Updated: Oct 19
Whenever I hear an emergency vehicle siren during a driving lesson, I ask my student, “What do you hear?” You would be amazed at how often the student does not hear the siren until I call their attention to it.
Now think about your own driving experience. When you are looking for an address, lining up to parallel park, or getting into heavy traffic, do you tend to turn off your radio or ask your passengers to stop talking so that you can concentrate?
The same principle is at play in both scenarios. A Swedish study published in 2016 showed that when we concentrate on a visual task, our brains tune out distracting sounds. If a sound is stronger than the brain’s noise canceling function, we will try to reduce it another way, like turning down the volume. But in the case of sirens outside the car, they can be tuned out as long as they are far enough away to not overpower the driver’s concentration. Once the sirens are close and loud, the driver may even be startled as though the sound came out of nowhere.
Driver Awareness Involves Watching and Listening
Driving will always be a skills-based task. This means that we have to be aware of our natural inclinations and sometimes go against them in order to develop new skills. The Swedish researchers discovered that we naturally use our brain power to concentrate on one kind of stimulation at a time. Where driving is concerned, it is essential to develop the skills to pay attention to both the visual and auditory elements of what we are doing.
With teen drivers, I call attention to sounds throughout the lesson. I coach young drivers on scanning and awareness with both their eyes and ears. When students are concentrating so hard on what they see, a new sound can easily take them by surprise and cause them to make a driving mistake. We work together on building the skill to both listen and watch at the same time.
Have you, as an experienced driver, ever been on a normal daily route and gotten startled by the horn blast of an ambulance or fire truck quickly coming up behind you? Afterward, you may even wonder for a moment how you missed them until the last second.
It may be time for a tune-up on your own scanning and awareness skills. To sharpen them, be sure to both look and listen when you scan the road and your mirrors. When coaching your teen driver, practice these skills as a passenger so that you can encourage your teen to catch sounds from a distance and safely react.
More Tips for Paying Attention to Emergency Vehicles
One of the best indicators that an emergency vehicle is headed your way is that a first one has already passed by. Where there is one emergency vehicle, there are likely to be more. If a police officer races past, they could be responding to an accident, which means that an ambulance and fire truck could be close behind. Remind your teen driver to continue watching and listening for more lights and sirens after the first emergency vehicle.
Another clue that emergency vehicles are engaged in the area is bright white flashing lights at traffic signals. If you have ever seen these lights flashing at an intersection, it means there is an ambulance or fire truck heading towards it. The lights are attached to sensors that emergency vehicle drivers can trigger to change the signal in their direction from red to green. This cuts down on confusion at intersections by stopping the cross traffic so that the vehicles can get through them quickly.
Here is an example of one of these preemption devices:
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all there is to learn about coaching your teen driver, take a look at our special course, The Parent’s Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers. This course will help you create a positive learning environment for your teen to learn to be a safe and aware driver. It may also be time to consider Safe Driving Lessons with one of our experienced coaches where your teen driver will learn how to handle the road safely and with confidence.