequently, and always before you change course or speed, but you should not rely on this alone. Properly adjusted door or wing mirrors give you a broader field of vision behind, although there will always be some blind spots, notably just above your right shoulder and perhaps at the three-quarter rear position one each side (especially on a car with large metal panels at these points). If your car is inadequately equipped, advice about choosing mirrors to minimise these blind spots is contained in Safety at the Wheel.

You must always allow for blind spots when checking the view in your mirrors. The advanced driver uses his mirrors so often that he should always be aware of the vehicles behind him, and should know when one is momentarily in a blind spot. Even so, the only way to ensure that you are never caught out by a car or motorcycle hidden in a blind spot and about to overtake is to cast a quick — and we really mean quick — glance over your right shoulder if all looks safe ahead. This is especially good practice when changing lanes on a motorway or dual carriageway, joining traffic flow from a slip road or changing lanes in a one-way system, as well as when pulling away from the side of the road. You need to be particularly vigilant about what might be lurking in a blind spot when you are travelling on a busy motorway; if a lane of traffic to your right is flowing only slightly faster than your lane, a car can be concealed in a blind spot for some time. Motorway accidents are often caused by a driver changing lanes without properly checking in his mirrors and over his shoulder whether it is safe to do so, and then moving broadside into another car.

You must be absolutely certain that no vehicles, people or animals are behind you when you need to reverse. If your car gives poor vision to the rear, get out first and walk around to have a look. To reverse blindly, hoping that nothing or no-one — a playing child, for example — is in the way, is unforgivable.

Selective observation

Being observant is essential to advanced driving, but the refinement of this skill comes in learning to be selective in your observation. When driving in a busy city centre, for example, you need to be able to distinguish what should be acted upon and what can be ignored. These are some pointers to give you an idea of the range of visual information which helps you to become a safer driver:

  • Changing road surface: a sudden switch from a dull surface to a shiny one, or from a coarse surface to a smooth one, could mean that tyre grip will be reduced and stopping distance lengthened.
  • Mud or gravel at farm or building site entrances can make the road more slippery.
  • Telegraph poles changing course can indicate a bend in the road, but remember that occasionally the wires can track straight on while the road bends.
  • Unexpected movements by parked vehicles must always be allowed for if you see a driver inside. The vehicle can suddenly move out into your path if the driver sets off without thinking, or the driver or a passenger might open a door and step out into your path.
  • Cross-winds can blow through gaps between buildings or trees and buffet your car off its course if you are caught unawares.
  • Give tradesmen's stationary vans a wide berth, especially on quiet roads, in case the driver gets out unexpectedly.
  • Any parked vehicle can hide a pedestrian about to step out into the road, so it's a good idea to look for tell-tale feet visible underneath it; school buses and ice cream vans should be treated with particular care.
  • Any pedestrian needs to be observed carefully. A child can dash into the road without looking and an old person, perhaps with failing eyesight or hearing, might not see you coming; a dog off a lead could do anything. Be especially careful in wet weather: a pedestrian is not always so careful when he is hurrying for shelter, or if his vision is restricted because he is keeping his head down against the rain.
  • Always give a cyclist plenty of room. Riding a bicycle carefully is difficult in wind or rain, and not all cyclists are skilled on their machines. Always assume that a cyclist might wobble or steer round a drain or pothole just as you pass.

You can glean plenty of information by observing other vehicles. A parked car with its reversing lights on is clearly about to move backwards. A puff from the exhaust of a parked car means that its driver has just started the engine and may pull out into your path. A puff from the exhaust of a lorry climbing a hill tells you that its driver has changed down and will be travelling even more slowly; if you are coming down a hill and see a slow-moving lorry climbing towards you, it could conceal a car whose driver is about to attempt a rash overtaking manoeuvre. A decrepit car or van might have poor brakes. Give more room to the aggressive or sloppy driver; drop further back from a driver ahead trying to overtake when there is no opportunity, or a driver who is paying more attention to finding a particular address in town than he is to the road. If you are behind a bus, a passenger putting his hand up to the bell will give you advance warning that the bus is about to stop.

Anyone who has passed a driving test should have all road signs committed to memory, but it is still worth referring to the Highway Code periodically to check that you know all the warning signs (triangular), advisory ones (rectangular) and mandatory ones (circular). British roads are quite well provided with signs, all of which are erected by local authorities for a purpose; you should know at a glance what any sign is telling you.

No matter how experienced a driver you are, there is always room to improve your observation skills still further. Take pride in developing your own methods. At a familiar junction in town with a restricted view, for example, you might notice that reflections in a shop window act as mirrors and show you what otherwise invisible traffic is approaching. With this sort of keen observation, the advanced driver can always make his motoring that little bit safer.

Summary

  • Observation depends upon good eyesight, so make sure that you have an eye-test frequently (at least every two years) even if you are confident that your vision has not deteriorated.
  • Concentrate your gaze on a point some way ahead, while at the same time taking in events even further in the distance, closer to you and on either side.
  • Develop the skills of selective observation so that you have an eye for any situation which might require action from you.
  • Be particularly aware of blind spots when using your mirrors.
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