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Situational Awareness

In an article about her recent fall down a flight of stairs, Susan Schwartz (“Stumbling into realizing that living in the moment might help”, Vancouver Sun, January 22nd) concluded that the fall was a “symptom of my generally lackadaisical approach to life,” that she had been ‘distracted’ at the time, indeed, come to think of it she was “almost always distracted, … almost always somewhere else.”

Ms. Schwartz’s ‘takeaway’ from the experience—to be more mindful—echoed a sticky sound bite from a TV driving show: “Driving isn’t downtime.” ‘Downtime’ is a modern word describing periods when a system (a network or assembly line) is unavailable or non-performing. In our tendency to liken human behaviour to mechanistic operation, it has also come to describe periods of non-working, and by further extension, non-thinking-time.

It is a scary thought that drivers need to be reminded that driving is not a non-thinking activity. It is a scary thought that Ms. Schwartz’s candid self-assessment—a tendency not to think about what she is doing at the time—likely resonates with most people and that this mindset extends to their driving behaviour. But statistics and studies confirm that distracted driving is a huge problem. A now two-year old study by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that “driver inattention is the leading factor in most crashes and near-crashes” and that “Nearly 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes involved some form of driver inattention within three seconds before the event.”

Many aspects of the driving experience lull us into thinking of driving as downtime, as not requiring mindfulness. Modern vehicles offer customizable physical comfort, climate control, and surround sound. Many things happen automatically: the doors lock, the windshield wipers start up, the headlights adjust. The physical skills needed are relatively simple to execute. On a daily basis, most people drive the same routes at roughly the same time. Some have argued we are actively discouraged from thinking by the clutter of traffic control signage—simple commands reinforced with bright visuals.

Driving is not simple, and safe driving involves never being lulled. Uncontrolled intersections, two-way stops, four-way stops, roundabouts or traffic circles, controlled intersections—all have right-of-way rules that require drivers to identify the traffic pattern they are in and respond accordingly. Turning right and left at intersections, merging into and out of the traffic flow, changing lanes—all have signaling and timing rules that require drivers to know what is happening all around their vehicle and respond accordingly. Following other vehicles in a line of traffic involves assessing and maintaining a safe following distance which is dependant on a host of changing variables: visibility, road conditions, the traffic speed and the posted speed limits.

Survival on the roadway requires a high level of alertness. “Due care”, “Defensive Driving”, “Situational Awareness” – whatever we might call this requirement for focus, we know that (almost always) when a crash occurs, someone was not paying enough attention.

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