Driving Mastery

Turn Passion into Glory

1.7 - Vision

The most effective way to improve a driver’s performance is to look further down the road and expand one’s peripheral vision. A driver’s vision is dictated by how quickly information is processed in the brain. Drivers who hold their visual focus 20 feet off the hood of their car are constantly in a reaction state. When they are driving at 10 miles an hour, there is no issue because they have time to react to anything within this range of focus. However, keeping the same shallow focus while driving at 100 mph on a racetrack or even 65 mph on a freeway can have catastrophic consequences.

Driving coaches often say: “eyes down, anxiety up; eyes up, anxiety down”; and the corollary: “anxiety up, eyes down.” When our eyes are not looking far enough forward, the information is entering the brain faster than it can be processed and turned into appropriate action. When this happens, it feels as if things are happening faster than we can handle. This leads to constant corrections due to a rapidly changing feedback loop. It also forces drivers to slow down in order to respond to changing conditions and feel somewhat in control. When a driver is not looking far enough ahead, it becomes impossible to practice proper driving technique.

A driver who has their eyes up (looking further ahead) is able to visualize their ideal path and plan their actions in order to position their car on that ideal line. In this case, it can feel like things are happening slowly. Imagine you a driving directly down the road, looking at the tail of the car in front of you. The car suddenly swerves to avoid debris in the middle of the lane. You haven’t been looking ahead to see other cars swerving and you haven’t been watching your surroundings to know whether it is safe to move into the adjacent lane to pass. You must immediately decide what to do:

    A. Swerve into another lane and hope that nobody is there B. Slam on your brakes and risk a rear end collision C. Hit the debris and accept the consequences

At this point, there’s no time to check mirrors to see if it’s safe to switch lanes. At this point, C is the best option to avoid making a bad situation worse. However, if you had been keeping an eye on your surroundings and looking far enough ahead to see cars were slowing down and making evasive maneuvers, then you would have ample time to see there was an issue ahead and make the best decision for the circumstances. Similarly, if you have been checking your mirrors frequently, then you know your surroundings and you’ll know whether it’s safe to execute option A or B.

The same could be said for getting stuck behind a bus at a bus stop. Looking ahead would identify the bus and the potential for it stopping. An aware driver would move into the adjacent lane well ahead of the bus stopping, with ample time to plan the appropriate place to merge without cutting off another driver.

Visual focus is mostly subconscious and depends on our activities. Visual focus doesn’t extend beyond one’s hands when reading a book. When babies learn to walk, their visual focus is only a step or two ahead of where they’re standing. The next time you go for a jog, a hike or a bike ride, take note of where your visual focus is. You may be surprised at how shallow your focus is most of the time. When we get behind the wheel, we unconsciously apply the same shallow focus. It takes practice to train oneself to look further down the road. The challenge is keeping one’s focus as far forward as possible while also watching out for potential dangers in our immediate vicinity.

The best way to train the eyes is to keep your visual focus on the path that the car is traveling and to move your mental focus around your field of view. For example, on a straight highway, we keep our eyes looking 5 to 10 car lengths ahead; even more if comfortable. If this means looking through the windows of other cars, so be it. Begin by identifying other cars around without looking directly at them. Observe their color and shape and even the model of car if possible. Next, move your focus around the periphery of the road: vegetation, road signs, buildings, pedestrians. Finally, move your focus out to the extremities of your field of view. How far can you stretch your peripheral vision?

This technique of holding a fixed visual focus and scanning your peripheral vision is the first technique that we integrate into our daily practice. You can practice this anywhere, anytime: in your car, walking down the street, at home or at work, etc. You can even practice it right now:

  1. 1. Chose an object to place your visual focus on; something that doesn’t require you to turn your head or strain your eyes. This book for example. Keep your eyes fixed on this one object.
  2. 2. Identify objects around that area of focus without moving your eyes away from the chosen object.
  3. 3. Try to identify surrounding objects without looking directly at them. At the very least, identify their size and color.
  4. 4. Expand your area of mental focus further and further from your chosen object while keeping your eyes fixed on the chosen object.
  5. 5. Notice whether there are particular things that draw your attention: moving objects, bright colors, larger objects, etc.
  6. 6. Observe whether you are able to move your focus around while still processing information from the point of visual focus. Are you able to read these words and understand them while also noticing the things around you?

Once you are comfortable doing this in a fixed position, you can try it while driving. It will take some mental focus to practice so it’s best to stick with roads where the conditions don’t change very often: a freeway for example. Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to focus on a fixed object when traveling in a vehicle. Therefore, your visual focus should remain a fixed distance ahead. It is possible to use a vehicle as a reference since you can maintain the following distance or even to affix your eyes on a vehicle that is a few cars ahead. However, we do not want to get in the habit of fixating on a car ahead as this can cause issues in emergency situations. If your eyes are fixed on the back of a car, then you will naturally follow that car in an evasive maneuver and there’s no guarantee that the driver of the other car has made the best choice in avoiding an accident. More often than not, drivers who fixate on the car in front tend to rear-end the car in front in an emergency situation.

When driving in rural neighborhoods, this technique is particularly useful for identifying potential hazards. Too often our eyes get fixated on something and that thing will draw all of our focus at the exclusion of other potential hazards and escape routes. It is far better to keep our eyes on our desired path and scan our periphery for references and potential hazards. We can shift our mental focus in an instant, while moving the eyes takes time, however brief it may be. On the road and particularly on the track, fractions of a second are the realm we are working in to achieve optimal results.

It is also important to remember that a driver’s inputs are primarily driven by their eyes. In other words, the hands follow the eyes. Nobody has much difficulty staying in their lane while looking forward on a freeway. However, if you see a vehicle drifting side-to-side in their lane, it’s a safe bet that person is distracted by something in their vehicle. This phenomenon also holds true when there is debris in the road. If your eyes are focused on the debris, then it’s nearly certain that you are going to hit the debris. On the other hand, if you notice the debris and look for a safe way around it, then it’s likely that you will avoid the debris; given ample time to respond.