The cornerstone of all good driving is situational awareness, or SA. It is what can make the difference when an oncoming car suddenly swerves into your lane and you react safely to avoid it in a split second, or panic blindly and plow into someone else. If you don’t have SA, you may not notice those pedestrians stepping off the curb into your path until you are nearly on them. Sharpening SA will not make the deer dashing out into the road ahead such a surprise, because you were anticipating that might happen, given the woodsy terrain you were passing through.

Wikipedia lists the definition of situational awareness, or SA, as “the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.” SA is critical in occupations where complex information must continually be processed and major decisions made under rapidly changing conditions, like policing, military command, aviation, or medical triage.

One example of SA in driving: At any given time, you should be aware of not only who’s in front of you, but alongside and behind your vehicle. Who’s coming up on you? If you’re in the far left lane on a freeway, is someone merging two lanes over on the right that could affect how the person next to you moves around you? Do you have a way out if the person in front of you suddenly slams on the brakes and you have to swerve into the next lane without looking over your shoulder? If you’re not aware of the whereabouts of the seven cars closest to you at least seventy percent of the time, then you probably should not be on the road, in all honesty.

In driving, situational awareness goes hand-in-hand with its sister, anticipation. Driving is by necessity an exercise in anticipation, planning, and assumption. You can’t possibly know the ultimate actions of hundreds of vehicles sharing the road with you, but you can have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen, based on environmental conditions, type of vehicles present, driver demographics, driving styles, and the traffic norms for that spot at that time. Situational awareness and anticipation are the keys to processing those assumptions and being at the ready when they do not pan out.

Don’t forget self-awareness, too. How we drive is directly influenced by our state of mind, our emotions, and our mental and physical limitations. People commuting home tend to drive worse than they do in the morning because of stress and fatigue built up over the day from work and other demands. If you’re madly in love with that new person in your life, you just might be taking those curves a bit faster than usual and not even notice. Are you on a long road trip? You probably won’t go from a sparse interstate to a congested city environment at the end of the day with the same level of mental attention as you would at lunchtime, simply because fatigue has inhibited your ability to properly handle all the incoming stimuli. Know your limitations and how they affect your situational awareness.

Practice sharpening your SA the next time you get in your car. Turn off all the distractions and start paying attention, second by second, to as many of the vehicles immediately around you as possible. Mentally track where they are in relation to you and check your mirrors constantly. And don’t forget to alternate between noting what is immediately around you and scanning the larger environment ahead and peripherally. This may be hard work at first, but with constant practice, you will start mastering the first step to being safer and less fearful.

If you’re interested in learning more about driver situational awareness, check out this interesting article from a UK driving website.