Town Driving

As you know, most incidents that do take place do so in built up areas where the density and variety of road users are more likely to create potential “conflict” areas. Also, not surprisingly, it’s where speed limits tend to be lower…

Often, road users are having to deal with a combination of hazards almost simultaneously and it’s little wonder that a “hazard overload” can afflict drivers in particular. Correctly prioritising hazards tends to come with practice and experience but we shouldn’t forget that there are around a million new drivers on UK roads each year who don’t have this experience. And neither do certain other groups:

  • People who rarely but occasionally venture into towns
  • Foreign nationals and tourists (can you spot a hire car at a hundred metres?)
  • Children and teenagers in particular

Fortunately, the majority of “around town” incidents are relatively low speed but they do account for the lion’s share of insurance claims, with even a fairly small “bump” with no injuries being sustained probably costing somewhere in the region of £1,000 to repair the bent metal. And of course, even a “low speed” impact with an unprotected road user (cyclist, motorcyclist, pedestrian) can have devastating consqeuences.

We all make mistakes around town; not least navigational ones. If you need to make a manoeuvre that’s perhaps a little unexpected by other road users, ask yourself three questions before carrying it out: Is it safe? Is it convenient or necessary? Is it legal?

From your own perspective, it’s worth bearing in mind that generally road users don’t crash into other road users who they know to be there. It’s normally those of which they are unaware who become the victims. So, one fairly easy trick is to try to make yourself as obvious to other road users as possible. For example, we associate the colour red with danger – so it’s no surprise that that’s the colour chosen for brake lights, is it? Other road users react to red – in just the same way you do – so you can use this to your advantage, for instance when trying to prevent yourself from being rear-ended while sitting in a traffic queue (mind you, better still not to be in a queue in the first place but we’ll come to that later).

Imagine you are sitting in a queue of traffic and the brake lights on the vehicle in front go off. What is your first thought or reaction? With most of us, we’re self-programmed from experience to assume that the vehicle ahead will start to move off… so quite often we do too; only to get a sudden “surprise” when it becomes clear that they’re going nowhere! This is particularly true at roundabouts and we have yet to find the driver who has not, at some point in his or her driving career, been led into making the assumption that the vehicle ahead has gone, when, in fact, it’s still right where it started!

If we didn’t have junctions around town, we wouldn’t have so many accidents. But we do; and we do. There are two main reasons for crashes at junctions:

  • One road user did not see the other road user
  • One road user misinterpreted the actions or communication of the other road user

You’d think therefore that it should be fairly easy to overcome this problem but experience tells us otherwise. We tend:

  • To be impatient at junctions
  • To make assumptions about the intentions of other road users
  • To look at vehicles rather than their drivers
  • To not look thoroughly enough (particularly with regard to cyclists and motorcyclists)
  • To arrive at junctions without planning for the “what if?” occurrence
  • To be led by others rather than making our own decisions (for example by relying on indicator signals)

And don’t forget, any joining point for vehicles or other road users with the road you are on constitutes a “junction”, so be wary at petrol stations, supermarket/car park entrances/exits, pubs, etc.

Try to be prepared for the unexpected and a way of doing this is to anticipate the daftest action by the other road user you can imagine and take your own compensatory action before it becomes a reality. Is he going to pull out on me and if he does have I time and space to react?

Will this truck on my left have sufficient room to negotiate this roundabout without moving into my lane? No. Oh! I’m in the wrong place!

KEEP MOVING! A moving target is always more difficult to hit than a stationary one, so try to keep those wheels turning. If you make this an aim in itself, you’ll very quickly hone your anticipation skills to a fine point. Try to avoid joining other people’s queues and think instead of creating your own (not by holding others up but by creating your own space in front that you can move into). You can use “observation links” (the clues along the way that will tell you what to anticipate) to build a picture of the ever-changing driving environment and you may find reflections and shadows give advance warning of other road users’ presence.

From a control perspective, when driving around town select a gear that gives you most flexibility at any given speed. “Flexibility” in this sense means the ability to speed up or slow down in roughly equal measure by using “acceleration sense” and relatively small adjustments on the accelerator pedal. You’ll probably find this means you use a lower gear than you used to but you’ll very soon get used to it and enjoy the relative “freedom” that changing gear less often brings with it. Don’t worry too much about fuel consumption; modern engines are at their most efficient further up the rev range than used to be the case and in fact will often use more fuel if they are being laboured in too high a gear.