We Teach Driving Like Your Life Depends On It

In driving as in life, timing is everything

By Steve Wallace, Victoria Times Colonist January 28, 2011

It takes many seconds more than you likely think to complete a turn into or out of traffic.

Do you ever wonder why a driver, coming from a side street, looks directly at you, and proceeds to turn in front of you, without enough time and space to safely complete such a move?

Most non-professionally trained drivers have no idea how much time it takes to do a normal turn at an intersection. They believe it takes less time than it actually does to do a simple turn in traffic.

Few drivers have timed themselves making a right or left turn at an intersection. When I ask students, whether they are learning to drive or have been driving for decades, how many seconds it takes to make a right turn, the standard response is two to three seconds.

It takes six to seven seconds from the time you first begin to move the steering wheel in the direction of the turn until it returns to the straight position, at any downtown city intersection. Try it at your earliest convenience. The left turn takes even longer, as does a straight-through move. Some neighbourhood streets are very narrow and it will not take as much time to do a turn in either direction.

The driver who cuts you off is often unaware of the transgression. Yes, there are drivers who cut people off on purpose, because they are late for an appointment or just plain inconsiderate, but they are in the minority. The vast majority of drivers make errors because they think they can do things faster than is humanly or mechanically possible.

The time it takes to turn is just a fraction of the time required to blend with traffic. It takes a lot longer to get up to speed after the turn than most drivers anticipate. They seldom factor this acceleration time into the whole turning manoeuvre.

Time seems to race when we are moving. It seems to stand still when we are inactive.

When I ask students how fast they can accelerate from a dead stop to a speed of 100 kilometres an hour, their answers are very telling. Most give me an answer of about six seconds. That is a correct answer, if you are driving a high-powered sports car. When student drivers are asked to do a sample 0-100 km/h drill, they are surprised to learn that the typical driving-school vehicle takes about eight to 10 seconds to reach the target speed. From the very beginning of the driving task, most of us think we can do everything faster than we really can.

These inaccurate low estimates permeate the entire driving experience. Passing another vehicle on a two-lane highway is probably the most dangerous thing a driver will ever do. When asked how many seconds such a move will take, the answers coming from learners and experienced drivers are equally scary. Most tell me it will be about six seconds to pass another vehicle on the highway. It will likely take as many as 12 seconds or more in the typical driving-school car. Even when the estimates for passing are measured in terms of space, namely the distance between hydro poles on the side of the highway, the answers are just plain goofy. In other words, the estimates of the time needed to safely pass are ridiculously low.

All drivers should time themselves in practice sessions in order to gain a greater appreciation of the time necessary to perform the most basic driving tasks. The time needed to do safe manoeuvres will vary, depending on several variables, such as vehicle horsepower, road surface, driver skill, time of year and other considerations. The practice should be done in a controlled environment. Try it; you will be better for it.

Steve Wallace is a member of the College of Teachers and the owner of Joan Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and the Interior of B.C.

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