Core Skills for Your Drivers

What makes one person a good driver and another a bad driver? Sure, there are the obvious culprits: whether they speed, drive while intoxicated or distracted, run red lights, drive aggressively, or wear their seatbelts.

Countless rules and advice abound about safe driving, but these bits tend to oversimplify a surprisingly complex task. What can be helpful is a broader framework that defines core skills and how to apply them to everyday driving. Once you learn how these foundations intricately build upon one another, then it’s easier to think of the process of driving as an integrated system, not just a sequence of disparate, random actions.


  • Planning. Drivers need safe, systematic procedures to deal with any hazard or changing situation. This requires them to think about how they will enter the driving environment, recognize developing hazards, take steps to avoid creating risk, and navigate safely through danger if necessary. Proper planning gives them and others enough mental time and physical space to assess, anticipate, and process quickly changing situations.

  • Awareness. We can’t control what we’re not aware of. And it’s not enough just to “see” things—we need to know what information to take in from our driving environment, how to use that info to understand what hazardous situations might develop, and how to act accordingly for a safe outcome. We also need to stay focused so we can continuously assess risk and how to handle it. Early anticipation and sustained observation without distraction make up situational awareness.

  • Presentation. Good drivers always travel at the right speed for the situation, using it to create, manage, and maintain available safe space for all road users without triggering panic, surprise, or anxiety for anyone. They do things like correctly positioning themselves in their lane, turning lights on, or avoid hanging out in others’ blind spots so they can see and be seen by others. Proper presentation lowers risk for everyone and helps pave the way for the next skill—interaction.

  • Interaction. If drivers “read the road” with proper planning, awareness, and presentation, they can communicate their intentions to other road users—and negotiate with them—with cooperation, predictability, and ample timing. A key interaction skill is to understand traffic flow and how individual drivers contribute to it. The goal is to interact with smooth, predictable progress, because smooth flow is both safer and more efficient. Empathy, patience, and courtesy also travel a long way!

  • Decision-making. Continuous observation, situational awareness, and planning all form the backbone of sound decision-making. Knowing your limitations is crucial to making good decisions. So is honest self-awareness about how your own impulse control, mood, and personality influence minute-to-minute decision-making, planning, and interactions.

So, how do we put all this together in the real world?

Let’s say you’re going to a sales meeting on a dark rainy morning. As you get behind the wheel, you plan your driving by reminding yourself: I need to give myself more time and space to get there because the roads will be more slippery than usual, I won’t be able to see as well, and other drivers around me will be dealing with these same issues too. Also, because it’s been raining so hard, maybe I shouldn’t go on that stretch of highway where flooding and crashes sometimes occur; maybe I’ll take a back road today.

Once you start driving, your awareness starts kicking in: It’s raining really hard now, and I just can’t see too well. It’s especially easy to miss bicyclists and pedestrians with all the raindrops and movement of my windshield wipers. I also can’t tell how deep those puddles are (and if they’re hiding nasty potholes)! I’d better go slower and not follow so closely, because I might lose traction and not be able to stop in time. The same is true for others around me. Some of them are going way too fast, so I need to really pay attention to what’s happening. Reducing my speed also gives me more time to process what I’m seeing.

As you continue your journey, you start thinking about how to present yourself: I’ll turn both my front and back lights on, because I want everyone on all sides of me to know that I’m there. Also, having my lights on might remind others to put on theirs. I’ll also position myself to keep away from large puddles on the side of the road, so I don’t risk hydroplaning or losing control. I’ll also give large trucks and other vehicles extra space, since they may be kicking up lots of spray and having a hard time seeing me too.

Having a plan for dealing with the rainy conditions, staying aware, and consciously thinking about your presentation is now shaping how you interact with others and how you decide to drive: I need to start signaling my intent to turn or change lanes sooner than usual because it may take the driver directly behind me longer to notice and slow down because of the rain. And it’s not just him, but also all the vehicles traveling behind him too. Because of these conditions, I’m giving everyone extra room. No cruise control today! Plus, I’m not going to let the fact that I may be running a few minutes late for this meeting due to the weather or traffic pressure me into doing something stupid. 

By the time you arrive at your meeting, you might be pretty proud of yourself. Good planning and awareness, plus not rushing things, made your drive a calm, smooth one that helped you and others get to where they needed to go safely. You even resisted the impulse to honk at someone who rudely swerved right in front of you.

Now all you have to do is share these best practices with your colleagues!

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