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Spatial Awareness for Driving: Judging Your Car’s Size

A hand holding a tape measure

Spatial awareness is a skill that impacts every part of driving. It tells you how your position relates to other things around you, and how movement can impact that. On the roads, it informs your ability to tell left from right, remember a route and follow directions. You also use it to help gauge distances: it enables you to stay in your lane, park accurately and overtake safely.

Although you may naturally have good—or poor—spatial awareness, a great deal of it is a learned skill. So, even if you struggle with visual thinking, there are steps you can take to help you drive safely, without scraping other vehicles along the way.


Table of contents


How do you determine the width of your car?

The silhouette of a man with his arms outstretched against a bright blue sky
Image source: Ruwad Al Karem via Pixabay

As a learner, it can be confusing working out how much room you take up on the road, because you’re in a much bigger “body” than you’re used to. Your car will always seem massive to you, because you’re in it, and things look bigger close up. To see just how much perspective matters, look through your car’s windscreen. It will look like the window is wider than your lane of the road. If that was really the case, your car would be too big for the road—which we know isn’t the case.

Road positioning

Lots of learners shy away from danger—literally. So, if there’s traffic coming towards you, the temptation is to drive further to the left, towards the kerb, to prevent you from hitting the oncoming car. Similarly, if there’s a pedestrian on the pavement, you might steer right. These are signs that you’re concentrating on your width—and rather than helping you drive safely, this can actually cause problems.

First, think about what you know to be true. Accept that a lane is generally wide enough for your car. That means that you can drive within it without the risk of hitting an oncoming vehicle on the other side of the road. So, in situations where your lane is clear of parked vehicles and other obstacles, you really don’t need to think about your width. All you need to do is to make sure you’re driving in the middle of your lane.

This is called your road position, and yes, you do need to employ spatial awareness skills in order to judge it correctly. One way to do this is to forget about the car, and just think about your own body. When you’re in the driving seat, your left leg (in a right-hand drive) sits roughly in the middle of the car. If you’re able to keep that leg moving down the centre of the road, your car will follow suit and you’ll be positioned in the middle of your lane. The more practice you get at doing this, the more confident you’ll feel in being able to maintain a good road position.

Narrow lanes

Some lanes are really narrow, such as if you’re on a contraflow system on the motorway. In these cases, you can counter the added risk by driving more slowly than normal (there will often be lower speed limits in force anyway).

If you’re on a narrow country lane, you might need to drive in the middle of the road. Choose an appropriate speed, so that you can slow and pull over if another vehicle approaches you.

Focus on the available space

In situations where obstacles impede your lane, you will have to work out whether you can fit through the gap that’s left. It’s not really possible to gain an accurate idea of your own width by checking left and right, so instead look ahead and focus on the space that’s available.

Cars vary very little in width, so if you need to overtake a parked car, look at that car and think about whether you’d be able to duplicate it in the space to its right. If the vehicle would fit easily alongside itself, you’re probably safe to overtake.

Squeezing through tight gaps

A narrow alleyway with graffiti on the walls and double yellow lines
Image source: Marcus Loke via Unsplash

The only time you really need to focus on your width is when you need to squeeze through a tight gap. As you proceed, keep checking that your wing mirrors—the widest points on your car—aren’t about to scrape the obstacles on either side. You’ll need excellent clutch control in order to go slowly enough to be safe in situations like this.

Reference points

Where there is a kerb to one side, you can use reference points to help you improve your spatial awareness when driving so that you can judge your vehicle’s width. To find your left reference point:

Find a safe place to pull up on the left beside a kerb

Look through your windscreen and note where the kerb appears at the bottom of the window

Remember where this point is. Use it as a rough marker when driving very slowly through small gaps to make sure you won’t hit the kerb to your left.

To find your right kerb reference point, park up on the right and follow the same instructions.

Although they can be really useful in helping you drive through small gaps, never transfer the same reference points to a different vehicle. They will only work for the car in which you’ve established them.


How can you tell where the front of your car ends when driving?

Looking through the windscreen to a dual carriageway and snowy landscape
Image source: fancycrave1 via Pixabay

Most people can’t see the front of their bonnet from the driver’s seat, so it’s difficult to judge how long the front of your car is. However, with a bit of low-risk trial and error, memory and repetition, you can overcome this spatial awareness issue so that you can park safer and smarter.

The first thing to do is to find yourself a solid object that you can drive forwards up to and park in front of. It might be a wall, the door of a garage, or another parked car.

Creep forwards, stopping when you still feel a comfortable distance from the stationary object

Get out and have a look to see how far away you actually are

If you’re still a fair distance away, get back in the car

See how that distance looks from the driver’s seat, compared to outside the car

Repeat all steps until you’re parked an appropriate distance to the object

Play it safe

It’s always better to err on the side of caution when parking. Never aim to get closer than half a metre away, as you need space to manoeuvre. If you struggle to gauge half a metre, use an aid. Find a tape measure and get used to what that measurement looks like with your arms.

When you’ve practised this again and again, you’ll develop a better sense of how big your bonnet actually is, rather than how big you think it is. Your brain will remember this information, and you will gradually become more confident in parking accurately, without having to keep getting out of your car to check.

This is for parking only, not for stopping behind another vehicle at traffic lights. In that instance, a driver could roll backwards and hit you if you get too close, so stop when you can still see their tyres in front of you.

Parking sensors

If you have forward parking sensors, you can use them to help speed up your learning. When you get close to an object, your sensors will start to beep. At that point, get out and look at the space remaining between you and the other object. There’s probably still quite a bit of room. Drive forwards gradually until the sensors emit a continuous beep. From outside of the car, you’ll be able to see that you’ve parked pretty much perfectly.

Once you’re confident in using your parking sensors, and relating them to real distances, you can use them without worrying. Doing this over and over again will also help your brain learn at what point you need to stop before getting too close.

Reference points

Darts in a dartboard
Image source: 15299 via Pixabay

Whether you’ve used the manual method, or been assisted by parking sensors, once you’re in position you can create reference points for yourself. When you’re driving up to another car, there will come a point when its wheels disappear from your line of sight, followed by the bumper and part of the lights and grill. Once you’re perfectly in position, take note of how much of the car you can still see out of your windscreen. You can use this as a rough guide for parking in similar scenarios.

However, at a junction or in a car park, you’ll often be parking up to a line, rather than a vehicle. When the line disappears from view, get out to have a look how far away it is. That gives you a reference point where you know how much further forward you can afford to creep before you’re in danger of exceeding the line. If, as is likely, you’re approximately one car length away when you can no longer see the line, you know that moving forwards half a car length won’t put you in any danger of crossing it. The same distance will apply when the bottom of a wall or any other object disappears in front of you.

For wider walls, you might be able to see them outside your driver’s side window, even if they aren’t visible out of your windscreen. Once you’re parked and in position, sit as you normally would to drive. Look to your right and check where the bottom of the wall sits in your window, in relation to your wing mirror. Again, that’s a point of reference you can use to gauge how close you are.

Remember

Reference points will only work in that specific vehicle; don’t use the same ones if you’re practising in a different car in between lessons, or you might end up in a costly accident.


How to judge the back of your car

Looking through a turquoise car from its rear bumper
Image source: Etienne Desclides via Unsplash

Just like with your bonnet, you can’t be sure where exactly your bumper is when you’re in the driving seat. Your wing mirrors are your best friends here. They’ll help you to keep straight and know where to stop when you’re reversing.

Before you start a reverse park, turn your wing mirrors to face slightly further down, so that you can see the ground. To judge where the rear of your car sits in the mirror, look at the furthest point of the car you can see. If this is the rear passenger door handles, the bottom of your bumper will sit somewhere beneath there.

Reverse slowly until you think you’re an appropriate distance away from the line

Stop, get out and check

Think you should be a bit closer? Reverse a little more more and hop back out to see how you fared.

Again, make sure you’re not getting too close. You want space to be able to walk behind and use your boot.

Reverse parking sensors

Reverse parking sensors can speed up your learning, as they’ll automatically alert you when the car gets close to things behind it. But, as with forward parking sensors, it’s still useful to get out and see the distances for yourself. That way, you don’t risk becoming overly reliant on them.

Also beware that some objects—a very low wall for instance, or a short bollard—won’t necessarily register on the sensors. You should always be able to use your mirrors and the  more manual process we’ve described above so that you’re not caught out.

Reference points

If you’ve been backing up to a wall, you might also be able to see it through your side window. To find this reference point, sit in your normal, relaxed driving position and look over your right shoulder. Check whereabouts in the window you can see the bottom of the wall. It’s likely to be somewhere around the bottom right corner. Make a mental note of this point; it’s a marker you can use while reversing to make sure you don’t hit anything with your back bumper.

If you’re parking up to a line, it’s all about checking the bottom of the back of your car in your side mirrors. When you see the line getting near to this point in your mirror, it’s time to stop.


How to get comfortable driving a bigger car

A lorry stuck under a bridge
Photo © wonderferret (cc-by-2.0) via Flickr

Width

Most cars tend to be of a similar width (feel free to breathe a sigh of relief here!). All the tips above—like looking ahead and using the location of your left knee to gauge your road position—will improve your spatial awareness when driving any size of car.

Height

Avoid ever having to make a judgement call on your car’s height by simply learning how tall it is. Low bridges and car parks will always display a maximum height, so there’s no guesswork involved. Obviously, you’ll have to take into account anything you’re carrying on top of your car, like a roof box or bike.

Length

Lengths do vary quite significantly between cars, so if you’re driving an unfamiliar car, always make sure that you go through the stages we’ve outlined to determine where the bonnet or bumper ends. Longer cars aren’t automatically harder to drive, so long as you familiarise yourself with them first.


What factors can impact your spatial awareness?

Certain health conditions can make it more difficult for you to determine where you are in space, and how your position relates to other things around you. These include:

  • Dyspraxia
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Turner syndrome
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Damage to the brain from a stroke or injury
  • Neurodegenerative conditions

If you suffer from a condition that affects your spatial awareness, it doesn’t usually mean that you should avoid driving. Following the tips in this article can help you to better understand the size of your car.


How to improve your spatial awareness for driving

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Although you pick up most of your spatial awareness abilities as a child, there are things you can do to help improve your skills later on in life too. Many of these are the same puzzles, games or exercises that can help children develop the skill. Here are some ideas you can try:

  • Video games, especially those where you have to move or rotate objects
  • Chess
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Regular exercise, particularly resistance training
  • Creative activities like drawing and painting
  • Visual memory games

    FAQs

I have poor spatial awareness. Will I ever be able to drive?

Poor spatial awareness may make driving challenging for you, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to compensate for this with the tips we’ve talked about in this article. Plenty of people with poor natural spatial awareness go on to become excellent drivers. Learn your theory, get started on your lessons, and go from there.

Do I need to tell the DVLA if I have a condition that affects my spatial awareness?

The DVLA requires people with certain medical conditions to let them know when they apply for a licence, or if they develop the condition at any time. These are called notifiable conditions. They often won’t exclude you from driving, but the DVLA might want you to tell them more about how the condition affects you. If you have a non-notifiable condition, like dyspraxia, there’s no need to inform the DVLA.

Check whether your health condition is notifiable here.

I struggle to tell my left from my right. Do you have any tips?

You’ve probably already heard of this one, but look down at the back of your hands. If you stretch out your thumbs and forefingers, they’ll form an ‘L’ (for left)  shape on your left hand, but only a mirror image ‘L’ on your right. Many people find this helpful in reminding them which side is which.

I can never remember directions or visualise a route. Will I fail the independent driving part of my practical test?

Sat navs are a gift for people like you! Your driving instructor will teach you how to follow directions from one—which is what most people are asked to do in their driving test.

If you’re in the other 20% of test candidates, you will need to show that you can read direction signs and road markings. The information will always be there; it’s just a question of understanding it. Again, your lessons will thoroughly prepare you for this, but it’s important that you know your theory well, too. And remember, you can always ask for an instruction to be repeated if you forget it.

By Katie Scott

Katie grew up in the middle of nowhere, so knows the true value of getting behind the wheel. From the rules of the road to handy hints and tips, she'll give you the lowdown on all things driving. Always on the move, when she's not in the car, you'll probably find Katie darting around the squash courts or out running in the rainy British countryside.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Viv

    Thanks for your top tips about spatial awareness Katie. Really helpful and it’s nice to know it’s not just me that has this problem. The Covid situation hasn’t helped my lack of driving confidence and I’m desperate to boost it and tips like yours really help.

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