What makes a good driver?

Posted on February 29th, 2012 by James Luckhurst

What makes a good driver?I have recently returned from Kuwait, where I was involved in presenting a workshop for some employees of a large oil company based there. One of the topics that came up was ‘What makes a good driver?’ We were lucky to have, as part of the team, Professor Steve Stradling, who made an excellent job of outlining what he believed to be the necessary skills and outlook required.

Of course, it’s hard to come to a definitive explanation of just what ‘good’ drivers are, and what they do. To many, Formula 1 heroes are
the gold standard where driving is concerned. But to others, they have certain advantages not enjoyed by the rest of us. For a start, all their race driving is one on one-way streets. Next, they are surrounded by the most amazing technology that can help them survive even severe impacts. There are no pedestrians to worry about on the roads they use, and – to cap it all – there are helpful people ready to brandish flags every few hundred metres, just in case there’s trouble ahead.

As for the rest of us, well – we have to deal with a lot more in the way of hazards, distractions and dangers. Driving is difficult, because so much is involved. We’re navigating, choosing and maintaining a correct position on the road, obeying rules, signs and signals, using in-car equipment, keeping an appropriate speed, trying to maintain our own wellbeing and ensuring we don’t compromise safety through fatigue, impairment or distraction.

Not easy, really. But, according to Steve Stradling, a good driver will shine through all these tasks to be good at two things. First, observation – the science of knowing what’s going on around us at all times. Second, anticipation – the art of predicting what might happen next, so that nothing need come as a surprise.

Another pair of factors to consider are task demand and driver capability. The difficulties of the driving task are increased by poor weather, poor visibility, heavy traffic, awkward junctions and demanding passengers. Unfamiliar vehicles and inappropriate speeds also make the driving task harder. Driver capability is influenced by age and experience, and can be adversely affected by fatigue, impairment, distraction, stress and anger.

As long as driver capability exceeds task demand, then you’re in control of the driving task. The larger the gap between the two, the bigger your safety margin. However, if task demand exceeds capability, then you’ve lost your safety margin and you’re at high risk of an incident.

One clear output from the Kuwait workshop was that our perceptions of capability often exceed reality, while our perception of task demand fall short of reality. Many of us think we’re a lot better than we really are. We may be ‘closer to the edge’ on more occasions than we realise, and when we do realise we’re at risk, we tend to be very poor at learning from the experience.

Therefore, next time, we’ll take a look at some self-analysis techniques that could prove effective in building up that safety margin. Because, on today’s roads, working to own as big a margin as possible between driver capability and task demand must surely be the sign of a good driver.