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Be a better driver: Use your five road senses

Published November 27, 2012


Humans rely on the five traditional senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch – to get us through life. There are some of us who must deal with life without input from some of these senses. A loss of any one of these senses can make life more difficult – and dealing with the driving environment more dangerous.

Of these five senses, taste is the one that doesn’t play a role in safe driving. As a matter of fact, if taste is part of your driving environment it maybe be better to pull over in a safe place and enjoy that cheeseburger before hitting the road.

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However, there are still five senses to take advantage of when it comes to your motoring safety. The added sense we need that takes the place or taste is common sense.

Let’s take a look at how every driver should take full advantage of these five senses to maximize safety.

1. Sight: The vast majority of our driving information is gathered by our eyes. Traffic flow, road conditions, pedestrian movement, cyclists and bikers, and even the weather. All this immediate driving environment information is relayed to our brains through our eyes so we can make sound decisions regarding our driving. This information is processed by our brains and hopefully translated into good judgement concerning our vehicle placement in traffic, speed and direction. If we don’t give our brains all of the important driving information, if we miss one detail, it can lead to a disastrous decision. To start with, drivers must meet a level of vision that allows all that important visual information to be gathered properly. We need good, clear distance vision to pick up other vehicles, pedestrians, signs, etc. Peripheral vision is important to see movement off to the sides. But that is less than half the battle. How we use our eyes, or vision technique, is even more important. Unfortunately, this good vision technique is not natural. Good vision training is essential to safe driving. Developing the vision skill of looking to where you want to go and not at the immediate threat is not easy and requires coaching and practice. It is instinctual to look at and assess the driving threat. However, you will drive where you are looking and that will send you directly at the threat.

2. Hearing: This can aid drivers with placement of other vehicles in the immediate vicinity of the driver. Motorists can hear other vehicles around them to help determine where other vehicles are. Our sense of hearing can also be used to sense if the vehicle is near its limits of adhesion. If the vehicle’s tires are starting to growl or squeal this can tell the driver to slow down as the tires are near their limits. Our hearing can also tell us if there may be a mechanical issue with the vehicle that needs attention. You can even hear a change in the road surface that indicates wet conditions or ice conditions. Last but not least, our hearing is essential to determine the presence of emergency vehicles, their location and direction. This can help each of us get out of the way sooner and easier and possibly save someone’s life. For these reasons, we should keep all the unnecessary noises to a minimum. Car stereos, phone calls or even in-car conversations can impair our hearing senses to the point where we cannot hear emergency vehicles approaching or sounds that tell you information about your vehicle. I know of an unfortunate motorist who always listened to his stereo at a level that meant he missed the mechanical sounds of low oil pressure that resulted in the expense of a new engine. He didn’t hear his engine tell him it’s time to stop and investigate.

3. Smell: This sense can tell drivers when there is trouble. The smell of hot oil can warn of possible engine damage. The smell of anti-freeze can indicate a coolant leak. The distinct odour of hot brakes can let a driver know of the danger of overheated brakes. Electrical shorting can give off an aroma that can mean the difference between calling for a tow truck or calling the fire department. When in doubt, have strange odours checked out by a mechanic before they can lead to costly repairs, crashes or fires.

4. Touch: This is one sense most motorists wouldn’t think of. It does play a part in your safe driving. The sense of touch can be through our hands, feet or the proverbial “seat of the pants”. Both our hands should be always on the steering wheel and through this interface we can sense mechanical issues such as a poorly balanced tire or a tire that is deflating or delaminating. The sense of touch on the steering wheel can also tell the driver when the vehicle is approaching the limits of adhesion. If the steering feels lighter than normal it can mean the tires are sliding or are on ice. A front end skid can also be felt as a light vibration in the steering wheel as the tires slide across the pavement. The sense of touch also is in our feet and this applies to the use of our pedals. That touch can tell the driver exactly how much throttle is being applied or how much brake pedal force is being applied. This is why it is important for all drivers to be able to feel the pedals properly. Heavy winter boots can desensitize the driver’s feet and make telling which pedals or how much pedal effort is being applied almost impossible. Through the driver’s seat we can sense how much cornering force we are generating which can tell the driver if they are going too fast into a corner. We can also sense direction to help us determine if we are in a skid. That “seat of the pants” feeling can also tell a motorist of possible mechanical problems. Vibrations can be sensed through touch.

5. Common Sense: This is something too many drivers have not either developed or they do not take advantage of. This is one of the most important senses and the one that tells us to do the right thing while driving. Common sense tells us to focus on our driving and do not allow ourselves to be distracted by cellphone calls, conversations or day dreams. Common sense tells us that driving can be fatal and as such requires our complete attention. This important sense tells us it is stupid to race on the streets or to drive impaired. Common sense tells us to slow down in less than ideal conditions and not to go out in severe situations. This one sense is developed over many years and should never be ignored.

We have these five important senses to keep us as safe as possible when driving. It’s only common sense to use all of our senses. Whenever we get behind the wheel we should key up all of these five senses and use them all to their utmost to keep us safe on our roads and highways.

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