Driving Hints and Tips

Confused by left and right?

Spatial awareness is a skill that affects every aspect of driving. It tells you how your position relates to other things around you. On the road, it controls your ability to tell left from right, follow directions, stay in your lane, and gauge distances so you can park and overtake safely. Although you may have good, or poor, spatial awareness, a great deal of it is a learned skill, so if you struggle with visual thinking there are steps you can take to help you drive safely. For example, do you have trouble telling right from left? Do you have to pause and struggle to think when your instructor asks you to take a left turn? If so, you are not alone. Left-right discrimination is a complex neuro-psychological process and for some it is second nature and for others a challenge. One simple solution to this common problem is to look down at the back of your hands. If you stretch out your thumbs and forefingers, they’ll form an ‘L’ (for left) shape on your left hand, but only a mirror image ‘L’ on your right. Many learners find this a quick and helpful hack to remind them which side is which. Alternatively, you may find wearing a wristband or a ring on your right hand and using a mantra ‘ring, right’ a useful strategy, or thinking ‘I read text from left to right’.

How to beat blind spots

As you’ll discover, your car has two main blind spots which are areas of the road you can’t see by looking through your windscreen or using your rear and side-view mirrors. These blind spots are on the rear left and right side of your car. Depending on your car’s bodywork design, you may also have pillar blind spots around some windows. The problem with blind spots is that they block your view of other road users. As a result, you may not see that car or motorcyclist and this could lead to a serious incident. To be safe and certain your blind spots are always clear, look over your shoulder before moving left or right, for example, when moving off, changing lanes or merging with traffic. Remember, there is no substitute for a good shoulder check. In some cases, it may help to wind the window down to get a better view.

As your lessons progress, you’ll get into the habit of checking these blind spots and recognise where other drivers’ blind spots are, and avoid remaining in them longer than necessary. Every time you move off from the side of the road, expect to be assessed on whether you’ve checked your offside (driver’s side) blind spot. During your practical test, on the emergency stop, you must check both the nearside (passenger side) and offside blind spot before moving off. You should work in an anti-clockwise movement. Look over your right shoulder blind spot first, then right-hand mirror, interior, left-hand mirror, left shoulder blind spot and, finally, the rear window. If you forget to do this, it will result in a fault, and if it’s marked by the examiner as a potentially dangerous fault, you’ll fail instantly.

Don’t be an aquaplaner

With frequent wet weather, it’s important to be aware of aquaplaning and how to handle it. Also known as hydroplaning, aquaplaning can happen if you’re driving on wet roads at speed. A layer of water builds up between your tyres and the road surface, making them lose contact with the road. As a result, you’ll have zero grip and be unable to steer or accelerate until you reach a drier section of road. Many modern driving aids, such as electronic stability controls systems, won’t help either once a car begins to aquaplane as these tools only work when your tyres are in proper contact with the road. To reduce your chances of aquaplaning, always keep your tyres inflated at the correct pressure and make sure the tread depth does not fall below the legal minimum of 1.6mm. This is important because the grooves in your tyres are designed to disperse water from beneath them. Aquaplaning happens when a tyre encounters more water than it can dissipate. It may take you a second to realise what’s happening, but the tell-tale signs include your steering feeling lighter and the rear of your car may start to veer. At this point, simply take your foot off the accelerator and depress the clutch. Keep a firm grip of the steering wheel, avoid any sudden steering movements, and stay calm. As your car slows down naturally and the tyres regain grip, continue driving at a reduced speed. If you can, try using the drier tracks left by the car in front of you as there’ll be significantly less water for your tyres to remove, but don’t forget to double your stopping distance in the rain.

Right of way rules on hills

If you are driving in a country area with single-track roads and steep hills, be sure you know the rules of right of way. Driving up or down steep hills can be a challenge and you really don’t want to meet another car on a narrow gradient with no passing place. However, should this happen, who has the right of way on a hill? In this instance, if you’re driving the car facing downhill, you must yield the right-of-way and back up, however awkward, until you reach a place where the vehicle coming uphill can pass you. This is because a vehicle facing downhill has the greater amount of control when backing up a hill. For a vehicle going up the hill, it is more difficult to stop and reverse safely down even in a modern car. Rule 155 of the Highway Code for single-track roads is clear: ‘Give way to road users coming uphill whenever you can. If necessary, reverse until you reach a passing place to let the other vehicle pass.’

Good road positioning

On your driving test, your examiner will be looking closely at your position on the road and how well you’re centred within your lane. This is because steering in the right position lays a good foundation for all other driving skills and your ability to perform more complex manoeuvres. Generally, good road positioning means keeping your car in the centre of your lane. The term ‘generally’ is used because when you’re out and about, you need a dynamic relationship with the road as different hazards present themselves, and you’ll need to adapt your road position accordingly. However, there are good reasons why the ideal road position is in the centre of your lane. If you drive too closely to the left of the road, you’re at greater risk of hitting the kerb, verge or potholes and you’re not allowing for pedestrian stumbles. On the other hand, if you drive too closely to the line on the right, there are risks from oncoming traffic as you need to maintain a safe distance. Importantly, other drivers will interpret your intentions through your road position and logically assume you’re planning on turning right. One simple way to improve your road positioning is to follow the left leg rule. As your left leg is pretty much in the middle of your car, by keeping your leg moving down the centre of the road, your car will follow suit and you’ll be positioned in the middle of your lane. The more practice you get at doing this, the most confident you’ll be in maintaining a good position.

Dutch reach every time

Do you always check to make sure the road is clear before opening your door? Not just your rear-view and side-view mirrors, but the surrounding areas as well? Despite the Highway Code Rule 239 stating that you must ensure you do not hit anyone when opening your door, and to check for cyclists and other traffic, this rule is often ignored and to blame for plenty of incidents or doorings. This is why the Dutch Reach method of opening your car door is important and to be included in the revised Highway Code. The Dutch Reach is a simple technique to make sure you always open your door safely. Instead of automatically using the hand closest to the door, always use your hand further from the door, namely your left hand if you’re the driver. The same technique applies to passengers. This will naturally turn your body towards the window, helping you to see approaching cyclists, other cars or hazards. By using your opposite hand you’re also less likely to swing your door open widely further reducing the risk. If you get into the habit of using the Dutch Reach, even if you’re in a rush or distracted, you don’t actively have to remember to check for cyclists as you’ll be doing so automatically.

Space travel

Maintaining a safety bubble around your car in the form of a safe space at the rear, side and in front of you goes a long way to keeping you safe on the road. Ensuring there’s always an adequate space in front of you is the easiest one to control as you can simply adjust the gap
between yourself and the vehicle in front by varying your speed. If you regularly get a close- up view of large vehicles (or slow vehicles) you’ll need to improve the skill of maintaining a safe gap. However, you also need to consider the gap in front of you when you’re in stationary traffic. Ask yourself what if the car in front rolls back, or breaks down? What if your foot slips off the clutch? To be safe, you should leave enough room to steer around the
vehicle in front. Ideally, the gap should be around two metres and big enough for any eventuality. An easy way to measure this yourself is to use the ‘tyres and tarmac’ rule. When stopped behind another vehicle you should always be able to see its rear tyres and some of the road surface behind them.

Why tyre pressure matters

Tyre pressure and the overall health of your car tyres affects your driving, so maintaining correct tyre pressure is vital for your vehicle handling, overall performance, good fuel efficiency and load carrying capabilities. Many newer cars have a helpful tyre pressure monitoring system to alert you when your tyre pressure is too low, but you should still be aware of the warning signs and ready to top-up your air. Under-inflated tyres will take more engine power – and more fuel – to get the same amount of mileage. So, if you’re having to refuel more often, or sooner than you’d usually do, it’s time to check your tyre pressure. You won’t be able to see from a visual glance, but tyres under-inflated by 15 PSI can use 6% more fuel, that’s the difference between averaging 40mpg and 42mpg. If you feel that your vehicle is swaying into turns, taking too long to turn compared to normal, or just feels a bit off when it comes to steering and manoeuvring, low tyre pressure could be to blame. Again, if your car is taking longer than usual to come to a complete stop, it could be the pressure as tyres can’t grip the road as well when they’re under-inflated. In case you don’t already know, your vehicle handbook will tell you what your correct pressure should be. Alternatively, you may find a small sticker with the tyre pressure inside the fuel filler flap or on the drivers’ door edge. This will give you a figure in pounds per square inch (PSI) or BAR pressure which is a metric unit of atmospheric pressure equal to 14.50 pounds per square inch. It’s worth noting pressures are given for cold tyres that haven’t been driven for at least two hours, so make sure when you check yours that your car has been stationary for a while. Ideally you should do this every week, and definitely once a month.

Are you a dawdler?

If the driver behind you is looking to overtake, perhaps by following too closely behind you, allow them to pass as soon as it’s safe. Sometimes we all enjoy a pleasant drive and might even dip below the speed limit to take in the scenery or perhaps find an address. And while that in itself is perfectly fine, we also have to accept that some people have places to be and people to see, and therefore don’t have time to dawdle. So, if you’re the dawdler and can see there’s someone itching to get past you, don’t ignore them. Slow down or move over when it’s safe and allow them to pass so that they can get on with their day and you with yours. In fact, letting ‘faster’ traffic pass is explicitly encouraged by Highway Code Rule 168 which states: ‘If a driver is trying to overtake you, maintain a steady course and speed, slowing down if necessary to let the vehicle pass. Never obstruct drivers who wish to pass.’ Rule 169 also urges you not to hold up a long queue of traffic and to check your mirrors frequently. After all, a good driver should be aware of what is going on behind them and if you’re holding up other traffic, don’t get stressed, simply pull over when it’s safe and let them pass.

Do you pass the eye test?

It may seem obvious, but before you get behind the wheel, do you know what the basic eyesight requirements are and do you meet them? Have you taken the ‘number plate test’ to see how your eyesight performs? By law, motorists are required to meet the minimum eyesight standard at all times when driving. One of these requirements is the ability to read a number plate from 20 metres away. A line of five cars or eight parking bays is a quick and easy way to measure this distance and test whether you can read the number plate clearly. If you can’t, go straight to the optician. You must wear glasses or contact lenses every time you drive if you need them to meet the standards of vision for driving. If you’re planning to drive a bus or HGV, these standards are even higher. When you take the practical driving test, the very first thing the examiner will do is to ask you to read the number plate of a car parked in front of you. You’ll be sitting 20 metres behind it and must be able to read the number precisely – wearing glasses or contact lenses if necessary is fine. If you can’t read the plate, you’ll fail the test there and then, and your provisional licence will be revoked. When you apply for your licence again, the DVLA will ask you to have an eyesight test carried out by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA), which will be done at the driving test centre. If you pass, you still have to take and pass the number plate reading test on your next driving test. Once you have your licence, it’s your responsibility to ensure that you can pass the 20-metre driving eye test at all times. It’s not just being a bit short sighted that can be a problem; field of vision, night vision, contrast sensitivity and other visual functions can all compromise safe driving. As a result, there are three main points at which your eyesight will be tested for driving: when you take your driving test, a police roadside eye test should you be stopped, and at your optician. After all, changes in vision can creep up gradually. Early signs are often experiencing eye strain and difficulty seeing at night or in changing light. Even if you don’t have concerns, it’s important to have regular optician checks to be a safe driver.