There’s a weird thing about driving: most of the time things happen fast, but sometimes they don’t happen fast enough. I’m not talking about slow-moving traffic (although it definitely applies). I’m talking about stopping in time to avoid a hazard.
There are a whole host of things we tell ourselves about driving that aren’t necessarily true, and the time it’ll take us to react to a hazard is definitely one of them. When we’re driving, we like to think that the moment we spot danger, we will hit the brake and safely navigate around it. But the reality is that in high-pressure moments, all kinds of things are happening that slow us down; psychological and mechanical.
The first, the psychological bit, is about the time it takes us to process information and make a decision. This isn’t always as smooth as we’d like it to be. Our brains are doing all kinds of calculations once a hazard has been spotted, from what the hazard is, to how hazardous it is, to how we should respond. Compared to the sort of calculations you sort out on paper, these thoughts and decisions take place quickly, but they are by no means immediate, and when you’re behind the wheel of a car, every second counts. This is a great example of that weird thing I mentioned earlier on, that when you’re driving, things happen fast and slow at the same time. Your brain is working quickly, but not always quickly enough.
Once you’ve made a decision about how to respond – hit the brakes, swerve, switch lanes – your course of action is implemented quickly. But that’s when the other thing that slows us down becomes relevant – braking distance.
Braking distance is the amount of time that it takes your vehicle to come to a complete stop, and how long that it depends on a whole host of things. Bigger vehicles often take longer to come to a complete stop because of the weight of the vehicle. (Incidentally, one of the best pieces of driving advice I can give you is to never cut off a truck driver – it can take them the length of TWO football fields to come to a complete stop, which means being in front of them when they’re trying to slow down suddenly is not an enviable place to be). The condition of your tires can have a big impact, too, as does the speed at which you’re traveling. The faster your vehicle is moving, the longer it will take it to stop. And then there are things that impact braking distance that you have no control over, like the condition of the road or the weather outside.
Again, time plays weird games when we’re driving. From the time you hit the brakes to the time that your vehicle comes to a complete stop may only be a matter of 6 or 7 seconds, which sounds like nothing, but 6 or 7 seconds can feel like eternity when every millisecond brings you closer into contact with the hazard you’re trying desperately to avoid hitting. In fact, right now, count out 7 seconds (I was taught to count out seconds by like 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi etc.). Now picture that there is a stopped car 100 meters in front of you; 7 seconds suddenly seems like moving through molasses.
This isn’t to scare you – although it can be scary – but to reiterate just how important it is that we don’t take for granted the fact that we are moving many miles an hour in vehicles that have constraints we don’t have (and some that we do, if you think of psychological stopping distance and braking distance as two sides of a coin).
The happy reality is that there are concrete things that you can do to put yourself in the best possible position to respond to a hazard. Once we’re aware that it takes us critical time to stop in the face of danger, we can buffer that time by changing our behavior. One of the very best things that you can do is to drive at a reasonable speed. If you are speeding, that additional speed will come back to bite you once you need to make a sudden stop. The other thing that can make a big difference? Increase your following distance (and maintain at least 3 seconds between you and the vehicle in front of you). While things can suddenly appear on the road, most of the time the hazard that you need to avoid up ahead is another vehicle that has come to a sudden stop themselves or is behaving dangerously. Increasing your following distance is just a way of giving yourself extra space so that you have the room (and time) to comfortable take all the seconds you need to stop.
Finally, a driver that is aware of their surroundings is one that is more prepared to face hazards on the road. The seconds that are lost when you aren’t paying attention to the road and miss critical details are, as seen above, absolutely critical. So slow down, give yourself some space, and keep your eyes peeled.