Posted on 01 July 2019

Who or what do I not want to impact in a negative way as a result of THIS DRIVE? That is the question I answer before sending fuel to my Mazda engine – the answer helps shape my mind-set. I have ever-so-slowly come to appreciate the need for total AWARENESS when operating a tonne of aluminium and steel at speeds I wasn't biologically intended to travel at. I've also come to understand our actions are essentially motivated by whatever it is we CARE about. Greater the care factor, greater the motivation.

When we brush our teeth we're generally not in a state of focus or awareness, we are operating on auto-pilot. More technically, we're flowing in a state of unconscious competence. On our first day in the driver's seat with our L plates precariously attached, we are UNCONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT, simply meaning we don't know what we don't know. Soon enough we become CONSCIOUSLY INCOMPETENT – we're now at least aware of what we don't know. Following hours of supervised driving we develop into a CONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT motorist able to drive independently and safely provided we remain focused and aware. This group are the lowest risk drivers on our roads and is, in part, the reason why L-Platers are relatively under-represented in crashes. The overwhelming majority of vehicle crashes involve road users who are driving in an UNCONSCIOUSLY COMPETENT state – just like when brushing their teeth, muscle memory has kicked in and they're operating on auto-pilot. Via repetition the task has become easy, so much so, they 'multi-task' – both cognitively and physically. Sound familiar? Well it should – it's the modus operandi of nearly every driver on our roads today.

Talk to any first responder and they will likely tell you the first words they often hear at a crash scene is 'I didn't see him' or 'He came from nowhere'. The vehicle clearly occupied a space somewhere prior to the collision - even if others weren't aware of it. A consciously competent driver is SITUATIONALLY AWARE of the ever-changing scene. They scan as far ahead as they can comfortably see; their eyes are continually scanning across their field of vision, including mirrors. They perceive critical developments using all available senses so that they have time to process what the development actually means and to anticipate what will soon happen. They are looking, assessing, deciding and acting – not just to the front; they also know their vehicle's blind-spots. The following distance of the driver behind will influence their own following distance from the vehicle in front and their braking. They're often discovering clues such as a subtle drift within a lane, a change of speed, the angle of front wheels and distracted road users.

A consciously competent driver is HAZARD AWARE. You would be forgiven for believing hazard perception is a function that becomes automatic for an experienced driver like me courtesy of my training and broader knowledge of traffic situations – regardless of secondary task demands. The reality is however, unlike my brain's procedural memory that enables me to become unconsciously competent in operating a motor vehicle or brushing my teeth, effective hazard perception is a proactive process that demands a central executive cognitive effort. Most people understand a hazard to be a possible source of danger that may enter their space – so their plan of action is to understandably spot the threat early enough to take the necessary evasive action. What most people don't understand is their brain sacrifices areas important for visual attention and alertness to recruit enough resources to perform a secondary cognitive task such as holding a conversation. The only shortfall I can see with current day driving hazard perception tests is they are performed in isolation on a computer screen and not whilst an individual is undertaking a secondary task like .. well, driving a car and having a conversation.

A consciously competent driver is SELF AWARE and understands that if their cognitions and attitudes are off, no amount of manoeuvring skills will be enough on their own to achieve a safe outcome. They become aware when they are externally or mindfully distracted and take necessary measures to bring themselves back to the task of driving – such as conducting a silent 'commentary' of what they see developing around them. An individual who is aware of their ego or personal control challenges has an opportunity to react to a near-miss by saying – 'perhaps if I were scanning further I would have braked earlier' – rather than leaning on the horn and getting personal with a total stranger. Somewhat phenomenally, most people over estimate their own driving ability whilst being overly critical of others. I expect it's largely due to the fact there is no universal definition for 'Good Driving'. What one individual will tell you to prove they are a good driver, another will use as evidence to prove that's not the case.

If you've ever spoken to someone thirty minutes after they passed a driving test they very likely were not only able to rattle off every set of traffic lights they passed along the way but also the colour of the vehicles around them at the time. Why such vigilance – why so conscious -- so AWARE? We all know the answer – they simply CARED so much about the outcome of THAT DRIVE nothing else mattered. If we all exercised the same care we displayed to pass our driving test during ALL our drives, our emergency service workers, hospitals and cemeteries would undoubtedly have far fewer customers. Next time you're about to buckle up why not take a moment to consider what or who it is you CARE enough about to drive aware?


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