The simplest statement of the rule might be: “Look 5 seconds ahead … in every direction.”
Every person who drives is familiar with the concept of looking ahead. Some of us do it badly, and end up in rear-end collisions, or even pileups. Some of us do it well and see cops on the side of the highway a half mile or so in advance, so we can slow down and avoid a ticket.
As far as pileups are concerned, the critical factor isn’t that the drivers in the rear aren’t looking ahead, it’s that they’re not looking ahead ENOUGH. If you’re only watching the one car 30 feet in front of you while moving at 70 mph, you’re a prime potential victim of a rear-end collision.
Just from the fact that 30 feet is not enough space in which to stop, or even to react, you’re placing your safety in the hands and happenstance of that guy ahead of you. If a deer or a child runs out in front of him and he slams on the brakes, you WILL collide with him. But if you have a full 5 second warning, that’s time enough to brake, to swerve, to do whatever you have to do to keep yourself safe. It’s time to see, to analyze, to react to the situation. Think of that 5 seconds as a cushion ahead of you, not just a cushion of time, but of space and circumstance.
Extend the 5 seconds outward in all directions, and in all situations. Because if you could see 5 seconds into the future, you’d never have another accident.
If you’re walking and a car is coming up behind you, it can’t possibly hit you if you foresee and forestall that event … 5 seconds before it happens.
If you’re strolling near a baseball field, and you hear the crack of a solid hit off to the side, that line drive can’t sail over the fence and whack you if you look up and around.
The rule means that you attempt to see intersecting vectors from every direction, no matter what the environment. And not just the vectors that you can predict – for instance, you’re walking along the roadside facing away from traffic and expecting that all the drivers will stay on the road – but the vectors you can’t predict: All those drivers too sleepy or drunk to see you, too involved with texting, too old or tired to notice you, too distracted to stay on the road.Yes, they all should be doing a better job of driving. But that’s THEIR job. YOUR job is to protect yourself by watching out for your own safety NO MATTER WHAT they do.
Nothing in the 5 Second Rule implies that an injury is your FAULT (and certainly it doesn’t relate to unexpected deliberate attacks). But it is your DUTY to protect yourself, and your loved ones by controlling your own contributory acts – inspecting and foreseeing each hazardous environment and taking whatever action you can to limit risk. You can’t control all the factors out there around you, but you can control your own actions, as you move among those factors, with deliberate foresight and forethought, to lessen the probability. No matter what, if you do get hurt, you’ll probably tell yourself over and over “If I had only …”
Just as you wouldn’t walk out into a lightning storm carrying a tall metal rod, you should never walk in or around traffic with earbuds and loud music blocking your hearing. Nor should you stare down at your smartphone in a way that distracts your vision and attention. Never cross the street with your head down, as I see so many people doing. Never cross without looking at the lights, the traffic, even other pedestrians and cyclists … all the time you’re in the roadway. Because all of that blinds you to the next 5 seconds, and that’s just long enough to be killed by something you could have foreseen.
Inevitably, there will be those who’ll sneer at deliberately enhanced awareness as “paranoia” – a waste of time and energy on imaginary fears. But it isn’t paranoid to look out for yourself in an environment you already know is hazardous.
On a personal note, regarding the charge of paranoia, I’ve gotten to the age of 62 — following the 5 Second Rule most of my life — with never a stitch, never a broken bone, and only one minor auto accident … caused by another driver. I consider those many 5 seconds well spent.