Reading the Road Like a Book
Any of you who know me and my traffic safety advocacy work know that I have a very long wish list for improving American driver education in particular and driver behavior in general. But regardless if you’re a novice or an experienced driver, something that we all could have used more when we did our driver training is what I call road literacy.
What is road literacy? Simply put, it is the ability to read what is happening on the road like an open book. It means having “street smarts” (quite literally) in that you understand what is taking place in your environment in the present moment, that you can imagine what could happen in the next, and realizing what your role is in affecting the next future moments for yourself and everyone else in that space.
Road literacy is not the sole domain of drivers of vehicles, either. It is just as relevant and perhaps even more crucial for bicyclists, pedestrians, motorcyclists, skateboarders, etc.—in short, anyone who is traveling with and interacting with others in the same road space.
A good example of how to practice road literacy is when we’re walking back to our car in a parking lot. It’s a seemingly simple act, but you must watch for vehicles with their backup lights on, their drivers potentially about to reverse into your path before fully checking to see that you are present. You must be listening for all vehicles with their motors running and detect where they are, because they might start moving either forward or backward toward you at any moment.
You must be aware of other vehicles coming up behind you or about to turn toward you. Just as important, you must keep in mind—or even assume—that their drivers may not have seen you for any number of reasons. This means you must be very careful about where you’re walking. Are you in a designated pedestrian walkway or in the roadway that you’re sharing with active traffic? Are you ready to adjust your path at a moment’s notice to either make yourself more visible to the approaching driver? Or step out of the way so that you don’t add to the developing problem?
Of course, you must not be so distracted that you fail to watch for others who themselves may also be distracted. And only by staying very situationally aware yourself will you protect yourself and everyone else around you.
Don’t forget that you’re probably not the only pedestrian in the parking lot. Can you watch those other pedestrians and their trajectory in such a way that you can predict what their actions might be and how that will affect a vehicle’s path toward you and them?
Ah, so much to watch for. Does this sound overly complicated? It takes practice and diligence to be thinking this way consistently, but over time you can easily make this a habit. Indeed, keenly observing changing spatial configurations can be one of life’s secret little satisfactions. It’s one that might even save your life someday.
Here is another example of practicing road literacy. Let’s say that you’re on a highway with three lanes. You’re in the far-right lane. You see that there is an off-ramp, which means that there is a good chance that an onramp is not too far away as well. Can you guess what might happen?
As you pass the off-ramp, start looking for that onramp and what’s happening on it. How soon can you spot a vehicle on it? How fast or slow is it going? Will you need to move over one lane to the left to avoid causing conflict? For most drivers, that’s an easy call if the space is available.
But here is a twist: Let’s assume that you’re in the middle lane, with a semi-trailer truck on your right. You see that both of you are approaching another onramp with traffic coming up on it. What can you do to help the semi, which will have to deal with the merging traffic on the right? Obviously, it’s in everyone’s best interest for you to scoot over one lane to your left to open up space for the semi to move into so that he can avoid a potential conflict situation on his right. It’s not a mandatory action, but it sure helps everyone out in the end by freeing up space at a critical moment and helping everyone maintain a protective cushion around them. But how many of us think that far ahead for two layers of traffic, as it were?
Here is a final scenario. Let’s say that you’re going down a two-lane rural road. A car is approaching in the other direction, and you can see it from some distance. Meanwhile, you spot a bicyclist up ahead on the right shoulder. Reading the road with proper planning and anticipation means that you will time your arrival so that none of you are positioned “three abreast” at any moment—in other words, that you will decelerate just enough so that your paths are staggered in case something weird happens and an escape route is needed by anyone.
The road is a marvelously open book. Learn to read its constantly evolving, shifting pages, and you’ll never look at it the same way again. You might even have fun doing it.