Reading While Driving?

Stevenson Rd overpass

This is not a back handed way of giving some credence to texting while driving. It’s not endorsing another means of zoning out while driving and living life in a place where you wish to be rather than where you are. Do you read other driver’s body language that puts you front and centre where you are living and being present? Has this type of literacy helped you?

My experience with reading another driver’s body language has probably saved me from one or more automobile collision. Was it body language or was there something else going on? At best I would say, my response wasn’t conscious. It was more a matter of some subtle signal that made me react. A cue that something was off.

I recall one occasion quite vividly. I was driving in the curb lane on a four lane city street. As I was slowly gaining on the car in the left lane I hesitated. There was something about the driver’s body language. My front bumper was merely inches from being in line with her rear bumper. (not to disparage female drivers) Something signaled to me to not overtake the car, not her right turn signal. Suddenly the car was in my lane a mere inches I front of me. The driver was a grey haired lady talking with a friend in the passenger seat. There was something in her posture, a momentary tenseness that she was ready to execute a maneuver.

I’m in the habit of continuously scanning, not just my side view and rear view mirrors but the side of the road and beyond. One passenger once commented that I don’t seem to miss anything, even what’s in the ditch. Isn’t that’s where moose hide before charging across the road? Never know what comes at you.

At age 16 my driving instructor told me to not look off to the side of the road because a car will go in the direction the driver is looking. Hold that thought and imagine how a car would swerve all over if a driver was checking their mirrors or talking to a back seat passenger.

I regularly recognize familiar faces of drivers and pedestrians when I’m on the road. I guess that’s part of scanning my surroundings. Gives me an edge when ribbing someone about their whereabouts at a later date. What’s more helpful is being able to read a driver’s or sometimes a pedestrian’s intentions. Fore warned is fore armed.

I remember coming down the main street in our town. As I approached one of the intersections I slowed sensing that the car was not going to stop for the stop sign. As I got closer I saw the driver breeze through the sign. I braked harder and came to a skidding stop just inches from the driver door. The driver apologized but I was not impressed and let him know.

Reading other drivers also helps with the flow of traffic. In our part of the country the latest rage in street design is installing traffic circles. The circles are showing up on quiet residential streets, main arteries in town and on provincial highways with speeds of 80 km/hr (50 mph). The rule when entering a traffic circle is to give the right of way to drivers that are already in the circle. The challenge is deciding whether to yield to a car in the circle or whether it will exit early. By glancing at a driver one can tell whether they are planning to exit the circle or continue to circle around further. That’s because most people look in the direction they are going. I say most, because the drivers that aren’t looking in the direction they plan to go are distracted drivers. The ‘distracted’ body language is an immediate caution signal.

There are many other body signals drivers subtly or not so subtly display. If the driver looks aggressive in their moves I’m more alert. If the vehicle meanders in their lane or wanders over the line, not exactly subtle but, give the driver extra distance.

Georgian Bay near Collingwood

One day I was heading down a four lane divided highway. The tractor trailer in the right lane had emergency flashers on but moving at the speed limit. I was traveling in the left lane and saw nothing ahead that would suggest an impending emergency. Something was off, so I held back. Moments later, as the truck started down the kilometer long incline one of the tires rolled into my lane and bounced past the truck. Then another tire rolled into my lane and rolled past the truck. Next a round metal object did the same thing. I started braking wondering what else would invade my lane – the whole truck maybe. We all came to a stop at the bottom of the hill without further incident. It would have been a different story if I had overtaken the truck.

Reading a driver’s body language is not always possible. There are times when I have been taken totally by surprise. I have been in at least half a dozen collisions with the other driver always at fault. Three times I’ve been hit from behind. Three times I’ve been T-boned. My 1966 Mustang was totaled in a police chase while it was legally parked. Each of these were preventable. The collisions happened because drivers weren’t attentive, turned across lanes of traffic without clear visibility, ran a stop sign, or drove too fast for road conditions.

Traffic collisions are the single greatest cause of death over any activity or disease. I have done all my driving in Canada and United States, with the exception of a year Europe. In Canada there were 1834 fatalities in 2014 (5.8 / 100,000). That is a 50% drop since 1994. In the United States there were 32,675 fatalities in 2014, almost double the rate of Canada. The fatality rate in the US has gone down 20% since 1994. The rate for serious injuries as a result of traffic collisions is about 5 times greater than the fatality rate.

No matter how you cut it, that is too many fatalities and and serious injuries most which could have been prevented. It makes one pause. My last accident ended my full time job and career, not to mention how it has changed my life and affected members of my immediate family and my participation in the community.

One can’t control the risks other drivers put people in. Reading body language is one defensive driving strategy that could make a difference.

I wonder who else reads body language while driving? Has it helped avoid a collision?


Author: Jasper Hoogendam

After 36 years as an educator my career ended due to a TBI. Renewable energy as part of 'walking lightly on this earth' has been and continues to be my interest since my teen years. Since early 2015 I have been learning to live with ABI (Acquire Brain Injury). I don't want to let my ABI limit the goals I set for myself. I'm living with a different brain, not a lesser brain. In sharing my day to day successes and struggles, I am better able to understand how my life had changed and begin to accept the change. In sharing my experiences I'm hearing from caregivers and fellow ABI's. I'm encouraged when my experiences are helping others understand some of the complexity of living with ABI.

3 thoughts on “Reading While Driving?”

    1. In my first 7 years of driving, I got in almost a dozen small “fender bender” collisons with other cars. I was rear-ended at least twice, backed into a parked car, turned too sharply in a parking garage and crumpled the front panel of my car. I was even backed into from a car in front of me as I waited my turn to exit a gas station. The only time I was at fault was when I drove through a red light while I was frantically finding my way out of an unfamiliar city, before the advent of GPS. Thankfully I never harmed anyone, especially knowing the dramatic harm that can result from a concussion.
      The reason I stopped getting into car collisions at age 24? I stopped driving with a cavalier attitude; I realized that I wasa poor driver and had to increase my concentration on the task at hand. Once I honestly took stock and accepted that I was no good at multitasking, I stopped getting into collisions. Perhaps my ability to read body language has been a factor.

      Liked by 1 person

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