Observation at Junctions: Why Do So Many People Get It Wrong?

A bird's-eye view of a road junction.

When you have a driving test coming up, there are a number of worries that might start swirling in your head. We all know the classics: 'What if I stall?', 'What if I get lost on the independent driving section?!' and, the doozy, 'What if my foot slips off the break and I accidentally cause a three-car pile-up?!?'

The funny thing is, you rarely hear people worrying about whether their observation skills are up to scratch. But maybe they should. For the last 10 years, insufficient observation has been the number one reason that people failed the practical driving test. More specifically, inadequate observations at junctions has been the main culprit behind learners earning an immediate major fault on their mark sheet.

We're going to delve into why this is such a big issue and how you can avoid becoming part of the statistic. So polish your specs, look alert and let's get going!

What is it about junctions?

Love 'em or loathe 'em, junctions are a feature of pretty much all car journeys. When travelling from location A to location B, it's highly likely you'll need to navigate at least one junction along the way. At these points where one road joins another, there are various protocols we all must follow in the name of efficiency and safety. Part of the responsibility of having a driving licence is making sure you adhere to these rules.

As you would expect, the risk factor increases when traffic flowing in one direction meets traffic flowing in another. Indeed, junctions aren't just the number one factor in test fails, they're also the most common location where accidents occur.

This combination of prevalence and potential danger is exactly why junctions are such an important part of the driving test. They don't just come up once like the manoeuvres, either—you'll be tested on different types (which we'll explore later) frequently throughout the test. The main thing for learners to grasp is that junctions need to be approached safely and emerged from with care. This is where the role of observation comes into play.

Why observation is key

No matter where you're driving, you should always been keeping an eye on everything going on around you. That includes the state of the road, the speed and distance of other vehicles and the movements of pedestrians. You achieve this awareness by making use of your mirrors and frequently checking your blind spot(s). Keeping track of all of these things means that you are able to think a few steps ahead and have plenty of time to react, should anything change.

A picture of a red car's side mirror.

When it comes to junctions, proper observations are vital for planning and judgement. Each road is different and the volume and speed of traffic is constantly changing. It's no good just going through the motions and glancing at your mirrors before turning onto a new road. You need to see how close you are to other road users, judge where and how fast they are travelling and act appropriately. If it's a particularly busy junction, you might have to go through this process multiple times.

On the driving test, make it clear to the examiner that you're consulting your mirrors on a regular basis. No need to go over the top and swing your head in every direction you're looking—just monitor what's happening on the road and use it to inform how you approach each scenario you come across. With junctions in particular, you can't go wrong with the trusty mirror-signal-manoeuvre routine. This should include looking to see what's going on, assessing the situation, deciding what you're going to do, letting others know and carrying it out in a swift but safe manner.

Types of Junction

The word 'junction' actually describes a whole range of scenarios in which different roads join together. Some come with traffic lights or stop signs; on others, you may barely be able to make out road markings. There are T-junctions, roundabouts, crossroads and even box junctions. Each type requires you to adapt a slightly different observational approach. We'll cover a couple of the most basic variants, below.

An illustration of some traffic signs.

Open vs. closed

On an open junction you have a clear view of the road you are joining and can therefore see everything you need to in order to make a safe judgement about how to proceed. In these situations, if the road is not busy, it is often possible for drivers to stay in second gear and join the new road without having to stop first.

A closed junction, however, describes a scenario in which your view of the road you plan to join is obstructed. This may be by foliage, buildings, or built-up traffic. In such cases it is not safe to move onto the new road until you reach a position where you can see that your path is clear.

Marked vs. unmarked

Marked junctions, as you might guess, are much easier to spot because they will be signposted in some way. They may be distinguished by a 'Stop' or 'Give Way' sign or, at larger junctions, a set of traffic lights. How you proceed at these junctions depends, of course, on what the signs instruct you to do.

Other junctions (particularly those in rural or residential areas) may be harder to spot. Be aware that if there are no signs or road markings, no one has priority. Unmarked junctions require careful observation, particularly if other road users are present.

How to tackle junctions

The correct procedure for navigating junctions can be split into two stages: approaching the junction and emerging from the junction.

Approaching

The first step to tackling junctions is to actually notice them. This might sound like a bit of a no-brainer, but some people pick up faults on the driving test because they notice a junction too late and therefore don't have enough time to position themselves correctly. If you end up on the wrong side of a give way line, or overshooting a stop sign, this could result in a fail.

A picture of a queue of traffic.

To keep yourself on the straight and narrow, channel your inner Sherlock Holmes and be on the lookout for clues that indicate a junction is coming up. These might be things like an increase in traffic, the vehicles ahead of you slowing down or, you know, a giant road sign explaining that there is a junction ahead.

Once you're aware that you're nearing a junction, you need to start planning your approach. Work out the direction you need to go and position yourself accordingly. For example, if there are designated lanes, make sure you are in the right one in good time and signal so that other road users know what you are doing. If it's a busy and/or closed junction, change to a lower gear and eventually come to a stop where necessary. Alternatively, if it is open, unmarked and fairly empty, judge whether you are able to continue on and emerge into the new road without stopping.

OBSERVATION STATION

Can you see any signs that indicate you are approaching a junction?

How close are you to other road users and how fast are they travelling?

Considering the direction you need to go and the type of junction, where do you need to position the car?

Before you slow down, check: is there any traffic behind you, next to you, or overtaking you?

Emerging

The process of emerging from a junction and joining a new road is where adequate observations become absolutely vital. Not to be dramatic, but failing to check your mirrors and blind spot(s) at this point can have fatal consequences. Only move out into the road when you can see that your path ahead is clear. Once you've made your move you should act swiftly—it's incredibly dangerous to dither, go too slowly or suddenly change your mind.

An illustration of a traffic light.

Arrived at a closed junction and can't see whether it is safe to move out or not? It's time to be patient and employ the old 'creep and peep' (not half as bad as it sounds!) technique. Slowly edge the car forward while looking from left to right. If you see vehicles approaching from either direction that are going too fast for you to slip out in time, stop before you enter their path. When the part of the road that you can see is clear again, continue creepin' and peepin' until a safe opportunity arises for you to fully emerge. Once on the new road, have another quick check of your mirrors to establish where you are now positioned in relation to other traffic.

Chances are that most of the junctions you use will be fairly straightforward. When you have a clear view of the road ahead and it's safe for you to proceed, it's a case of checking your mirrors and blind spot(s) before you join the new road and again once you are on it. Be sure to remember that it's not just other cars you are looking out for—pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists can come out of nowhere and may be travelling faster than you think.

OBSERVATION STATION

Do you have a clear view of the road you are planning to join?

Are there any vehicles already on the lanes you need to cross or join? How fast are they travelling?

Can you see any pedestrians nearby or cyclists weaving between the traffic?

Now that you're on the new road, are you travelling at a similar speed to the surrounding vehicles?

Observation at junctions on test day

Now that you know what you should do, it's easier to see how people can rack up faults related to observations at junctions.

Common actions that can lead to a fail

  • Approaching a junction too quickly or too slowly
  • Not noticing a junction in time and having to slow down or stop abruptly
  • Emerging from a junction without checking blind spot(s) and mirrors beforehand
  • Not looking in the direction of travel when you are joining another road
  • Failing to make observations when navigating an unmarked junction
  • Emerging into the path of other vehicles in a way that forces them to alter their driving

Take your observations seriously

Carrying out the correct observations at the right time will allow you to make a well-informed decision at a junction and move ahead in a safe and confident manner. Sadly, not everyone on the road is as observant as they should be. You can't always make assumptions about what other cars are going to do—some may turn without signalling, others may signal but do something completely different!

The best way to protect yourself and others on the road is to keep an eye on what is happening around you. Your mirrors are there for a reason—so use them!