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Brake before the bend
Country roads often have sharp bends with overgrown verges, bushes and trees which can block your view and obscure an oncoming hazard. In this situation, a good driver will ‘read’ the road ahead and anticipate hazards such as upcoming bends, blind summits and concealed entrances. To stay in control of your car, always give yourself time to react. You don’t know what’s around the corner so always brake before a bend, not on it. Drive at a speed which allows you to stop in the distance you can see to be clear and double this on a single-track country road.
The safety space in front of your car 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’re regularly getting a close-up view of large or slow vehicles, then you need to maintain a safer gap to give you more time to react or stop. Your forward safety gap must always be large enough to stop safely in half of the clear distance you can see ahead.
An easy way to maintain this gap on a dry road is to use the ‘two-second rule’. Applying this rule is easy. First, watch the car ahead of you pass a static marker point. A tree, a phone box, a lamp-post, or any fixed reference point. As the vehicle passes the fixed point, recite the following phrase at a normal speaking rate: ‘Only a fool breaks the two-second rule’. This should take approximately two seconds to say. You should have finished the phrase as, or before, you reach the fixed reference point. If you pass the point before you finish speaking, you are too close to the car in front; pull back and try again.
In poor weather your gap should be at least double. As the vehicle in front passes a fixed point, recite the following at a normal speaking rate: ‘Only a fool breaks the two-second rule – and more time in the wet’. This should take approximately four seconds to say. Again, you should have finished the phrase as, or before, you reach the fixed reference point. Initially the gap might seem very large – if this is the case, it’s indicative that up to now you’ve been driving too close and trusting to ‘good luck’ to keep you safe.
If you find yourself braking harshly, it’s probably due to lack of observation and planning. If your eyes aren’t constantly scanning, nor is your brain, so you’ll miss potential hazards. Not observing properly means you can’t plan what you’ll do if a potential hazard develops into a situation that will affect you – and if you can’t avoid a sudden hazard quickly and safely, you’re driving too fast.
The best advice: think about the 4 Ss. Anything that has the potential to make you Stop, Slow down, Swerve or Swear should be reacted to earlier to avoid harsh braking. When you can see this is going to happen, just take your foot off the gas pedal and put your foot over the brake pedal – by doing this early you’re stopping acceleration, so the power of the engine is naturally reduced and the force needed to then slow down or stop the car is far less. You’re also saving yourself some reaction time by already having your foot over the brake. You’ll then have more time to assess the risk and avoid braking harshly.
Reading the road ahead
A good, safe drive is about a mixture of techniques, and high on the list is using your car’s brakes in a smooth and progressive way. To do so you need to develop observation and anticipation, so that you begin your braking at an early stage and always leave a decent margin for braking more heavily if the need arises.
Many drivers tend to brake too late and too hard. Arguably less dangerous, but equally annoying, is the habit of ‘comfort braking’ – when a driver touches the brakes to feel better, even if they have no intention of slowing the car to any measurable degree. They do so in the belief that they are being careful drivers.
It is better by far to learn to read the road ahead. Not only do you get early warning of developing hazards, you can respond by adjusting your speed. Have you ever seen a cascade of brake lights ahead of you? A good driver will judge the speed and distances involved and, having left a decent gap, be able to follow in safety by letting the speed ‘fall away’ and avoid abrupt braking.
Avoid causing traffic jams
A motorway tailback, particularly one you can’t see an end to, is infuriating. And it’s even more annoying to discover there’s no apparent reason for it. That is of course not the case – there’s always a reason. And, believe it or not, you may have contributed to a tailback or two in the past.
Watch out for the ‘domino effect’ caused by brake tapping. This happens when drivers travel too close together or react before reading the road ahead. The result is that one person touches their brakes, then someone behind who may not be watching any further ahead than the bumper in front touches theirs. Every driver in the queue has to use their brakes a little more than the car in front, which in a long line of cars driving close together means that eventually a car will have to stop. This is a common phenomenon.
To most drivers the solution is obvious: back away from the car in front. Sometimes it’s not that simple. The most important thing is to keep paying attention. People often find themselves driving in the wrong lane or drifting down to 50-60mph because their mind isn’t on the job. Always signal what you’re doing, and anticipate ahead of yourself. If you see that ‘oh no, there’s going to be a snarl up’ further up the road, you’ve got more time to deal with it if you’re looking well ahead.
Brake lights in a queue
The Highway Code is clear, you must not use any lights in a way which would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users. Yet, a recent AA survey found that more than a quarter of drivers admit to keeping their foot on the brake when stationary in a queue of traffic – 17 per cent put the transmission in neutral but keep their foot on the brake, and 15 per cent keep the car in gear and their foot on the brake.
Modern brake lights, particularly high-mounted central brake lights can be dazzling for the driver behind in a queue. The Highway Code addresses this issue and says in stationary queues of traffic, you should apply the parking brake and, once the following traffic has stopped, take your foot off the footbrake to deactivate the brake lights and minimise glare to road users behind until the traffic moves again.
A turn for the worse
Have you found yourself braking in a bend because it was sharper than you thought? If you have then think about how you assess the severity of bends, especially on country roads. Apart from road signs, markings and skid marks, there are a number of clues you can take from the environment such as the line of trees, hedges, buildings and street lights.
Another useful way of assessing a bend is to use the ‘limit point analysis’. The limit point is the furthest point which you can see, ie, where the left and right hand sides of the road meet. To use this technique make sure that you can stop before you get to it, then ask yourself: is it getting further away? If it is and you can see further ahead then your speed should be fine. Alternatively, if it is getting closer then you should continue to reduce your speed until the limit point begins to move with you and your view opens up again. This technique takes a bit of practice but it will help you to link your speed with your range of vision – and on roads where you can’t see through the bends it gives you a reliable and practical solution to a difficult judgement problem.
Green way to brake
Try to brake as little as possible – slow down and take your foot off the accelerator earlier when approaching a bend, queue, junction, roundabout or red traffic lights. By looking further ahead and starting to do things earlier you’ll avoid excessive braking. We’ve all got better things to spend our money on than petrol – and green driving can save 15 per cent on your bills.