Defensive Driving Strategies

Defensive Driving Strategies

As a defensive driver, you can avoid crashes and help lower your risk behind the wheel.

If you've been out on the roads, you know that not everyone drives well — but most people think they do. Some drivers speed aggressively. Others wander into another lane because they aren't paying attention. Drivers may follow too closely, make sudden turns without signaling, or weave in and out of traffic.

Aggressive drivers are known road hazards, causing one third of all traffic crashes. But inattentive or distracted driving is becoming more of a problem as people "multitask" by talking on the phone, texting or checking messages, eating, or even watching TV as they drive.

You can't control the actions of other drivers. But updating your defensive driving skills can help you avoid the dangers caused by other people's bad driving.

Trip Planning and Think Safety First

If you are going on a road trip you should plan ahead. The vehicle you are going to be driving needs your foremost attention. Time after time neglecting the condition of your vehicle leaves people stranded on the roadside in the middle of nowhere waiting for help. Before you begin your trip, you should check the condition of your vehicle; engine oil level, battery, brakes and tires. Make sure you allocate enough money for gas and other unexpected emergencies.

Once you have made sure your vehicle is in proper condition, you need to make sure you have had enough sleep and are physically fit for your trip. If you are feeling sick or not up to the mark, you should try to postpone your trip or at least avoid driving. You should get enough sleep before your trip and take a break from driving once you start feeling tired. Eat a healthy meal before your trip and try to avoid excessive sugar and salt. Heavy meals tend to make you tired and increase your perception and response time. Do not drink alcohol and drive.

You should also check maps and see what route you are going to take to your destination. With the prevalence of smartphones, you do not need a traditional map, but if you choose to, make sure to keep them organized and readily available. If you are going to use your smartphone or a GPS device, make sure the applications and maps are up to date and you have cell phone coverage on the route you will be on.

Make sure to check the weather on your route to your destination. If there is going to be severe weather conditions on your route try to postpone your trip. If postponing your trip is not a possibility, you should plan on giving more time for your travel. Severe weather limits your vision and increases stopping time. This means you need to drive at a slower speed than that in normal weather conditions. You also need to make sure the following distance between your vehicle and the one in front of you is larger than that in normal weather conditions. If the weather worsens you might have to take a break and stop at a motel or a rest area.

Evaluating the Traffic Environment

Check your mirrors frequently and scan conditions 20 to 30 seconds ahead of you. Keep your eyes moving. If a vehicle is showing signs of aggressive driving, slow down or pull over to avoid it. If the driver is driving so dangerously that you're worried, try to get off the roadway by turning right or taking the next exit if it's safe to do so. Also, keep an eye on pedestrians, bicyclists, and pets along the road.

You should always be alert to traffic and look far ahead of you to evaluate any changes in traffic. You should look ahead 15 seconds to see the conditions of the traffic. This is about a quarter of a mile if the traffic is traveling at 60 mph. If there is a city close by then there will be exits, entry lanes, and merging lanes. This leads to a dynamic traffic situation where vehicles are entering and exiting the main traffic area. There might also be information about lanes that take you to different routes. Always be on the lookout for those. These informational signs are posted well in advance and if you need to change lanes do not wait until the last moment. Do not switch more than one lane at a time. Switching multiple lanes at a time does not give you enough time to react to any vehicles in your blind spot. You should only change one lane at a time, look in your rearview mirror and check if you are safe to change lanes again and then change lanes again.

You should always be prepared for unexpected events on the road like slowing traffic up ahead. Vehicles in front of you might reduce their speed significantly if they foresee slowing traffic, traffic incident etc, you should always be on the lookout for such situations. You should always maintain a safe following distance between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you. If the weather conditions are worse than normal you should increase the following distance accordingly. Stopping distance increases up to two fold if the road is wet and up to ten fold when ice is present.

Anticipating the Action of Others

Be considerate of others but look out for yourself. Do not assume another driver is going to move out of the way or allow you to merge. Assume that drivers will run through red lights or stop signs and be prepared to react. Plan your movements anticipating the worst-case scenario.

In all driving situations, the best way to avoid potential dangers is to position your vehicle where you have the best chance of seeing and being seen. Having an alternate path of travel also is essential, so always leave yourself an out — a place to move your vehicle if your immediate path of travel is suddenly blocked.

A distraction is any activity that diverts your attention from the task of driving. Driving deserves your full attention — so stay focused on the driving task.

Even if you follow all the rules of the road, actions of other drivers on the road may put you in a traffic incident that could lead to a crash and sometimes fatal injuries. You should always be alert to other drivers behaving unexpectedly so that you can react to those situations quickly. One way to avoid a crash from unexpected actions by other drivers is to maintain a safe following distance. You must always keep a safe opening around you. Watch for movements of the vehicle in front of you. If the driver in the vehicle in front of you is constantly checking their side view mirror and turning their head, most likely they are looking to change lanes. Front wheels of vehicles in front of you would also indicate if the driver is going to turn, so you should keep an eye on those signs. Drivers from out of state usually drive slower as they might not be familiar with the area and sometimes make an unexpected turn if they are close to their exit. You should always keep an eye on license plates that are from out-of-state since the drivers of those vehicles might act in unexpected ways.

Compensating for the Mistakes of Other Drivers

Even if you are a safe driver, the drivers around you might not be. Experienced driving instructors will tell you not to assume everyone on the road will do the right thing and act rationally. It is up to you to use your skills to navigate traffic safely. You should therefore always leave room and have options that you can use to escape unsafe situations. If you are traveling the speed limit on a freeway and you are closely surrounded by vehicles on all sides, it makes a very difficult situation if the vehicle in front suddenly brakes or vehicles on the sides accidentally steer into your lane. You should always:

  • Continuously scan the road and traffic ahead to identity potential hazardous situations.
  • Always keep a safe following distance so as to give yourself enough stopping time.
  • Always give yourself an escape route by leaving cushion space around your vehicle.
  • Constantly evaluate and predict traffic incidents.
  • Be extra alert during inclement weather.

You should never drive over the maximum speed limit and always follow the Basic Speed Law and drive at a speed that is reasonable and prudent under the existing circumstances. However, time after time you will encounter drivers who drive aggressively and over the speed limit. They weave in and out of lanes, tailgate and cut you off to get in front of you. A driver weaving in and out of traffic ahead of you could create a dangerous situation if they get into a crash. If you do not have a safe cushion, it might be difficult for you to avoid the collision. You should always try to avoid aggressive drivers and when you encounter them remember to do the following:

  • Increase space between your vehicle and the speeding driver.
  • Let the driver pass you and increase following distance or change lanes.
  • Always maintain buffer zones around your vehicle (more on this in the next section).

Avoiding Common Driving Errors

It is very common to be unaware of speeding especially if you are driving on a freeway with excellent roads. This is because with excellent roads and modern vehicle technology even if you are driving at a pretty high speed it does not feel like you are going fast. Only when you get stopped by a highway patrol officer you realize you were driving way over the speed limit. When driving on a freeway make sure you constantly check your speedometer to see if you are under the speed limit guidance for the road and you are following the Basic Speed Law.

If a vehicle cuts you off or is tailgating, don't worry about it, it is not worth getting into a speeding match or an aggressive encounter just to prove a point. If you come across aggressive drivers, talk yourself out of getting upset or emotional. There is enough to worry about on the road and you do not want to create an incident that is avoidable if you keep your calm. To avoid road rage you should:

  • Try to keep yourself calm.
  • Let the aggressive driver pass and increase stopping distance.
  • Avoid eye contact with an aggressive driver and increase buffer zone by changing lanes or increasing following distance.
  • Do not take action of other drivers personally.
  • If an aggressive driver follows you, drive to the nearest police station.

Interaction with Other Road Users

Watch out for the other guy. Part of staying in control is being aware of other drivers and roadway users around you (and what they may suddenly do) so you're less likely to be caught off guard. For example, if a car speeds past you on the highway but there's not much space between the car and a slow-moving truck in the same lane, it's a pretty sure bet the driver will try to pull into your lane directly in front of you. Anticipating what another driver might do and making the appropriate adjustment helps reduce your risk.

Motorcycles have the same rights and privileges as any other vehicles on the road. On many occasions drivers do not see a motorcyclist and half of motorcycle crashes are with another vehicle. Motorcyclists are about 35 times more likely to die in a traffic crash than a car occupant. There are several reasons why drivers may not see a motorcyclist coming:

  • There are very few motorcycles on the road and therefore most drivers are only looking out for other cars and not motorcycles.
  • Motorcycles are smaller and therefore a smaller profile than a car and difficult to see.
  • Motorcyclists change lanes frequently and can be missed by drivers in their rearview or side mirrors. This could be compounded by distracted driving.
  • Estimating distance and speed of a motorcycle is more difficult than that of a car.

With increasing number of bicycles on the road it is important that you understand, by law, bicycles on the road are vehicles with the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicles. They are not restricted to just the right lane of traffic. An example of this is if a bicyclist is changing lanes to make a left turn.