The Importance of Situation Awareness

A key foundation to all good driving is situation awareness, or SA, which has long been a staple in mission-critical areas like the military, law enforcement, aviation, and healthcare. Airline pilots, for instance, are highly trained in SA because the consequences of making mistakes would obviously be devastating.

Why should it be any different for us on the ground in our vehicles? And how can companies help their employees sharpen their situation awareness?

What Is Situation Awareness (SA)?

Wikipedia defines situation awareness as “the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status.” But, knowing what’s going on around us is only part of the story.

SA is commonly divided into three levels:

  1. Knowing what information to gather (looking and perceiving).

  2. Interpreting that information (thinking).

  3. Using that information to evaluate and predict evolving situations or threats (anticipating).

Executing all three levels consistently and accurately is difficult to master, but it’s crucial to good decision-making and reducing human error.

In terms of road safety, SA is what makes the difference whether you act safely to avoid an oncoming car suddenly swerving into your lane, or panic and crash. If you don’t have SA, you may not notice pedestrians stepping off a curb until you’re nearly upon them. A slowdown that brings traffic to a screeching halt won’t cause you to rear-end someone, because you were using SA to anticipate that might happen and you’d been giving yourself enough following distance.

The Lethal Lull of Overconfidence and Bad Assumptions

A key principle in effective SA is that it’s not enough to just look at a situation with your current knowledge and anticipate. Instead, you must systematically seek specific information, constantly think about what you don’t know, and plan for the possibility of what could happen.

You must systematically seek specific information, constantly think about what you don’t know, and plan for the possibility of what could happen.

We, humans, love certainty and predictability because we crave order and security amid chaos. We’re really talented at underestimating risk (that car isn’t going that fast—I have time to cross the street), feeling overconfident (I’m okay doing twenty miles over the speed limit), or assuming good outcomes based on past history even if they’re based on faulty thinking (I’ve texted on the cell phone many times without crashing, so that proves I can do it safely).

Disastrous events are built and layered on many such shaky foundations—plane crashes, battlefield miscalculations, anaesthesia mishaps in operating rooms, children backed over in driveways.

What’s more, cognitive research shows that our eyes and brains literally see what they expect to see. That means that if you get careless about looking both ways when leaving a parking lot because there hasn’t been a motorcyclist passing in front of you ninety-nine times before, you’re far more likely to miss registering that person’s actual presence on the fateful hundredth time. Most of us aren’t even aware of this mental trickery, and that in itself is a problem.

SA in Practice on the Road

Getting back to the three levels of SA, let’s tackle looking first. 

You’re on a two-lane rural road. What information are you looking for? What can you see? What can you not see? Are there curves or hills that limit your vision? What hazards and clues do you notice? What’s the weather like? Is the land flat, rocky, forested, agricultural? What time of day is it? Are there homes nearby? How many driveways or side roads do you see? Are garbage cans sitting along the roadway? How many drivers and other road users are present? How fast are they going?

Next, how do we think about that information?

Statistically, two-lane rural roads are among the most dangerous. Being aware of this simple fact can motivate us to be extra alert. As you actively look for information, you notice a number of curves and hills. That means you’ll need to slow down and position your vehicle for maximum visibility and safety because you don’t know what’s around the bend.

A forest may harbour deer and other animals that might suddenly dash across your path, especially if it’s early morning, evening, or night. Vehicles can emerge from driveways or side roads and be hard to see, depending on the weather and if their lights aren’t on.

Farm fields are a clue that a slow-moving tractor might be crossing the road or crawling along the shoulder at some point. The presence of garbage cans might mean that a waste truck is stopped ahead, partially blocking the road—and perhaps just beyond the next curve or hill, with fast-moving traffic trying to pass it. Hazards often come in pairs or triplets—all at the exact same moment, of course. Have you thought about what you might do if they converge all at once?

Finally, how are you going to interact with other road users to keep them and yourself safe? What if someone zooms up behind you, gets impatient, and wants to pass you; how will you handle this situation?

Finally, how do we predict and anticipate?

Now it’s time to implement the third level of SA—predicting and anticipating. You won’t want to go too fast because something unexpected could be in the road around any curve or hill—an animal, another vehicle, a bicyclist, a fallen rock. You need to be able to slow or stop safely on your side of the road in the distance you can see to be clear, no matter what.

Going past homes and farms, you’ll anticipate the possibility of vehicles pulling out of driveways and side roads into your path. This means you’ll have to mindfully look at each juncture. You’ll also need to watch out for other drivers and road users. Resist the temptation to get complacent and think this is a quiet little road where not much is happening.

Continuously “scan and plan.” Use your vehicle’s mirrors to actively look in all directions every 3 to 8 seconds. You’ll need to hold two different mental threads simultaneously—not just of the road right in front of you, where you’re closest to the most immediate threats and priorities, but also the road at the farthest point you can see. Continuously scanning back and forth between these points helps you assess the situation, notice shifting developments, and gives you time to make adjustments.

If something takes you by surprise or you have a near-miss, it probably means your SA wasn’t high enough.

How Can Companies Help Employees Develop Situation Awareness?

Good situation awareness is not an easy skill to develop, but it’s among the most valuable because SA provides a mental model for perceiving, thinking, evaluating, and acting in a systematic way. SA can inform your employees in ways not just on the road but also in their general approach to work and life. Here’s how employers can promote SA in their employees:

  • Provide general professional SA training to promote a corporate safety culture that goes beyond rote procedure. Many organizations and companies offer SA-specific training in observation, communication, leadership, empowerment, occupational hazards, safety procedures, and emergencies. Face-to-face, in-person training is the most effective way to learn SA, but virtual and online training are available as well.

  • Offer driving-specific SA training. Even better, if your goal is to reduce crashes and improve general road safety among your employees, provide professional driver safety training that emphasizes SA, hazard perception, risk management, and human factors that affect judgment and decision-making.

  • Institute a strict distracted-driving policy. Distraction is the single biggest obstacle to situation awareness. Setting clear zero-tolerance rules that ban using cell phones while driving, imposing meaningful penalties for violations, and rewarding compliance with positive reinforcement can be effective first steps for promoting SA.

  • Use SA itself as a way to combat driver distraction. Staying situationally aware inherently involves not being distracted. Instead of tiresome lectures and repeating worn clichés about distraction, consider shifting the focus to developing best SA practice instead. This is where high-quality professional driver training can work in tandem with strong corporate communication and policy.

  • Be patient and steady—it’s an investment in the long term. Situation awareness is not a skill that forms overnight. It often means identifying and breaking years of poor habits while simultaneously reprogramming new models of systematic thought, behaviour, and action. Repeated high-quality training and consistent implementation over time are key to building these skills.

  • Watch for patterns in employee driving safety and use SA to reduce these incidents. Driver monitoring data are powerful tools in identifying safety gaps, almost all of which can be traced to a lack of SA in some form or be improved by better SA. Using apps like Brightmile can help identify problem areas and target specific SA strategies to solve them. 

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