AutoMatters: Situational Awareness and Motor Vehicles

By Jan. R. Wagner

Simply put, having situational awareness is being proactively aware of our surroundings and paying attention to what is going on around us. What is as it should be, what seems to be out of the ordinary and, if we notice something, what can we do about it?

As we drive or ride in motor vehicles, we interact with our surroundings. It is easy in these routine situations for us to be lulled into a state of inattention. Practicing situational awareness will help to prepare us for the unexpected and react more appropriately.

Consider three close calls that I experienced while in motor vehicles. Each of these situations might have resulted in serious accidents and/or personal injury.

My first close call occurred on a straight, flat and dry six-lane road – three lanes in each direction. There was hardly any traffic. I was driving a minivan at about 50mph, heading eastbound in the inside lane. I became aware of another vehicle ahead of me and to my left. It was slowly crossing the westbound lanes and turning left, heading towards merging into the same lane that I was in, but at far too slow a speed. Clearly the driver did not see me. If I’d panicked, an instinctive reaction might have been to jam on the brakes, perhaps try to turn and hope for the best, but that would have resulted in my crashing into the back of the other vehicle. Our speed differential was too great. Instead, thanks to my situational awareness, I had enough time to quickly shoulder check and then accelerate as I swerved to change lanes. Accelerating set the minivan’s suspension, enabling me to maintain control and safely drive by the other vehicle.

My second close call occurred late at night on a freeway. Again, traffic was light and the road was dry. The trip had been uneventful and boring. I was listening to the radio.

I observed that I was approaching a large semi-trailer truck, two lanes to my right and a little bit ahead of me. Suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, I heard a loud explosion, saw what looked like flames emerge from underneath the semi and saw dark objects appear in front of, and then strike, my car. Swerving or jamming on the brakes could easily have involved other traffic in the accident but because I had been paying attention – practicing situational awareness, I stayed calm, remained in my lane, slowed down gradually and, when it was safe to do so, moved over to the right and exited the freeway. My car was lightly damaged but drivable. As I learned later, when the California Highway Patrol arrived, it was likely that the semi had experienced a tire blowout. The bright flames that I had thought I’d seen were probably sparks from a wheel scraping along the freeway.

My third close call happened inside a popular theme park, of all places. I was on a tram taking the studio tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. Several of the cars at the front of our tram had just entered the King Kong attraction’s building when we came to a stop. A few moments later, adults and children emerged from the darkened tunnel and ran past our tram car. At first I thought it was part of the show, but when people started climbing over the protective barriers of my car and jumping several feet to the pavement below, I realized that something was very wrong. As I stood and looked ahead, into the darkness, I could see that our tram was on fire. Unable to safely climb over the high railing and jump, I waited for help. Our tour guide came and opened a railing so that we could leave the tram and move to safety. Soon black smoke was pouring out of the tunnel.

What this taught me is that even if I am not driving, or even in an automobile, any motor vehicle is potentially dangerous and that I should be more aware of my surroundings. Perhaps there was a way to open those safety railings from the inside. At the very least, I might have realized sooner that something was seriously wrong.

If you’d like to learn more about situational awareness, there is a good explanation of it on Wikipedia (


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