Observation is a skill worth developing and practicingObservation is a skill worth developing and practicingIf you think this post is about getting yourself a new hairstyle or a complete new outfit, I'm sorry to disappoint.

This website is all about driving not fashion, so what did you really think the word "Look" in the title meant?

I'm talking about looking with your eyes, not what you look like in the mirror. But come on, if I'd used the word "Observe" instead you'd have thought it was boring.

In this little post I'm going to try to boil down the secrets of effective observations into just a few points you can think about and apply to your own driving.

The real secret is that there's no secrets, but it sounds good and in all honesty you can probably learn and practice a few things you may not have thought of.

The first big secret to taking effective observations is (queue dramatic music) - time.

Yes, time is the most important aspect of taking good observations at roundabouts, junctions, anywhere really. So, how do we invent a driving time machine?

Imagine you're coming up to a very busy roundabout with 4 or 5 exits (entrances) and I can magically control time. You're already almost at the give way lines, you've had no clear view at all up to now, and I'm feeling fairly evil at this roundabout so I give you only 2 seconds to look everywhere and see everything you need to see.

Can you do it?

Not a chance. Neither could I.

Why not?

Because you don't have enough time. Without taking the time to do the observations you'd be taking a big risk driving onto the roundabout. That's a risk that's not worth taking, so what can we do about it?

We need more time. And there are two ways we can do that. We always need to consider both and use both, if we can, but we can't always so the second of our two methods becomes the critical one. Read on.

The first way to get more time is to start to:

Start Looking Earlier

Sounds simple, but it's amazing how many people, trainee instructors included, get almost up to the junction or roundabout before they even consider looking. If the view is clear you can mirror check (remember MSM?) as soon as you know the roundabout or junction is coming up, and then immediately start to look left, right, ahead, left, right, ahead, mirror check again etc. etc. as you're still approaching the hazard.

You can even look for gaps between buildings and you may see other vehicles approaching the area. That's a technique we use in Advanced Driving, along with many others that are beyond the scope of learners or trainee instructors.

Even if your view is quite restricted, you can move your head slightly and position yourself as you need to try to get a better view. You don't have to sit rigid in one position, you all allowed to move if it means safer driving. That's what it's all about.

An important point to make about observation is to take a look at how a car is designed. There's usually glass all round. It's at the front, both sides and the back, yet so many people only ever consider looking straight ahead and in sometimes in the mirror. All the glass at the sides of the car allows you to look from side to side and to see further than just looking through the windscreen, so make a habit of trying to use it, that's why it's there.

The second way we can get more time is:

Slow The Car Down

Slow the car down to make time on approach to any hazardSlow the car down to make time on approach to any hazardLearners routinely seriously underestimate how much time is needed at junctions to look properly and to stay safe. It's a major cause of serious or dangerous errors leading to driving test fails. They also seriously underestimate how fast the car is moving, consequently giving themselves no time to look and no time to react.

Think about this. I have a stretch of road that's exactly 5 car lengths long. At the end of it there's a junction and you have to take all the observations you need to before you get to the give way lines. It's extremely busy with lots of cars around and a few cyclists. I'm in control of the speed of the car and I don't allow you to look anywhere before you get to this short stretch of road. In other words, the only variable is going to be the speed of the car.

I feel evil again, and I make you enter the 5 car stretch at 30mph. Can you do all the observations before you reach the lines?

No. Absolutely not, because the cars travelling too fast so you don't have any time.

Now I make you enter this stretch of road at 20mph. Any difference?

You may think so, but no. 20mph is very quick to be approaching a busy junction when you're so close to it.

How about if I let you enter this stretch at 10mph or 5mph?

This could possibly work, depending obviously on the conditions you find at the time. In many cases, you could still be far too fast at 10mph.

Now, how about if I let you do it ridiculously slow? How about we say that the car enters this stretch of imaginary road at a speed so slow that it only travels a distance of a car length in one minute?

How about now? Could you do all the necessary observations?

Yes, no problem at all! In fact, you'd have 5 minutes (I did say it was ridiculously slow, but hang in here) to do everything you need to. There'd be no panic, no need to emerge without making sure it was safe. You now have so much time that you can do everything you need to, with plenty of time left to spare.

Of course, to achieve this, you'd need to have the confidence to control the car at low speeds and to get plenty of practice at it.

The only variable, the only difference in this whole scenario, is the speed of the car, nothing else. The road and the junction are the same, only the speed that you approach it has changed.

Now, I'm not saying that you approach everything at such crazy slow speeds. That wouldn't look good to an examiner. But what I am saying is that you need to carefully consider your speed, assess if you are underestimating how much time you need to stay safe and to go through the full MSM routine, and make sure you slow down to a reasonable speed so you have the time to do all you need to do.

A reasonable speed us usually far, far slower than many learners realise. They keep going too fast, they run out of time, they emerge without looking, and there's your test fail.

Never, ever rush into a hazard. Get off the gas, get on the brake, get the car under full control, take all the time you need (usually only a few seconds) and make your life easy.