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What Is Hazard Perception?

By Paul Scott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hazard perception is a complex human cognitive skill which allows a person to identify a potentially hazardous situation. Well-developed hazard perception skills allow persons engaged in activities such as driving to identify hazards in time to take appropriate preventative action. Instinctively slowing down when approaching a group of children playing on the roadside is a good practical example of this skill. Unfortunately, these skills depend on the individual's visual and auditory perception abilities and are largely honed by experience, which leads to increased risks during learning curves. They are also highly individualistic characteristics and are not equally developed in all persons.

A person's ability to assess a situation as it unfolds and quickly identify potential dangers in time to avoid them is known as hazard perception. This skill is a product of auditory and visual perception abilities, situational and life experience, and complex cognitive processes such as attention to detail and concentration. The accumulation of experience both in terms of situational exposure in a specific activity and general life experience is hard-gained over extended periods and, unfortunately, goes hand-in-hand with elevated risks in the early stages of any learning curve. Both areas of perceptive ability and combined experience play a critical role in hazard perception as demonstrated by the previously-mentioned driving example.

When approaching the playing children, the driver assimilates both visual and auditory information, the extent of which will depend on the individual's ability in these areas of perception coupled to his or her level of concentration at the time. Unfortunately, if the driver does not see or hear the children in time to react proactively, any hazard avoidance actions will be crammed into the split second that it takes one of the children to chase a ball into the road. This type of situation all-too-often leads to tragic loss of life and forcefully stresses the importance of identifying any type of impaired perception early.

When the potential hazard posed by the children's activities has been visually identified, situational experience should alert the driver to the fact that it will be difficult to avoid a collision at higher speeds, so he or she slows down when approaching. In addition, life experience may have taught the driver to make allowances for the fact that the children will, while engrossed in their games, be unlikely to pay sufficient attention to traffic to avoid causing a potential hazard. These visual inputs and the two pieces of gained knowledge combined with vigilance and attention to detail should see the driver slow down and possibly move away from the curb while passing the children. A driver who does not pick up on the hazard flags and knocks one of the children down is not necessarily a bad driver, technically, but does exhibit a dangerous deficiency of hazard identification skills.

These skills are highly individualistic and are not equally developed in all individuals. Fortunately, it is possible, in many cases, to identify the lack of hazard recognition abilities, allowing the individual to concentrate on improving them. Training programs for many hazardous activities include comprehensive hazard perception tests which will give early warning of any deficiencies in the persons inherent skills. These tests are included in many driver's education programs, machine operator's training, and the training programs of law enforcement and security personnel. Luckily, for many people, constant vigilance in hazardous environments can, to a point, offset a lack in hazard perception.

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