Driving Hints and Tips

How to predict hidden hazards

As a new driver, you’ll discover that there is much to learn that only experience will teach you. With practice, you’ll create a list of ‘hazard indicators’ as you learn how to read the clues and predict what other drivers may do. You don’t need magical powers, you just need to tune into the information that’s available around you. Of course, not everything can be predicted, but there are common scenarios and likely outcomes on the road. Some of these include animals (such as cats, dogs and squirrels) running across the road only to change their minds and run straight back again. Other typical examples would be a traffic light that’s been green for a while and therefore likely to change soon. Knowing this can help you anticipate the light changing, by controlling your speed as you approach it. Again, if someone lets you out at a junction, there may be another vehicle approaching that the helpful driver letting you out has not seen. Someone closing the passenger door of a parked car often means the car will pull out immediately afterwards. Alternatively, if a pedestrian approaches a parked car in front of you they are likely to open the door, suddenly making the road narrower. This can create an additional hazard if there are oncoming vehicles. The driver of a car waiting in front of you at a roundabout is another indicator to watch as they may stall or change their mind about the direction to take, just as you look to the right intending to move off. This is a common cause of rear-end shunts. Again, a large vehicle in front signalling left may swing out to the right before turning left, and if a cyclist in front of you checks over their right shoulder, it usually means they’re about to turn right or move out to the right. In time, clues like these become easy to read.

How to drive an unfamiliar car

Driving a new car can seem daunting especially if you’ve become accustomed to your instructor’s car or a family vehicle as you’ll know where the controls are, how the steering feels and the brakes behave. However, driving in an unfamiliar car is a part of life and you should be ready and prepared. It could be that you’ve just passed your test and want to test drive a new car, drive a friend’s car or use a hire car. To be confident and ready for a new set of controls, a different size car or an older model, there are some straightforward steps to follow. Firstly, walk around the unfamiliar car to gauge its size compared to the ones you have driven. Next, get into the car and focus on the controls. Where are the hazard lights, windscreen wiper controls and the high beam light? You’ll need to know which side the petrol cap is on and how the petrol cover release works before you fill up. Then make sure to adjust all the mirrors while the car is safely parked and you are in your normal driving position. Once you feel confident in the layout, move forward slowly to get a feel for the clutch, acceleration and brakes and go through the gears gradually. Every car has slightly different braking response times so get used to the feel of the brakes before you head off. Be aware that the new car you are driving may have more or less horsepower than the one you’re used to and will react differently, so accelerate cautiously. Try out a few manoeuvres to get used to how much space the car needs. Importantly, if you need to drive a different car, don’t forget to check that you have insurance for driving other cars (DOC). There is much to be said for driving as many different cars as you can, and in this way, you’ll continue to develop your spatial awareness, and broaden your skills and confidence.

Just over the speed limit?

Although we all know speeding is illegal, it’s easy to break the limit unintentionally at some point, even if it’s only one mile per hour too quickly. But there’s no excuse, even if you drive one mph over the limit, you are still breaking the law. Speed limits are just that – a limit, not a recommended speed, and they are there for a good reason. In reality, if you do drive very slightly over the limit, the police may use their discretion, but don’t be lulled into thinking there is a ‘10% plus 2’ rule and your speeding is acceptable. In reality, there is a ‘10% recommendation’ and police officers are under no obligation to ignore your offence, even if it’s fractionally over the limit. One effective way to follow the limits and avoid fines and penalty points, is simply to imagine your driving instructor sitting next to you on every journey. You should be aware that once you’ve passed your test, you will be subject to the ‘new driver act’ whereby if you accumulate six points on your licence within the first two years of passing, you’ll automatically lose it. You will then be required to re-pass your theory and practical test and this will affect your insurance for the next five years. Why put yourself through this and compromise the safety of other road users when you can simply ease your foot off the pedal?

Who has the right of way?

Sharing the road is rather like sharing toys when you were little. It won’t always seem fair, but there are good reasons for dictating the way to behave. Nowhere is this more evident than at road intersections or junctions. Sometimes, you’ll need to wait for other vehicles to go first, and other times they will have to wait for you. This is not a random take-it-in-turns situation, as there are right of way rules you need to follow. ‘Give way’ means you must allow other vehicles to go past before you move on to a road, and ‘right of way’ means you have the legal right and priority to go first across a road before other road users. It’s essential to understand these principles for working out who has the right of way. Firstly, drivers on a main road have priority over those on a minor road, and vehicles travelling straight on or turning left also have priority. That means if you’re turning right, you’ll have to wait for a gap in the traffic before making your turn. At a T-junction, for example, where two roads meet, one road will always be dominant or more major than the other, and you’ll need to know if you’re on the major or minor road. If your road is the one that continues without interruption, with no road markings or signs breaking up your route, you’re on the main road. If your road comes to an end and you have to choose to turn left or right, with signs forcing you to stop or give way, then you’re on a minor road. The right of way principle is simple: if you’re on the main road, you have priority over traffic joining your road, unless you want to turn right, in which case you have to give way to oncoming traffic. However, there is one exception at ‘unmarked crossroads’ where nobody has priority. You should be able to navigate these safely by being aware that the first person to arrive at the junction usually has the right of way, and if you’re turning right, you should give way to other traffic. It’s important to stay alert here and ideally establish eye contact with the other drivers to double check their intentions.

Around your roundabout

The next time you look at a roundabout sign and wonder why the circle depicting the roundabout is not complete, there is a deliberate reason. The gap is there to help drivers, especially foreign visitors, to understand which way to drive around the roundabout. As the majority of countries drive on the right and we drive on the left in the UK, most overseas drivers are used to approaching a roundabout anti-clockwise, and not clockwise as we do in the UK. The gap in the symbol is to show that there is no road should you be tempted to approach in an anti-clockwise direction, and you must go clockwise right around the roundabout to reach your exit. Again, looking at a roundabout sign you may think it has many exits and some look like ‘stubs’ leading nowhere. They are in fact entrances not exits and usually appear on roundabouts that form a bridge over a dual-carriageway or motorway. This can cause confusion if you are trying to count your exit number on an unfamiliar roundabout. However, you will notice that the ‘stubs’ that are not exits are directly next to, and in line with, a true exit, and form a pair on the roundabout sign, so you simply count the pair as one exit not two, making it logical and easier for you to select yours.

Know your high-vis markings

While you will be aware that emergency vehicles in the UK use two main patterns to distinguish them from private and commercial vehicles, did you know that they are called Battenburg markings and Sillitoe tartan? Battenburg markings, named after the Battenberg cake but spelled differently, are large blocks of colour, one light, preferably day-glo or fluorescent and the other dark in two horizontal rows. The markings were developed in the 1990s by the former Police Scientific Development Branch, and first used on patrol cars which required high visibility in daylight, dusk and under headlights. The Battenburg pattern, often in yellow and blue, makes police vehicles recognisable from a minimum distance of 500 metres (about a third of a mile) and other emergency services have followed suit. The fire service uses alternating yellow and red blocks, while the ambulance service has adopted alternating yellow and green. Some police vehicles also use large blocks of the prescribed colours in single rows or half-Battenburg design.

The other widely recognisable motif is Sillitoe tartan. This is the nickname given to the distinctive black and white chequerboard pattern of small squares, correctly known as dicing, and now used in a combination of colours. It was introduced by Sir Percy Sillitoe, Chief Constable of Glasgow in 1932, in answer to criticism that it was difficult for the public to differentiate between the police and bus conductors and other uniformed officials. Initially three lines of chequered banding was worn around police officers’ hats and then applied to police vehicles and retro-reflective versions on uniforms. Sir Percy’s experiment was a global success as Sillitoe tartan is used by police forces around the world and adopted by the European Union as the universal symbol of the police.

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.’