When you get behind the wheel of your car, it’s important to consider the safety of everyone around you. It’s easy to be conscious of other vehicles, but there are also special considerations required to keep cyclists and pedestrians safe. Often, these are overlooked – not because drivers are careless, but simply because there are so many other details we are focused on while driving.

This guide will cover the precautions needed to share the road safely with pedestrians and cyclists. It will discuss ways to eliminate distractions, be more conscious of your surroundings on the road, and safe practices to employ every time you operate a vehicle. Education is the best preparation to make the road a safer place for everyone!

Looking out for pedestrians
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Eliminating distractions

Distracted driving is especially dangerous when it comes to pedestrians and cyclists because they can pop up in an instant – seemingly from nowhere. Taking your focus off the road for even a second can be the difference between a safe journey and a collision. A distraction can come in the form of an intense conversation with a passenger, eating, changing the radio station, or adjusting your GPS.

To start, make sure the way your car is organised and maintained keeps the focus on driving; don’t use it as a place to store things and keep it tidy. It’s tough to concentrate on driving when garbage is rolling around with every turn, and you run the risk of objects inhibiting your pedals or gear shift. Avoid having too many decorative elements that could limit your sight, even if it’s just a pair of fuzzy dice on the rear-view mirror that occasionally fall into your line of vision.

Prepare for your trip as much as possible before even starting the car. Give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination and review any maps or directions that you’ll need before hitting the road. If you’re driving with a child or pet in tow, get them situated first. Configure your GPS, set climate controls, and adjust music settings while still parked, and do what you can to avoid readjusting throughout the course of your trip. Put any reading materials in the boot so you aren’t even tempted to look at them while driving. Silence your cell phone — don’t just turn it on vibrate! — and stow it somewhere out of reach like the boot or in a purse in the backseat. And don’t forget to always buckle up!

While you’re driving, don’t make any calls or check your phone for any reason. If you’re using a smartphone’s GPS function, place the phone in a cradle. It should be installed in a place where it’s easily viewable when you need to glance at it, but doesn’t impede your visibility. Though it’s legal for anyone above a P1 licence to use their phone in a hands-free setting in all Australian territories, it’s much safer to let your calls roll to voicemail while driving. If for some reason you must answer (if your child is calling and you worry it may be an emergency, for example), keep the call as brief as possible and pull off the road to a parking lot or rest area if you need to speak at length.

Remember, even talking hands-free is distracting and can increase your risk of crashing. If you need to make a change to your GPS entry or make a phone call, pull off the road to a safe area.

Navigating via GPS
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Creating a conscious awareness of your surroundings

Before any car trip, look around the area to get an idea of what the pedestrian and cyclist traffic is like. Once behind the wheel, make it a habit to shift your eyes every two seconds and check your rear-view mirror every 5-8 seconds. If you’re making a turn or lane change, always check your blind spots — cyclists are smaller and more difficult to see, making it trickier for your mirrors alone to catch them.

Drop your speed in construction zones and watch for workers and changing traffic patterns; bike lanes may have to shift into the main flow of traffic, so keep an eye out for signs and be prepared to let cyclists in. Always prepare for the unexpected and leave yourself as many outs as possible. Don’t let your vehicle get boxed in, instead keeping a safe distance between you and the vehicle you’re following as well as plenty of space in neighbouring lanes.

Slow down on roads likely to have significant cyclist and pedestrian traffic: schools, hotels, shopping centres, and restaurants, to name a few. Be vigilant even if you don’t initially see anyone, and keep in mind that pedestrians are harder to see at night and in poor weather conditions. Children can be especially difficult to see and aren’t always wary of danger in the road, so be alert that they could appear unexpectedly and behave unpredictably. Never make the assumption that anyone on foot or a bike has seen you — even if you have the right of way, your vehicle gives you greater power that you must wield responsibly. Be alert even when exiting the car and check for a passing bike before opening your door.

Cyclists on the road

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Neighbourhood areas can be particularly risky in terms of crossing paths with pedestrians and cyclists, especially when it comes to backing out of your driveway. Scan the area before you begin to pull out, and do so slowly. Depending on what kind of car you drive you may be at the mercy of large blind spots, so it may be helpful to put your windows down and listen for any signals that someone out of sight may be approaching.

Always yield to anyone in a pedestrian crossing, and slow down as soon as you see a sign. Keep your speed low and be prepared to stop, even if there isn’t anyone immediately visible attempting to cross; a pedestrian in a rush may suddenly run to the crossing expecting you to see them and stop in time, so keep your eyes alert to your surroundings as you approach. When you stop for anyone crossing, leave enough room between the vehicle and pedestrian walk to give those on foot ample room and allow drivers behind you to see them. Never overtake a car stopped at a pedestrian walk.

In addition to being aware of your surroundings, it’s also important to make others aware of your presence. Turn on your headlights at dawn, dusk, night, and in poor weather conditions like rain or fog. Signal your intentions to turn, change lanes, or stop early enough to give those around you more time to prepare. If you see traffic congestion ahead, slow down and tap your brake lights to alert those behind you.

Safe driving practices

Practicing patience while driving is another important tactic when it comes to pedestrian and cyclist safety. Cyclists may not be moving as quickly as you’d like and pedestrians crossing the street may momentarily halt your flow, but keeping your composure will make for a safer experience for everyone. If you find yourself struggling to keep your cool, turn off any music you’re listening to and make a conscious effort to relax body tensions like a clenched jaw or hands tightly gripping the steering wheel.

Maintain a positive attitude while driving. Don’t let a competitive edge take control, even if someone else acts aggressive. Instead of getting angry if a cyclist cuts you off, take a deep breath and wish them well on their journey. If a pedestrian crosses in front of your car without using a zebra crossing, choose to be thankful that you were driving carefully enough that no one was injured and give yourself a mental pat on the back. It’s easy to get upset when someone does something inconsiderate or dangerous on the road, but at the end of the day it’s better to focus on the positives and appreciate the times that no one gets hurt. Even if an unexpected situation makes you a little late for an important appointment, it’s still infinitely better than someone losing their life over aggressive retaliation.

Watch out for runners at dusk

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Patient driving includes knowing when to use your horn and when to resist. Cyclists don’t have the advantage of windows that can buffer the loud sound, so blasting the horn and catching one off-guard can startle him and lead to a crash. Only use your horn if it’s necessary for safety reasons, like if someone swerves into your lane or you’re calling attention to a large object obstructing the road ahead.

Scaled, feathered, and furred pedestrians: Looking out for Australian wildlife

Australia has an abundance of wildlife: more than 378 species of mammals, 828 species of birds, and 440 species of lizards and snakes. There are also plenty of livestock and farm animals who may wander into the roads. Be on the lookout for animal crossing signs that will alert you to which kinds of wildlife may be around and sometimes include the time of day they’re most commonly seen. Remember that these are only a guideline, though; many Australian animals are quick-moving and unpredictable, so never underestimate their potential presence!

Though you’re most likely to encounter wildlife when driving through the countryside, wild animals have been known to wander into towns, especially during droughts to seek out food and water. For that reason, it’s important to prepare for the possibility at any time. Wildlife tends to be more present at sunrise and sunset when visibility may be limited so lower your speed and use your headlights in these conditions, especially if you see animal crossing signs.

Exactly which kind of fauna you could encounter depends largely on the area you live in, but in general the most common are kangaroos, wallabies, echidna, emu, and brumbies. If you’re in the countryside and there isn’t traffic around, use your high beams as much as possible to give better visibility. Keep in mind that animals may become disoriented by bright lights and won’t necessarily be scared off the road if they see any coming toward them. If you come across an animal in the road, dip your headlights (don’t flash them), slow down, and sound your horn. Ideally, this gives the animal plenty of time and warning to move out of the way.

Watch out for roos!

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Emu can be particularly tough to deal with safely, as they tend to run alongside the road as a car approaches rather than away. The trick is to drive on the opposite side of where the emu is running (only if it is safe to do so) and attempt to edge it off the road. Just be careful not to hit it!

Of course you’ll want to do what you can to avoid ever hitting any animals you see in the road, but put your own safety first. Only brake if it’s safe to do so and never swerve to miss an animal. Though it seems counter-intuitive, it’s usually safer to hit the animal than swerve and risk losing control of the vehicle. If you do hit an animal, check here to find out where to report it for your location.

A truly safe driver is educated on and prepared for any kind of hazard on the road. By eliminating distractions, staying aware of your surroundings, and keeping a positive attitude, you can easily make the road a safer place for you, cyclists, and pedestrians of all species.