The Driving Test as a Dynamic Risk Assessment

This is another way to look at the driving test. In order to assess a risk you must first be aware of it. This is the awareness element of driving. This will involve not just looking but also the other senses as appropriate. You might hear something like a shout or a siren. Possibly you could feel something. The steering could become very light. Or you can  feel the car slipping. 

With risk we must then mitigate it. We can do this by use of the system MSPSL LADA. Note that this system means you have already identified the risk. It then asks you to check behind and inform other road users of what you intend to do. This is the taking and giving of information which becomes information overlap in Roadcraft.

The next phase is to be in the correct position and speed in order to look, assess, decide and act. All very important to minimise the risk.

What about the dynamic bit. The risk is not the same all the time so how can we deal with this. A quiet side road on a Sunday presents a very different risk to a busy high street when school is turning out. Also as you move along the risks vary and become dynamic.

The problem new drivers have is recognising and prioritising what to deal with and how. This is the confidence which the DVSA say is made up of skill, judgement and experience, that we hope to pass on to our pupils. 

For those of us who instruct in inner city areas, the world of combat pistol shooting has come to the rescue. During the Korean War an American called Jeff Cooper made the observation that it was not necessarily the skill of a soldier that helped him survive lethal encounters but his mindset.

The relevance of this to driving is that it is not the capability of your car or your prowess as a driver. But your mental attitude that you take to your driving that will keep you accident free. Most of those young boy racers have cars which will outperform my driving school car. They have better eyesight and quicker reflexes. So with all these advantages why am I safer on the road than they are. How can we make them safer before they hit the road.

What Cooper did was come up with a colour code which referred to your state of mind. Using colour codes was nothing new but applying it to your state of mind was. Its purpose was to enable you to think in a fight. What he wanted to achieve was a person who had already decided what needed to be done in certain situations. 

Please do not think I am advocating that all driving instructors should be armed with pistols. But I am suggesting that the technique of colour coding could be very useful to think through driving situations. So, what is it?

White: You are unprepared and unready. In driving terms you should not be driving. Or if you are, you are driving without any awareness and probably do not know how you got where you were going and have no memory of the drive. This has a great possibility of going straight to black.

Yellow: You are prepared, relaxed and alert. You are ready for the possibilities of hazards. What you need to be doing here is scanning the road. This is the looking or observation part of your risk loop. While look is a fine word it suggests a fixed point. You need to be scanning with all that scanning implies. 

You do not see things until you know what you are looking for. As driver trainers we see this all the time with our pupils. The more they concentrate on controlling the car, the less they  can see outside the car. The Hazard Perception Test is designed to increase a pupils awareness of what is going on around them. It is the start of training people to see what is happening around them

Orange: Alert to possible danger. Hazards are now present and you are in the orientation or assessment phase of your risk loop. You are working out what is happening around you. Your knowledge and skills are telling you what might happen. This is a very dynamic phase of the loop and where experience comes in. They say you can not teach experience but you can certainly coach them what to look for and why. If you have been looking or scanning nice and early your chances are greatly improved.

Red: You are in action mode. It is time to act. Braking, steering  whatever it takes to be safe. For red to be effective you need the time to look early. 

Black: Panic which is breakdown of physical and mental performance. This is your favourite pupil who drives brilliantly with you but is now on test.

Driving in condition white can very quickly become condition black and a very possible accident. We have all seen our pupils become more and more able, till they relax into condition white when driving. 

What this colour code gives you is a way of getting your pupils to a certain position of readiness. As soon as they are in the car they should be in condition yellow. As they move off and start observing what is happening around them. They will move from yellow to orange as hazards are identified. Depending on the situation they will be going either back to yellow or up to red. 

The point of all this is to perform in such a way as to preserve your own safety. It came out of combat in Korea where it was literally life or death. Thankfully being on the road is not, but it could be if done badly. But just as weapons can be handled safely until you forget that they are dangerous. Driving is also safe until you forget it’s dangerous.  The lessons from Korea are very applicable to driving.

Now we get to the bit about identifying the risk. We will start with John Boyd who was a fighter pilot who saw aerial combat in Korea. Prior to Boyd’s theorising, aerial dog fights were something that you did and you were either good at it or dead. What he observed was that the one who could make correct decisions more quickly than his opponent was the one who survived.

Boyd stated that if you knew the speed and position of the other combatant along with what they were capable of you should be able to beat them in combat. The key to this is timing and having a system to do it.

What he came out with was:

  • Observation: looking and seeing what happening around you
  • Orientation: assessing how this might affect you
  • Decision: deciding what to do based on what you have seen
  • Act: acting on your decisions

This whole process is a continuous loop which will change with what you see as the situation develops. Dynamic risk assessment. This is the same thing as: Look Assess Decide Act (LADA). It is also there in Roadcraft with the information overlap.

Boyd then theorised that all intelligent organisms and organisations go through a constant series of interaction with their environment. Making these decisions correctly is what keeps you alive. A bit like when you or your pupil are driving a car on the road. You are all the time reacting to what goes on around you.

Now the key to this, is doing this constantly. This is absolutely critical to survival and hence why it is called an OODA or a Boyd loop. As drivers this is what we do all the time. If a lorry is bearing down on you and your pupil is admiring the pretty pink. To survive you will be doing all of the above very quickly.

Boyd theorised that by knowing the speed and position of the enemy and what he is capable of. You now have a series of options to defeat him. On the road as drivers we constantly look and assess the other drivers. And guided by our knowledge of the rules of the road and the capability of ourselves and vehicles we are able to stay safe. This is exactly what we are trying to coach our learners with and this is what keeps everyone safe. 

I never thought I would say this, but someone at the DVSA or its predecessor was an absolute genius when they introduced this to our MSM PSL routines. Obviously they never let them near the communication side of things! But what they have done is simplified it  as LADA and placed it in the hands of anyone who learns to drive.

What can we take away from this:

  • Driving is safe till you forget it can be dangerous
  • Be alert, scan and plan 
  • Routines will keep you safe

With special thanks to my friend and colleague Nigel Thomas at driving-pro for his insights.