Driving in the Real World: Positioning: Wherever You Are, There You Were
One aspect of UK driver training that usually isn’t adequately covered in the US is positioning, meaning how, where, and why you’re positioned in the roadway. In the UK, street drivers are taught the basics of IPSGA, which links Information, Position, Speed, Gear, and Acceleration into what should be a seamless whole. It’s logical to understand and devilishly hard to master, but oh-so-satisfying once you get the hang of it.
Here in the US, road positioning is often a response to a momentary hazard—a little burst of quick reaction to a bicyclist riding on the shoulder, a parked car the door of which suddenly swings open, or emergency vehicles stopped on the side of the road. Much less common is positioning as something to be constantly integrated into our driving process, its role as every bit as important as its tandem partners—mirror checks, vision, and hazard perception.
How does it work? The premise is quite simple: Position yourself on the road to optimize your vision and to pass hazards safely and without drama. But what exactly does that mean? And how do you apply it to different situations?
Many of you reading this article are track rats or at least have more than a passing familiarity with High Performance Driving. Track driving is a controlled environment, unlike public streets. We’ve been trained to position ourselves for the fastest line through a curve or apex, and that’s completely appropriate for the track. But, in the real world, it’s often not the safest line.
It might help to familiarize yourself with a mantra of the UK system of car control: “Never go so fast that you can’t stop safely on your own side of the road in the distance you can see to be clear.” Inherent in this statement is that you should never drive beyond the limit point of what you can see.
What’s a limit point, you ask? It’s basically the farthest point you can see the road ahead. It’s limited by the road’s curvature, vehicles in front of you, landforms (like hills and cliffs), vegetation (hedges, bushes, and trees), buildings, and crests and dips, to name a few. As you travel through a curve, the limit point continuously unfurls in front of you as you “chase” it. Once the road straightens out, your limit point quickly opens up and you can see much farther down the road.
Where does positioning fit in? Imagine that you’re driving a squiggly road that curves sharply to the left. You’d position yourself as far as safely possible to the outer right edge to maximize your view around the bend. In this case, driving closer to the center line reduces the distance you can see around that curvature ever so subtly, and it makes a big difference, not just for your visibility. It is just as critical to properly “present” ourselves to others coming from the other direction so they can see you as soon as possible.
In fact, when a center line is not clearly delineated on a roadway that is too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other at the same time at speed (like in a tight parking garage), it can be best to turn on our headlights, proceed with caution, and position ourselves somewhat in the center of the road—even if it means being partially in the path of an oncoming vehicle.
This will be thoroughly unnerving at first—you’re thinking, what if a blockhead comes around the corner too fast and rams straight into me? But the benefits are undeniable—the extra visibility gained in both directions by your positioning and having your headlights on will afford both of you just that much more time to respond (and I guarantee you will be paying very close attention at this point, so that won’t be a problem).
That’s just one example of optimal positioning. Regardless of how quiet a road appears, we should always be looking for hazards, or risk that can turn into hazards, and position ourselves away from those hazards. That means taking into account the 3 Cs (as coined by driving instructor Christopher Johnson of WMST of Everett)—what you can see, what you can’t see, and what could happen.
Think of these possibilities: Parked vehicles with doors that suddenly open or hide people amongst them; partially obscured or blind driveways out of which vehicles, children, and objects can quickly emerge; intersections and side streets with little or no advance visibility; a semi-truck close to the edge of its lane; swerving or weaving vehicles whose drivers may be drowsy, distracted, or impaired; the aforementioned bicyclists; pedestrians about to step into the roadway; the crest of a hill where you have no idea what’s at the top; a dip that can hide an entire car; a backed-up lane of traffic that might spit out impatient drivers at any moment; parking lots with vehicles backing out too quickly or pedestrians not paying attention; and motorcyclists edging out on your back corners so that they can improve their own visibility.
Each scenario demands its own judgement in positioning; sometimes you want to be left, right, center, or somewhere in between. If a situation dishes up multiple dangers, quickly choose the least hazardous option. Good positioning, along with constant mirror checks and high vision, makes us proactive drivers rather than reactionary ones—something we could all benefit from, no matter where we’re at.