How to read the road for hidden dangers

Young female cyclist looks over their shoulder.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 27 April 2021

Learn to spot 'hidden' hazards and use information to predict the actions of other road users. Includes common scenarios and likely outcomes.

Before I became a driving examiner, I spent many years as a driving instructor. I remember once, when taking a pupil through a housing estate, that a ball bounced across the road from a garden on the left not very far ahead of us. I suggested that we should be careful because a child would probably run across the road after it. As I said it, a boy appeared from a driveway and did just that.

My pupil seemed unsurprised by the prediction, took it all in his stride and responded appropriately. Then I said, ‘Be ready. He’s going to run back!’ As I said this, the boy sprinted back across the road, directly in front of us. My student was amazed that I’d anticipated this last part. ‘I really would never have thought of that,’ he told me, claiming that I must have magical powers. But it was not such an unbelievable piece of foresight; it was just that I’d been driving for so long, I’d added it to my list of ‘things that will probably happen’.

I’m not some superhero of a driver who has the power to see into the immediate future, and I did not always have this list. In fact, I can remember my driving instructor back in 1977 telling me that my anticipation was very poor, but that all the clues are there. Drivers just need to tune into the information that’s available.

Common scenarios and likely outcomes

Not everything can be predicted from the available information, but many events on the road can, so here are some of the things on that list I was telling you about.

  • When a ball rolls across the road, a child will probably run after it. The child will probably then run back with the ball!
  • Animals (such as cats, dogs and squirrels) running across the road may change their minds and run back, too.
  • A traffic light that’s been green for a while is likely to change soon. Knowing this can help you anticipate the light changing, by controlling your speed as you approach it.
  • If someone lets you out at a junction, there may be another vehicle coming up that the driver who’s letting you out has not seen or taken into account.
  • A car going around a roundabout in the right-hand lane may be just about to move left to take the next exit, so be careful about pulling out alongside it.
  • If a cyclist in front checks over their right shoulder, it usually means they’re about to turn right or move out to the right.
  • A pedestrian closing the passenger door of a parked car often means the car will pull out immediately afterwards.
  • A car just pulling in means that the driver’s door may open.
  • A pedestrian crossing the road towards a parked car may open a car door, suddenly making the road narrower than you’d expected (and even more of a problem if there are oncoming vehicles).
  • A large vehicle in front signalling left may swing out to the right before turning left.
  • On motorways and dual carriageways, a vehicle ahead that’s approaching a slower vehicle in the same lane may suddenly change lanes in front of you to pass it.
  • The driver of a car waiting in front of you at a roundabout may stall or change their mind about the direction they want to take when moving away, just as you look to the right. This is a common cause of rear-end shunts – especially if the driver in front is a learner!
  • If the low sun is shining brightly in your rear-view mirror, oncoming drivers may be dazzled, as the sun will be in their eyes.

Building your list of hazard indicators

When you first start out as a new driver, there’s so much to learn that only experience will teach you. But, with time, you’ll be able to build up your own list of ‘hazard indicators’; you’ll learn how to read the clues and predict what other road users may do. The more practice you have as a learner driver before you take your test, the better prepared you’ll be to face the road with all its ‘hidden’ dangers, and to read its clues.

In the meantime, you can help to develop your self-awareness as a driver by reading The Official DVSA Guide to Better Driving. It’s all about how you deal with different driving situations and what you can do to improve.

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