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Chapter 7 - Perceptual Skills Needed for Driving

Various factors affect driver performance, and you must constantly use your perceptual skills for safe driving. For example, you need to be able to receive and interpret messages by sight, sound, touch and smell to determine a correct tactic.

Visual Interpretations

Photograph of a busy street

About 90% of what a driver identifies in a driving environment is through his or her sense of vision.

If standing still and looking straight ahead, you would be able to see directly in front of you and at an angle to your left and to your right. As speeds increase while driving, our visual field decreases. It is necessary to move your eyes from side to side to detect possible dangers while driving. When you misinterpret visual clues, you will increase your perception time and reduce the amount of time you have to react to a situation. When you have less time to properly react to a situation, your chance of serious injury or death in a traffic crash increases.

Your perception time is the time it takes for you to see and recognize a hazard. Lack of attention, or failure to perceive a hazard in time, is a major cause of traffic crashes. Your vision is your most important tool for driving. About 90% of what a driver identifies in a driving environment is through his or her sense of vision.

Question: How does hearing, touch or smell affect your ability to be a safe driver?

Answer: They are perceptions that signal to drivers what is happening around them. For example, hearing -- you can hear a horn honk; touch -- a vibration may alert you to a flat tire; smell -- a burning smell may alert you to engine problems or fire.


A good sense of hearing is very helpful while driving. Hearing the sound of an emergency vehicle siren, car horns or trains alerts you of a possible dangerous situation around you. Even if you do not see a car coming towards you or an ambulance coming from behind, your hearing may alert you to their presence before a problem occurs. Your hearing may also alert you of a problem with your car if it makes any strange noises.


While you are driving, your sense of touch allows you to feel the conditions of the road while you hold the steering wheel. For example, it can alert you when you are driving on rough pavement. Feeling a vibration in the steering wheel or seat belts tells you of possible mechanical problems such as steering that is out of alignment or a flat tire.


The sense of smell is vital in recognizing certain dangerous situations in the driving environment such as burning gas, burning rubber, steam or antifreeze leaking. It can even help you know when it is raining.

Reaction Abilities

Photograph of a hand on a steering wheel

Your sense of touch allows you to feel the conditions of the road through the steering wheel.

It is important to react quickly when behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Even a split second can mean the difference between a near miss and a collision. You must be able to quickly respond to unforeseen road hazards, other drivers, and emergencies on the road. "Reaction" in this content means:

  • Seeing the danger.
  • Making a decision on the action to take to avoid the hazard.
  • Acting on that decision.

Your reaction time is the time it takes you to act after you identify a hazard. Under ideal conditions (i.e. daytime, dry roads and absence of distractions, measured in a laboratory setting where conditions are controlled), it will take the average driver about three-fourths of a second to perceive the danger. Your reaction distance is the distance you travel when you perceive and then react to a hazard.

Your reaction abilities may be simple (responding to one situation at a time) or complex (responding to multiple situations at a time). Your driving performance will be affected if you must take longer to perceive a hazard as it will allow little time to respond to a dangerous situation.

Judging Speed and Distance

Depth perception helps us to judge the relative distance between two objects. This is important for you as a driver because both depth perception and distance judgment help to control your following distance and adjust your position in traffic.

Three-Second Rule

The recommended following distance for safe driving is three seconds. Following the three-second rule allows for a three-second gap between vehicles. This allows you to see clear of the vehicle ahead and to keep a safe distance in case of an emergency or unexpected traffic situation. To establish the three-second gap:

  1. Locate a fixed point on the side of the roadway. For example, a sign, fence, corner or tree can serve as your marker.
  2. Start counting when the vehicle ahead passes the fixed point at least three seconds ahead of you. This is achieved by counting "one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three" and then assessing the following distance.
  3. If you finish your count before you reach the same point, you are following too closely.
Photograph of cars driving on a highway

As speeds increase, the distance between cars must also increase.

Although the three-second rule normally gives you a safe following distance, some road variables often require you to increase your following distance to four seconds or more. Some of these include:

  • When being tailgated.
  • When your vision of the road is blocked.
  • When vision is impaired behind a large van or truck.
  • When following a motorcycle.
  • When driving at high speeds.
  • If generally poor road conditions exist.
  • If bad weather dictates.

Remember, in all these situations, it is a good idea to leave more of a space cushion between all vehicles. The easiest way to stop your vehicle in a safe manner, no matter the situation, is to give yourself adequate room to stop. Extreme situations will require you to use extra caution and to have heightened awareness on the road. Increasing the following distance to four seconds or more will allow you more room to cope with any factors adversely affecting the driving task. Generally, you should:

  • Add at least two seconds:
    • When the roads are wet.
    • When carrying a heavier than normal load.
    • At night.
  • Add at least three seconds when the roads are covered with snow and slush.
  • Add at least six seconds when ice covers the road.

Judging Speed

To properly judge a vehicle's speed, you must have a point of reference as comparison. It depends on your perception of moving objects around you, fixed objects near the roadway that you use to establish a following distance, and your speedometer. If you misinterpret any of these results, you also misjudge your safe driving space. The result can be an increased chance of a collision.

Video: "Using Your Eyes Effectively"

Safe drivers know how to use their eyes while driving. They rely not just on their central vision when scanning the environment; they use their peripheral (side) vision as well. The following video demonstrates some good techniques for using your vision and where you should concentrate your attention.

Video: "Using Your Eyes Effectively"
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Your vision is one of your most important tools for driving. Your safety may well depend on it! Chapter 11 will look at how alcohol affects your body and why that will compromise your safety.

Journal Question

Your vision is certainly your most important tool for driving. Of your remaining senses, which one do you consider vital to driving? What makes it more valuable than the other senses?

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