Most motorists think they steer with the wheel and brake with the pedal. They’d be surprised to learn they actually do both with their eyes.
Yes, we brake and steer a vehicle with our eyes — our muscles, hands, feet, wheel and pedals merely complete the process.
This concept is critical to understanding and avoiding crashes and close calls. Our eyes examine and report on the constantly-changing traffic scenario. They are sending a constant stream of information to the brain — colours, movements and objects.
The brain interprets the signals and in an incredibly complex computation, decide which if any of this information is worthy of consideration and perhaps even action.
For example, you are driving down the street in your local community, your eyes take in all that signage — ads on busses, bus stops, vehicles, billboards, lamp posts and store windows; there are traffic signs indicating directions, speed limits, places to see intersections and lanes.
There are also people, lots of people — on the sidewalk, approaching intersections, waiting for a light or clear crossing. There are vehicles everywhere — in front, alongside, behind, turning off the road and onto the road, some have signals and most don’t. You get the idea — lots of information to be processed.
Now the brain decides what to weed out from all that information — taken in continually. It reports that a child approaching the street on the run, the left turn signal of the vehicle to your right and the changing traffic light are worthy of consideration.
We won’t get into the process of how it decides what is important and what isn’t — chalk that up to memory — training and/or experience.
Once the brain decides there is something that requires you to react it sends a message in the form of an electric signal to the appropriate muscles and nerves at your arms, legs hands and feet.
These in turn do their thing and only now does the vehicle get instructions to slow, stop, turn — whatever.
If, for example, the eyes identify that child running toward the road is chasing a ball and that the vehicle to your right is about to turn in front of you. It decides to apply the brake and prepare to turn depending on what the other two objects of concern do.
In the meantime, in the few milliseconds before the next action is required, it tells you to check the mirrors and traffic around you for emerging concerns.
Now the ball goes into the road followed immediately by the child, the car to your right swerves to avoid — right into your path as well. Now the message to the right leg and foot is urgent — hit the brakes — hard. At the same time your eyes check the space to your left looking for a possible escape route. All of this in portions of a second.
The point to be made, actually two points — is that it takes time for your eyes to identify situations and your brain to process information before you can physically do anything.
An average alert 25- to 50-year-old will take approximately one half second to identify, process and act. At 110 km/h we travel approximately 30 metres, or 10 cars lengths each and every second.
At that speed we cover 15 metres or five car lengths between the time we see something and take action — 15 metres before we turn the wheel or touch the brakes. Only then, depending on vehicle, tire, road, weather and traffic conditions do we slow, stop or turn.
The second point is that if you are alert and looking well ahead, you will have the time necessary to complete the required sighting, processing and actions.
Think of the last time you had a close call or even an incident. In the privacy of your own thoughts, carefully analyze the situation: Were you distracted or looking elsewhere? How much time did you have to react?
Your eyes are the key to safe driving — give them an opportunity to do so.