Accidents: Perceiving What’s Preventable

by Everybody Loves Alain

A tractor-trailer travelling a four-lane stretch of the Trans Canada Highway entered a small town. The speed zone dropped from 100 to 70 kph. On a slight curve ahead, a car was travelling on a side road toward an intersection with the highway, which was marked by a stop sign. The car driver came to a “rolling” stop at the sign and then accelerated onto the highway. He crowded the left lane occupied by the tractor-trailer, which in turn swerved onto the left-lane shoulder but clipped the rear left panel of the car.

The car was heavily damaged while the tractor received minor scrapes. The police charged the driver of the car with “failing to yield,” and let the truck driver go on his way.

So the truck driver was surprised to learn that his safety manager, after reviewing the accident information and the police report, had ruled the incident a “preventable” accident when, the driver argued, it was so obviously the four-wheeler’s fault.

It’s worth remembering that a “preventable” accident is one in which the driver failed to do everything within reason to avoid the incident. And the driver failed on several counts. The National Safety Council outlines the formula for “Defensive Driving” as follows: 1) recognize the hazard; 2) understand the defence; and 3) act correctly and, more importantly, in time. Let’s apply these basics to the accident scenario.

1) Recognize the hazard: A defensive driver should be looking at least a half-mile down the road, into what I call the “near future.” That’s best described as that point in the road where the driver will actually be in the next 10 to 15 seconds. He’ll be able to anticipate hazards and plan a defensive strategy, and then put these continually changing actions into play.

As the truck driver rounded the curve he should have seen the passenger car approaching the intersection and recognized the potential threat (is the car slowing to stop, or will it possibly run the stop sign?) But he wasn’t looking far enough into his future, and by failing to slow down while entering the curve he critically impeded his forward vision.

We’ve all heard the term, “speed is too fast for conditions.” Let’s think about a new concept: “driver’s perception is too slow for the conditions.” If the slight curve in the highway reduced the truck driver’s forward vision, he should have slowed down.

2) Understand the defence: Slowing down would have allowed the truck driver to maintain a maximum field of forward vision and have ample time to react to potential threats-an animal on the road, reduced lanes for construction, or a vehicle breakdown on the side of the highway.

If you can see far enough ahead, you can anticipate and compensate. When the truck driver actually saw the car approaching the intersection quickly, he should have tried and catch the attention of the car driver-a flash of the lights or a friendly tap of the horn would do.

Failing that, the truck driver should have taken his foot off the accelerator pedal and “covered” the brake. Covering the brake is a defensive technique that shaves a few extra and precious seconds off when an evasive manoeuvre is needed in a panic situation.

Now, the other driver in this scenario failed to come to stop and then partially lost control of his vehicle, slopping over into the left lane. Those are big mistakes, no question about it. But they’re typical of four wheelers, and it’s a pro’s job to compensate.

3) Act correctly and in time: Had the truck driver slowed to a speed where he had full control, and had he been covering the brake, he would have never been called upon to make the failed “last-second” evasive manoeuvre that he did.

Answer me this: what is it that differentiates a defensive driver from the rest? A defensive driver simply recognizes potential hazards, knows and understands the required defence, and then executes his plan in time. It’s a learned skill that separates the men from the boys when defining the word “professional.”

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