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Mr. Smith Takes the Wheel

By on September 1, 2009
RoadKing Mag

Harold Smith may not be a household name, but he made a huge contribution toward making American roadways safer. He ran a driver training school following his service in World War II, basing his behind-the-wheel tactics on collision avoidance. When students didn’t get his approach to safety, he set out to clarify his ideas on paper.

Smith believed safe driving had more to do with seeing than reacting. Working with an ophthalmologist, he developed a theory that human beings were designed to travel by foot, so in a speeding vehicle they had to adjust how they look at everything around them to move safely from one point to the next.

That led to the Five Keys of Space Cushion Driving now taught at the Smith System Driver Improvement Institute in Dallas, Texas. Smith died in the 1980s but his company has trained several generations of professional drivers on the finer points of collision avoidance. Road King spoke with current vice president of training Jim Smith (no relation).

RK: What are Smith’s Five Keys of Space Cushion Driving?’’
JS: Aim high in steering means to look further ahead than you would normally. You should be looking 15 seconds ahead — a block in city driving and a quarter mile on the highway.

Get the big picture. We talk about your seeing distance. You should allow four seconds of following space from the vehicle in front of you. You need to build a 360-degree circle of awareness by checking your mirrors every five to eight  seconds. That means a balanced check; you don’t need to check all the mirrors over that time, but one time look to the right mirror, then the center, then the left. There might be times when it’s more important to check one of them frequently.

Keep your eyes moving. Never focus on the same thing for more than two seconds. Peripheral vision is about 180 degrees of fuzzy vision. Central vision is three degrees of clear sharp vision used to gather information and detail. The problems come when you have a fixed stare. You lock the central vision on one thing for two seconds or more and your eyes are no longer moving. Lock it in too long and you start to lose the edge of your peripheral vision.

Another problem is the blank stare, when you’re using nothing but peripheral vision. You’re picking up the light, color and motion, but not the detail. You’re looking, but not seeing, and then you become vulnerable.

Leave yourself an out. Harold Smith said if you surround yourself with space instead of vehicles, it will be hard for you to have an accident. The only space you have a chance of controlling is in front of you. You can’t control the space behind you and you may have the sides blocked.

If you watch traffic for 10 seconds, you’ll see it travels in clusters. We tribe up. It’s an unconscious thing. But we don’t want drivers to travel in the pack. Try to put yourself between those clusters.

Make sure they see you. You want to be proactive to keep that driver from making an idiot move and forcing you to adjust at the last second. I encourage people to run with their lights on and make themselves as visible as possible. Look for eye contact with other drivers. If I don’t see somebody looking my way, I assume they may pull out in front of me. I might have to tap on my horn to keep them from making a move that will cause a collision.

RK: What driver factor causes the most problems these days?
JS: News stories are focused on driver distraction now — everything from cell phones to radios to conversation. And one of the most dangerous things is dropping food and drinks. Sometimes we have a tendency to reach down for something, and it’s never a good outlook when you get your head below the dashboard.

RK:  What characteristics do million-mile safe drivers share?
JS:  For the most part, they’re positive thinkers, open-minded, and never in a hurry. Many tell me that they’re always looking out ahead of them. Some say their dads taught them to look up the road. They’re being inquisitive about what they see in the mirrors.

RK: How can independent drivers use Smith System training?
JS: Online training gives them the basics of the Five Keys and tests to check comprehension. Or they can take the one-day Driver Direct training, which gives them the behind-the-wheel lab work. The real learning happens behind the wheel.

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  2. Costa Jange

    January 17, 2013 at 3:41 am

    Many thanks, I have descover this only today but it was good to ready it and I will of course share this good information with staff under me. I mean the BVO’s( Bulk Vehicle Operators).

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