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  • Writer's pictureEllis Wood ADI

Good observation at junctions

I recently read a very interesting article from a fighter pilot about 'saccades' which is the way your brain processes images from eye movements to avoid 'blurring' here is the conclusion and advice for drivers.

Always slow down as you approach a roundabout or junction, even if only by 20 mph or so, and even if the road seems empty. Changing your speed will immediately generate relative movement against a vehicle that was otherwise on a collision course - not only are you then more likely to see it, but you are no longer on a collision course!

Never just glance right and left - this leaves it entirely to chance whether you see an approaching vehicle or not - and if you glance quickly, the odds decrease markedly. Always look right and left methodically, deliberately focusing on at least 3 different spots along the road to the right and 3 to the left - search close, middle-distance and far. With practice, this can still be accomplished quickly, and each pause is only for a fraction of a second, but this means that you are now overriding the natural limitations of the eye and brain. Fighter pilots call this a ‘lookout scan’ and it is vital to their survival.

Always look right and left at least twice. Not only does this immediately double your chance of seeing a vehicle, but if you repeat the same scan as you did the first time (which, when it becomes a well-practiced habit, you almost certainly will) then an approaching vehicle will have moved to a different part of the windscreen by the time you look the second time and is less likely to be masked by a saccade. Just note that this will not work if you charge into a junction at a constant speed because any vehicle on a collision course will stay in the same position in the windscreen - if you miss it the first time, you will probably miss it the second time too! 

Make a point of looking next to the windscreen pillars. Better still, lean forward slightly as you look right and left so that you are looking around the door pillars. Be aware that the pillar nearest to you blocks more of your vision. Fighter pilots say ‘Move your head - or you’re dead’.

Clear your flight path! When you change lanes, especially into a slower lane, you should, of course, check your mirrors, and will have undoubtedly been watching the road ahead of you, naturally. Your last check must be to look directly at the spot into which you are going to manoeuvre, otherwise you could easily have missed a slower motorbike or cyclist in that lane, one that was only in your peripheral vision as you looked ahead, and over which you ‘jumped’ as you looked over your shoulder or checked your wing mirror.

Drive with your lights on. Aviation research shows that contrast is the single most important factor in determining the likelihood of acquiring an object visually - this is why military aircraft camouflage is designed to tone down their contrast. On the ground, dark coloured vehicles or clothing will result in reduced contrast against most usual backgrounds, and this is why high-visibility clothing (for pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists) and/or bright lights are so important, in the daytime as well as at night.

While it is generally understood that a low sun can make it difficult to see, it is probably not generally understood why: driving into sun reduces contrast, especially when vehicles and pedestrians fall into the shadow of larger, up-sun objects. You must beware that even large vehicles, and especially motorbikes, cyclists and pedestrians, can become completely impossible to see under these circumstances, and you must moderate your driving accordingly. 

This is why fighter pilots attack from out of the sun! 

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