If you haven’t driven for a few years, you could be a danger to yourself and other road users when you next get behind the wheel.
That’s what our new study in partnership with the Transport Research Laboratory discovered – and motorists who’ve been away from the road for a few years or more could find their skills have deteriorated to the level of a novice driver.
We tested the typical awareness and reaction times of three different motorists. Participant A hadn’t driven a car in eight years; Participant B drives three or four times a year, and Participant C drives two to three times a week.
Each participant underwent three tests twice: once in normal conditions when they could concentrate on the road, and once in distracted conditions using vehicle simulation technology.
|Participant A||Participant B||Participant C|
|Average headway (following distance) in metres||56||85||95|
|Participant A||Participant B||Participant C|
|Average headway (following distance) in metres||33||109||72|
Participant A (non-driver) performed the worst across awareness, response time and driving accuracy in both normal and distracted driving simulations. In the following distance test, they left the least distance between themselves and the cars ahead of them, leaving them with less than two seconds to react to a potential hazard.
In the heavy braking test, they had to brake more than ten times more than Participant C, while in the driving accuracy test they also drifted much further from the centre of the lane than the other two.
Participant C (regular driver) was the ‘best’ driver across all measurements in normal driving conditions, however Participant B (occasional driver) outperformed Participant C in accuracy and awareness in the distracted driving scenario.
Commenting on their results, Participant A said: “I wanted to pass my driving test before going to university, so that I would already have a license if I got a job where I’d need to drive. However, living in a city with good public transport has meant that I’ve never needed a car, and while it would be helpful, it’s a luxury I don’t need.
“Driving the simulator was like having my first lesson again. I didn’t even know which pedal was which at first! I’ve always thought it would be easy enough to get back on the road if I ever needed to, but I found myself veering into different lanes when I was checking my mirrors, and I was definitely not aware of other road users which was an issue when they tried to cut me up.”
Commenting on the results, TRL researcher Ryan Robbins said: “At 70mph it only takes one second to travel 31 meters, so Participant A had very little time to react to emergency braking from the vehicle ahead. They also showed the most variation in distance to the vehicle following, suggesting a slower response to its changing speed. This is what we would expect to see in a novice driver.”
Our research suggested that driving a car isn’t like riding a bike – you need regular practice to stay sharp and keep yourself and others out of danger. However, there are no laws requiring motorists to keep their skills up-to-date: once you’ve passed your test, you’re free to drive until your licence expires.
Since motorists currently have to self-police their driving ability, we’d like to recommend the following tips for anyone who doesn’t drive at least several times a week:
Take a refresher course. Many driving schools offer refresher lessons for qualified drivers who want to hone their skills. As well as easing you back into driving with an experienced instructor at your side, these lessons can offer tips on more advanced aspects of motoring, such as night driving, traversing motorways, reverse parking and speed awareness.
Try to drive more often. It may sound obvious, but taking the car down to the local shops once in a while – even if they’re just a short walk away – will help keep you familiar with the feeling of being behind the wheel and paying attention to other road users.
Take an online hazard perception test. There are many sites online that offer free sample exercises from the official driving test, and these provide a safe way for you to see if your awareness is as sharp as you think. It’s better to make your mistakes in a simulated environment rather than to take them with you on the road!
Take regular eye tests. Again, there’s no requirement for motorists to have their eyes tested regularly – but poor vision can have a serious impact on your driving ability, and may go unnoticed until it’s too late. If you’ve not driven for a couple of years, it doesn’t hurt to have a quick check-up.
Brush up on road signs and traffic laws. The rules of the road change over time – for instance, did you know it’s now illegal to be holding a mobile phone behind the wheel with the engine running, even if you’re not in motion? Make sure you’re up to date with the latest laws and regulations before you hit the road.