Book excerpt: 5 Steps to Enhancing your EVOC Training

New book helps trainers avoid common pitfalls and mistakes in emergency vehicle operation instruction


The following is excerpted from Hugh Anderson's book "Emergency Vehicle Operation Instruction: 5 Steps to Enhancing your EVOC Training." Click here to order. 

Chapter 8: Commentary Driving                             

What is it

Have you ever ridden in the backseat of a cab or an Uber; and the driver just would not stop talking? Well, commentary is nothing like that – okay maybe it is because it can be extremely annoying to the uninitiated.

If you think you know everything about emergency vehicle operations, think again!
If you think you know everything about emergency vehicle operations, think again!

A commentary drive, sometimes known as a narrative drive has been around for decades. There are some old videos of Harold Smith conducting commentary in the 50s and 60s. The London Metropolitan Police has been using commentary driving for years as well. I am by no means the inventor, however, I am a huge proponent of the value of incorporating commentary driving into someone's training.

It is simply a process where the driver describes what they are seeing as they proceed down the road. Basic driver education teaches drivers to continually scan sidewalk to sidewalk and don't forget to check the mirrors. These drivers may be scanning but they have no idea what they should be looking for or where they should be looking, or for that matter when to look there.

The commentary drive will help someone with proper coaching develop an extraordinary scanning process that ultimately needs to become habitual for them.

When I first began my advanced instruction career at the Skid Control School, I had an opportunity to take my mother out for some training on the skid-pad. It is a great memory for me even though I do not think that she learned anything from on the skid-pad this day – but she sure had a lot of fun! Considering that the skid-pad was located about a 30-minute drive from where she lived, I did take the opportunity to conduct a commentary drive as I drove her home. She was so enthralled with the information that I was providing that she was driven to tears. Keep in mind that this was my mother and of course she had to be pleased but it may actually have come down to her being thankful that I actually had a real job and was no longer strapping myself into race cars. Having said that, she wasn’t the first person to tell me that they received more relevant and useful information during a commentary driving session than during a skid-pad session.

As Instructors, our ultimate goal is to help our students become the best drivers that they can be. If you can get your student to develop an excellent scanning pattern by incorporating commentary into your lessons the student is much better positioned to move their scanning process into stage four. In other words, to become unconsciously competent.

How does it work

On the face of it, commentary driving is an amazingly simple exercise to help build a proper scanning pattern. The reality is, doing it at a high level with appropriate and timely scanning takes a great deal of practice.

A good starting point for commentary is understanding that there are three looks to the front of the vehicle plus one look to the rear and to simply keep repeating the process.

I am open to two scanning patterns of either left, center and right, plus to the rear or my preferred pattern of left, right, straight, and then to the rear. As the old saying goes, six of one or a half dozen of the other, it’s all the same thing. Please use whichever one of you see as being more appropriate.

One of the most common mistakes when incorporating commentary driving into your training is allowing the student to talk about things that are historical in nature or more specifically when the driver talks about things that have just occurred instead of talking about things in the future. The goal of commentary Driving is to support an eye-lead of 15-20 seconds away and to develop a scanning pattern of physical barrier to the left and a physical barrier to the right and then what is happening behind the vehicle.

Commentary can be used on a closed course as well. This would help train your drivers to be proactive with their eyes and will also slow them down just a little bit. Here is another secret for you: often drivers will find that conducting a commentary drive gets confusing and they most likely will be talking historically. In other words, they most likely can’t keep up. That is a good thing because now you can have them slow down and help them to develop the commentary.

If a driver is being overwhelmed while conducting a commentary drive, it probably means that they are driving faster than what their brain can process. I challenge you to play with this process a little bit, but I think you will quickly see the benefits of slowing a driver down when you are training them.

Bottom-up vs Top-Down Processing

If you happen to be a psychology major or a neuroscientist you are about to become very disappointed because I am going to take a little creative license here and dumb things down a bit.

According to neuroscientists, bottom-up processing is having an external stimulus, what your eye sees to begin the process. Whereas bottom-down processing is where our perception, also known as experience, helps to fill in the gaps and make decisions. Top-down processing based on your experience and perceptions telling your eyes to inspect the left turn lane because of the probability that risks at this intersection will be coming from there. If that is already in your mind you know that you have two avenues of escape: move to the right to be better seen or to put on your brakes. Okay, okay, there is a third: if the person is deeply committed to making their turn then yes, you should be ready to steer to the rear. 

Earlier in the book, we discussed how the eye works and we also made mention that the majority of drivers will not move their eyes in search of hazards but will simply wait until the eye catches movement or contrast. Then they will put their attention to whatever just caught their eye and then decide is that a hazard and if so what steps can the driver do mitigate any risk from that hazard. Will they need to slow down, change lanes, or even accelerate? This phenomenon could be known as bottom-up processing. We allowed the information to grab our eyes' attention and then we ran it through the filter up to the brain and await its decision on what action we should take. This is a very rudimentary or as I like to say novice approach to the driving task. The driver needs to be proactive in order to traverse modern-day traffic, especially an emergency vehicle operator.

What does an advanced driver look like on the road? Some definitions would undoubtedly include aware, smooth and proactive. The only way for a driver to be aware, smooth and proactive is if they are looking well ahead into their future and predicting what may or may not be happening ahead of them. An experienced driver will develop a proper scanning pattern that starts at the top and works its way down. When approaching a green traffic light that has been green for a little bit, an experienced driver's brain will tell them to inspect for a vehicle looking to turn left across their path. If one presents itself and the driver has already anticipated that the left turner may be coming out towards them, part of the decision process has already been made and the driver is able to either position the vehicle to the right or is applying the brakes and reducing speed. Then the brain will tell the eyes to look to the cross street or driveways on the right in search of potential hazards.

Benefits of commentary for the driver

There are a few different ways in which commentary driving benefits the driver:

  • It allows them to process the information on a deeper level with the intent they will have a better memory of said info for later.
  • It provides them with an actual plan as to how scanning should be conducted.
  • In most cases, it will cause the driver to reduce their speed in order to keep up with the commentary. From my perspective and based on the thousands of students I have ridden with this is not a bad thing.

During my time as a volunteer working with adults learning to read, I was able to develop my knowledge base with regards to how we learn and more specifically how we process information. Do you remember when you were learning to read or perhaps when you were helping your child to learn to read? It was always best if they read out loud and that way you could help them with proper pronunciation. A recent study showed that reading out loud can have significant benefits for retaining information. I know what you are thinking, we should have more audiobooks, but more recent studies have indicated that it's better to hear the information in your own voice. So, reading it out loud is still superior to an audiobook. So how does this come into play for EVO instructors? This is an opportunity to explore the benefits of commentary for the driver: Helping the driver develop a habitual scanning pattern will serve them for the rest of their driving careers. Teaching someone to look at the right spot at the right time will undoubtedly save lives.

Benefits for the instructor

Whenever I introduce commentary driving to field training officers, they always give a loud sigh of relief. They believe that commentary driving benefits them the most by letting them know what the driver is seeing therefore it will allow them to be a little less on edge. I must admit that this is in fact one of the key benefits to the person sitting in the right front seat. As an instructor or FTO, you should continually be aware of what the driver is seeing and therefore what they are doing to mitigate the risk.

Please keep in mind that commentary driving should be incorporated in all aspects of student driver training sessions. It should begin on a cone course or even on a track at slower speeds. As a student gains proficiency with the exercise, as well as commentary, they will be able to proceed to more challenging or advancing training exercises. A slow speed commentary walkthrough of a cone course can quickly evolve into a quick but proficient commentary around the track.

Commentary is probably most useful out on the city streets and in live traffic. As always, follow the KISS (Keep It Simple Silly) principle. If your driver has difficulties conducting a commentary while driving down the traveled roadway, they are by no means ready to be conducting emergency response driving exercises on either on track or road. This again is something that is often targeted towards the field training officers: if your student cannot crawl let alone walk, then why are you trying to get them to run?

From an EVO instructor perspective, a commentary drive allows you as an instructor to model the behavior by conducting a "model" demonstration drive. I use the term model as opposed to perfect because I have been unable to conduct a perfect drive even after more than 25 years. However, it is something that I still strive for every time I conduct a demo drive.

With you modeling the drive to your student you are showing them the path to be a proficient emergency vehicle operator. They will have been given an insight as to where and when a driver should be looking at a particular place. You have now set the standard.

Once your driver begins applying the commentary drive you will be able to easily distinguish just how far ahead they are looking. Depending on the environment with which you are working you will want them to be looking anywhere from 8 to 12 to 20 seconds ahead.

A student conducting a commentary drive may gloss right over something that you perceive as being a threat and or a critical component of the driving task. Right away you can have them pull the car over safely and have a discussion on that component. Having a student conduct a commentary drive may also lead you into recognizing that there are issues that go beyond driving. Case in point: I had a problem driver who I thought was extremely late in all their braking when slowing to make changes of direction. In listening to the commentary, I was able to ascertain that the issue was that they were unable to read the street signs in a timely manner. This had nothing to do with driving but simply that they could not see because they needed glasses despite them having a 20/20 vision or so they said. The next day I rode with them they had glasses and their braking application was both timely and smooth.

Just because your driver struggles to conduct a commentary drive doesn't necessarily mean that they are unable to drive in a proficient manner. Remember with all training exercises there are some students who will be unable to excel at the level you wish but perhaps you can encourage them to practice commentary driving on their own.

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