L3 – Pillars of driving safety

Buildings that are not built on solid foundations are more susceptible to collapse. Similarly, a driving style that is not underpinned by a defensive approach to hazards is more likely to crumble. This is especially true in challenging driving conditions, or when we are tired or stressed.

The previous two lessons explored the essence of defensive driving and the need for a new approach to driving. This lesson identifies four pillars that underpin driving safety.

Do you know that 1 in 5 drivers crash in their first year after passing their driving test?

The four pillars are:

  1. What can be seen (observations)
  2. What can’t yet be seen but can be foreseen (anticipation)
  3. What we should do (plans)
  4. Margin of safety

Our OAPs – observations, anticipation and plans – are three pillars that support a safe, defensive driving style. Our driving plans should take account of both what we can see and what we can’t yet see but can reasonably foresee.

According to UK government statistics, 1 in 5 drivers crash in the first year after passing their driving test. Inexperienced drivers feature disproportionately in crash statistics, not because they lack essential skill or knowledge, but because of their inexperience. As we acquire real-world driving experience, so we get better at anticipating what could happen next. Increasingly, what unfolds before us is unsurprising, as we’ve likely experienced it before.

If OAPs are three of the key ingredients of safe driving, then a wholesome recipe for driving defensively would instruct us to focus on looking properly at what is happening all around us; use our experience to anticipate what might happen next; plan a safe course of action; and integrate a healthy margin of safety.

Margin of safety

In August 2005, one of the most dangerous tropical storms in US history began brewing in the waters off the Gulf of Mexico. In less than 24 hours, the storm doubled in size. Meteorologists gave it the name Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps you can recall seeing the TV news footage of the carnage she left behind.

Hurricanes are expected to cause damage and flooding. That is why coastal cities employ a variety of flood defences, including levees. Such walls are built alongside rivers to act as a physical barrier to hold back unusually high waters. However, shortly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, it became clear that the levees of New Orleans might not be able to hold back the rapidly rising waters.

Within a few hours, levees began to fail. Entire neighbourhoods were drowning beneath more than 10 feet of flood water. In the end, 80% of the city was flooded, and hundreds of people died. It was, at the time, the costliest natural disaster in US history.

Safety margins matter

According to author and blogger James Clear, the gravest mistake that contributed to the carnage, was that the levees were not built with a sufficient margin of safety. Engineers had miscalculated the strength of the soil on which the flood defences were built. Effectively, the levees weren’t built on solid foundations and consequently they collapsed.

Margin of safety is “something that protects someone by making it possible for there to be an amount of risk or a number of mistakes without having a very damaging effect.”

Cambridge online dictionary

Clearly, New Orleans’ defences did not have a proper margin of safety. Does your style of driving?

A defensive approach to driving integrates a healthy safety margin. By approaching everyday hazards within our driving environment with a defensive mindset, we can protect ourselves from being involved in a crash by building a buffer between us and the hazards that we are seeing and anticipating.

Being in a hurry is oftentimes reported as a factor that contributes to crashes. The key to avoiding this, is to not depart at the last minute. Instead, if we remember that traffic congestion and delays are possible – perhaps, at times, probable – we should protect ourselves with a healthy safety margin, departing with time to spare.

Rear-end shunts are a common type of crash, oftentimes caused by the following driver not following the vehicle ahead at a safe distance. When the vehicle ahead suddenly slows, the following driver’s inadequate safety margin means there is too little space – and therefore time – within which they can react effectively and avoid crashing into the rear-end of the vehicle in front.

Subsequent lessons will provide techniques for bolstering your defences.