3 Drills To Practice Situational Awareness While In Your Car


Situational (or situation) awareness is a simple concept, but in practice it is far from it… While you may think that you know what’s going on around you, the fact is that your brain will best process the things that your are focused on, while at the same time consciously missing LOTS of other things that are within your visual…

To drill (practice) your situational awareness will sharpen your sensory perception, your powers of observation, and hopefully enable you to pick up more anomalies in the environment.

Under many circumstances throughout a typical day, you are bombarded by sensory data, and your brain (while dealing with sensory overload) will not alert the conscious mind of all the information that is flowing in. That, coupled with your personal experiences will tend to shape what your mind keeps and discards as important or irrelevant, the result of which will create blind spots – which can prove detrimental.

Many people will also (and often) be thinking about ‘everything else under the sun’ while absently ignoring their present vicinity as they go about their daily routines. This behavior creates quite an advantage for an opportunist while seeking their prey.

There have been many articles written here about situational awareness. But here are a few more drills to test and hone your own:


1. During your driving commute to work, pay attention (safely ;) ) to the vehicles around you. Do you recognize any of them from the day before or from any previous commute? See how many vehicles you can pick out that travel the same route at the same time as you. During the days (years!) of my regular commuting, it was very interesting to discover over time the same vehicles that traveled much of the same route during the same time. It makes sense of course (other people commute to work during the same approximate times as you), but I found the exercise to be interesting…

2. While observing other cars on the road (safely!), look at and notice the driver. What is the driver doing? Are you able to ‘sense’ their body language? How do you feel about the way they are driving? This drill hones your awareness of observation and your instinctive ‘sense’ while in a moving environment where observation may be a bit difficult (observing out and through your own bubble and into someone else’s).

3. As you are driving, randomly pick a car and then as quickly as you can – begin any and all observations to describe the vehicle to someone else. For example if you had observed a getaway car in a crime and you were asked to describe it, what details would you be able to recall?


  1. Good drills. Once you start doing this, it just becomes habit. Wish I was better at recalling all the details that don’t grab attention.

  2. My home is across the street from a public park. Good place to case homes, noting when the homes’ occupants come and go. So I pay attention to vehicles and persons I recall seeing repeatedly, even writing down the license plate numbers if the indviduals seem especially suspicious in case a burglary occurs.

    I avoid going into convenience stores at odd hours, but when I do, I don’t walk in immediately, instead checking out other vehicles and seeing if clerk seems especially nervous.

    Thanks for the tips.

  3. Even as a long haul driver I saw the same trucks in the same part of the country on the same days. I had a regular run from Houston to Los Angels for 11 years and I even got to recognize the same cars on Sunday morning on loop 1604 around San Antonio. That picture looks like I-20 west bound near Arcadia Louisiana. Or as high as those expansion joints are, maybe south Louisiana.

  4. During my workday commute, I take notice of the vehicles that travel the opposite route each day. The “oncoming traffic” of people that must live near where I work and work in the vicinity of where I live. The exercise is an interesting observation.

  5. I read in MN one out of 6 drivers are drunk driving and 1 out of 6 drivers are distracted driving with cell phones. Since I face very little traffic where I live, it is easier to watch drivers whether to keep a wide birth or not trust their judgment.

    Last fall a driver stopped to make a Uturn on the highway and didn’t look behind him about 6:40 am. An oncoming car with 2 people broadsided him over 60 mph as he turned and the two occupants were thrown from their car and killed. I was about 3 minutes coming down the highway behind the car and saw a highway worker just standing there along side of the road with his car light flashing. I thought it was an old wreck and I saw no passengers in either car or along the road, and the highway worker didn’t look at me as I slowly went by to see if my help was needed. The Uturn drivers car was ripped in half, and the other car’s front end was in the passengers area.

    Little did I know the highway worker just before I arrived got out of his car and he saw the dead people far up in a ditch and he was in shock. He was unable to speak or communicate and someone else called it in. The Uturn driver was drunk driving, and the two that were killed were not wearing seat belts and did not slow down or change lanes seeing this car off the side of the empty road and were speeding to cause so much carnage.

    Every time something I see like this happen, it reminds me to take more caution when driving, especially when it hits this close to home. Another accident took the life of a man not wearing belts when he fell asleep and hit a semi head on 300 yards from the same place, and he only had a torso left after the accident. One reason why I take driver safety courses, it is all about awareness. Good article Ken.

  6. I watch everybody when I drive…coming and going. I make words from the alpha portion of the plates…helps me remember the plates and also causes me to focus on the vehicle a bit….plus exercises my brain. Always fun, also cements the vehicle into memory. I check out the people, activities going on in the car (as I pass) etc. just to see whether THEY are paying attention or not. I put on about 60k miles a year in my commute, so lots of travel time! You would be amazed at what people do in their cars while driving! still piques my curiosity.

  7. This is good. I like brain games to keep the mind sharp. I like doing similar things when walking around the store. I try to scan for familiar faces to keep up awareness and as a bonus sometimes I see a friend!

  8. The easiest way to identify a car at night is by the headlights. Even the same make and model, the lights will be slightly off from each other. One brighter, the angle off, there’s always something. Not so much during the day, but at night I automatically watch the headlights for recognition. During the day I mostly count the number of men vs women or what percentage is on their cellphones.

  9. If you are always looking in the rear view mirror, you may not see whats coming – the sh*t show is just starting. They are trying to talk down over angry drivers – I’m afraid it is too late. Sorry Ken, the driving analogy was the only way I could sneak in my opinion of the county’s worsening condition.

  10. Drive as though every single vehicle/driver out there is trying to kill you with a 2000+ pound bullet going 60+ MPH.

    1. When I started driving my mother told me to drive as if everyone on the road is nuts. I’ve never seen a reason to change this.

      1. My Dad taught me to drive like everyone was “out to get ‘ya”. I think he was right.

  11. Just as a side note: The State of Florida estimates that 1 out of 4 drivers on the road here are not insured. They’re being much too conservative. The percentage is much higher. The state requires proof of insurance to register a vehicle, so a person goes into one of those store front agencies that sell insurance by the month, buy 1 month’s worth of insurance to get registered, then not pay for more months. Since these are the low income people that don’t own anything, they can’t lose anything when an accident occurs. If they lose their license, they drive anyway. As Janice Joplin sang so aptly, “Freedom is just another word for having nothing left to lose.”

  12. Great advice and great topic. I live in NJ and my head is constantly on a swivel! Teaching my daughter the same. She is extremely observant. We don’t have an iphones or smart phones or whatever they are called! No need. And even if we did, we surely wouldn’t have our faces in them like half these people do. This world is too nuts to be walking around in la la land!

  13. I taught my kids to always walk around the vehicle from afar first, look at the tires and see if there are any fluids on the ground, just in case. For the fluids, in remembering the pattern before they pull into the spot. Since our two vehicles don’t leak and we maintain them, I told them to look out for it as an indicator if someone messed with the vehicle. Also, we don’t have decals but what has to be on, now its just the registration sticker. I have my emergency vehicle kit in the back by the seats, windows are dark, but there are no “fancy” things inside to entice anyone.

    Another technique I learned not to rear end or be rear ended if things get stupid and people cut you off, is to pull on the side until slow down and stop at least at a forty five degree to the street facing away from the road . What this does is that you avoid hitting another car if they are trying to avoid an accident too. You might hit a fence or a bush if there is one, but with this you won’t hit another vehicle or that vehicle might not hit you. And everyone stays alive.

    PS: works on HWY or other roads outside of the city were there are curbs.

    1. If you’re driving behind someone try to keep an empty space on either side so you can swerve if necessary. Also be AWARE of what or who might move into that space. Years ago I was driving and the idiot in front of me suddenly slammed on his brakes. There was no one in front of him, no traffic lights, what-have-you. I swerved over and this overgrown teenager is sitting there glaring at me, with both thumbs playing across his phone. Probably telling whoever it was about the crazy woman who nearly rear-ended him.

      1. Lauren, that’s true. It really irks me when I drive and leave space in front of me, I drive a bigger ford truck, some of those imbeciles think I am leaving space for them to squeeze in. Not so, my truck is heavy and my breaking distance is longer than in a passenger car. I got my license in Germany before I came here, and the driving school there is much much more demanding. Getting my license here in 94, I thought it was a joke. I had to put in over 200 mandatory hours in Germany just to get it. And it took me another year to get my motorcycle license there too.
        And yes, texting…my big pet peeve :).

  14. I ended up with PTSD at a early age. I saw a very bad accident at my high school a mech was burned to death I was no more than 75 or 100 feet away from it
    after that I was hyper aware of EVERYTHING even now 45 years later I’m still aware of what goes on around me when I’m in a store I can tell when security is following me.

    If a car is tailing me I know it but being hyper aware these days IS NOT A BAD THING THESE DAYS as long as it doesn’t turn to paranoia.

    The thing is if someone is really good at spy craft you ain’t gonna know it very easily.

  15. I’m not sure if I should comment about safe driving on this site considering the fact that I am an asian driver.

    My driving has become very conservative after I drove ambulance years ago.

    I still get a lot of mileage out of asian driver jokes even when I’m in the grocery store pushing a 4-wheeled shopping cart. People just seem to get out of my way after looking at me pushing a cart.

    1. Now that’s funny! ;)

      Knowing that you are Asian and knowing that you apparently are not offended by such things,
      I lived in Cali for a number of years and there was (is) a very large Asian population in the region where I lived, and yes there were plenty of ‘Asian driver’ jokes and comments that were applied during various encounters or ‘close calls’ on the road ;) It seemed evident that there’s some general truth to the driving ‘ability’? HaHaHa…

    2. My parents lived in Malaysia for two years. They said people there don’t drive cars–they aim them. :) I’m sure you’re familiar with that. I saw an example a few weeks ago that made it real to me. An asian man in a pickup truck drove straight across three lanes of heavy traffic. Didn’t merge, didn’t use the lanes, just straight across, with people honking at him and almost getting hit twice. The difference between driving and aiming is obvious, once you’ve seen it.

    3. Hi CaliRefugee I got a good chuckle from your story. Back in the 70’s I worked for a Japanese man with one eye. His driving terrified me. Funny thing was he said the Chinese were the worst drivers. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

      1. P.S. to above. I’ve driven cars and motorcycles in Japan and Philippines and never saw any driving as bad as here in the states. I’ve seen drivers stop in the middle of the freeway in traffic to take a picture. Since moving back to Ca. 6 years ago I’m afraid to ride my Harley. Almost every week on the local news another biker killed by careless drivers. They ARE out to get you. I much prefer to drive my diesel pickup truck.

  16. I live and work in a small town. But with all the bad things happening now days you have to be careful. Thanks to all for giving good advice. I am trying to be more observant. I have been too trusting in the past. A hometown farmer left his diesel running (as most do around here) to run into the small gas station for a minute and someone stole his truck. Stuff like that rarely happened here. Needless to say, everyone is locking up now. They caught the guy in 20 minutes, but still.

    Lets just say I carry as do most Texans or most around here. I will protect myself.

    Love the article.

  17. DWO: Driving While Oriental.

    “We are not here as part of an invasion. We simply want computors for our children.” – Doonesbury

  18. If a pedestrian that is about to cross your path and has not met eye contact with you you can readily assume he has not seen you. Time for you to use your horn or slow down to avoid a tragic incident. This also applies to bicyclists. No eye contact beware of potential accidents.

  19. After 28+ years as a police officer in Maryland, I learned a few observation skills or habits. One is to look INTO cars around you, not just at them. This is especially good, and easy, to do at stop lights. Harder at speed on the highway. I habitually look at tags and bumper stickers. Can’t get away from that. But, you can deduce a few things from those observations. Another practice, or game, I was taught is to habitually observe those around you as you enter a public space, such as a supermarket or shopping mall. Try to see someone you know BEFORE they see you. Then quietly walk up to them and say “Hi.” It eventually trains you to observe people and what they are doing. This is especially true when going into banks: Look inside and observe a few seconds BEFORE you enter. Is everything normal? Is there someone suspicious milling around? Or more than one lurking around? If so, stay out for a while. Look around at the parking lot, too. Never know what you might see. Just a few observational ideas.

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