September 27, 2001
The term "situational awareness" means knowing where you are, where you are supposed to be, and whether anyone or anything around you poses a threat. The term is frequently used in aviation and the military. A place you expect to find situational awareness, but rarely encounter it, is on highways, especially on freeways more than two lanes wide. You can tell that many drivers are situationally unaware by virtue of the fact they ignore a fundamental rule of the road: Stay to the right except to pass. Adhering to this rule is referred to as lane discipline.
I often drive on a local freeway that is four lanes wide in each direction. Many drivers on that highway have zero situational awareness, positioning themselves in any lane they choose regardless of how slowly they are moving with respect to prevailing traffic.
There are often major accidents on that freeway. Most of them probably are caused by a lack of lane discipline or by drivers so frustrated by situationally unaware people that they are provoked into driving aggressively. I would also bet that most of the celebrated cases of road rage we hear about are set off by situationally unaware drivers.
It is easy to tell when you are not being situationally aware. The indicators are: 1. Traffic is passing you on the right. 2. You are not in the right lane, you are not passing anyone, and there is a large gap between you and the vehicle ahead of you. 3. Someone is tailgating you.
Drivers who lack situational awareness, by my observation, fall into categories determined largely by the type of vehicle they drive. Here I offer, David Letterman style, the Top Ten types of situationally unaware drivers, with No. 10 being a slight propensity for situational unawareness, and No. 1 being totally devoid of situational awareness.
No. 10: Senior citizens. Too many of them get behind the wheel after taking their antidepressants. No. 9: Men with beards driving pickups with camper tops. Most of these guys took early retirement and have all day to get to the fishing hole. No. 8: Long-haul truckers. The knights of the road in their 18-wheelers are often in lane three with cars whizzing by on both sides. No. 7: Rubbish haulers. They are on the way to the dump and in no hurry to get there. No. 6: Recreational vehicles. This needs no explanation; you've seen them. No. 5: Drivers leaning forward with their mouths open. Who knows what they are thinking? No. 4: Construction workers driving any type of truck. Arriving at the job site means they will have to get on their feet, something they want to delay as long as possible. No. 3: Landscapers. Again, you've seen them. It is obvious why they are in the landscaping business. No. 2: Any vehicle bearing ladders. These cable-TV technicians, roofers, and siding installers are, like construction people, in no hurry to get to the job.
Finally, the Grand Prize. No. 1: Local truckers. These are drivers making local deliveries to businesses or distributing cargo brought to metro areas by 18-wheelers. I don't know why, but these guys are absolutely the worst with respect to lane discipline. They have no clue as to where they should be positioned on multilane highways.
My ratings are based entirely on anecdotal evidence, so let me know if you would prioritize the list in a different order or add other types.
-- Ronald Khol, Editor