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Lesson 7

Part 5






Defensive driving does not come naturally. You must train yourself to stay alert while monitoring the driving scene. Because of the large amount of information you must process, it is easy to become distracted. Once you lose your concentration, you become at risk for a collision. A driver who is tired, lazy, or unfocused is a dangerous driver. Therefore, it is important to develop sound habits early on so that defensive driving becomes a routine rather than a chore.



Defensive driving relies on several skills. To be able to safely maneuver your car or truck in various situations, you must have a thorough working knowledge of all its operating devices and controls. If you are thinking about how to steer or shift gears while driving, you are not watching the road.

Knowledge of traffic laws, signs, signals, and roadway markings is also essential to defensive driving. To obey traffic laws and controls, you must first understand them. Although you cannot be expected to memorize your state’s vehicle code, which may be hundreds of pages long depending on where you live, you have a responsibility to become as informed as possible. The more you know about the rules of the road, the fewer tickets you will receive and the less chance you will have of getting involved in an accident. You will also experience less stress behind the wheel.



Your safety depends on your being prepared to drive. You must be physically and mentally ready, and also able to respond when things do not go as planned. What if your car breaks down on the road? What if the weather changes for the worse? Asking “what if?” questions prepares you for possible emergencies and helps you avoid them.

For example, by asking “What if my car breaks down?” you will remind yourself that your vehicle has needs beyond gas. When was the last time you checked your oil or antifreeze? Have you had your brake pads checked recently? You will also be forced to rethink your driving schedule and route. Are there service stations along the road you are taking, if you are driving a long distance?



Awareness is essential to defensive driving. Being aware of what is happening around you allows you to spot potentially dangerous situations early. If you see a line of parked cars on the road, for example, you should be ready for surprise door openings. Brake lights on cars ahead tell you to prepare for sudden stops or changes in speed. If you encounter a road construction detour, you should expect confused or frustrated drivers to dart in and out of lanes. By remaining aware of the driving environment, you can detect even the smallest indications of trouble before it occurs.



No matter where you are driving or what the road conditions are, you should always “expect the unexpected.” The ability to anticipate problems before they happen is fundamental to developing an overall defensive driver attitude. Make a habit of anticipating what drivers and pedestrians around you are about to do and how your car will respond in both normal and emergency situations. No mater what driving decision you make, always have in mind an alternative you can implement if you get into trouble.



Good judgment in driving situations involves choosing the safest and most effective option available to you. For example, you must decide when to start applying your brakes, how early you should signal, whether you have enough room to pass, and how close you should follow another vehicle. You must consider a number of factors when determining how to avoid potential hazards:


  • The type of road you are on: Is it a smooth, straight, and well-marked city street with clearly painted lines and helpful signs or a poorly lit, narrow country road with soft shoulders and potholes?
  • The weather: Is it a warm day with a clear, blue sky and good visibility or is rain coming down in sheets too thick for your windshield wipers to handle? Is for obscuring the road ahead? Is wind whipping your vehicle dangerously close to the guardrail? Are freezing temperatures transforming gentle bends in the road into icy, hairpin turns?
  • Visibility: Maybe you have 20/20 vision, but what about the driver about to make the left turn in front of you? Is that driver someone who could not see the “E” at the top of the vision test chart even with glasses – which, by the way, the driver is not wearing right now! Can that driver on your right who is about to move into your lane see your car through the mud-caked windows?
  • Vehicle condition: Are you driving a brand-new car outfitted with the latest antilock brakes or an old, hand-me-down “junkmobile” that needs new tires and a brake job? What about the cars around you?
  • Traffic conditions: Are you on a six-lane interstate highway with few cars in sight or a four-lane freeway with bumper-to-bumper, rush-hour traffic?
  • Other roadway users: Are other drivers around you courteous and law-abiding or are they drunk, careless, rude or angry at the world and ready to prove a point at your expense?



You have likely heard the expression “practice makes perfect.” Although practicing driving will not necessarily make you a perfect driver, it will definitely make you a safer driver. The more you practice, the faster you will gain confidence behind the wheel. The best way to develop your driving skills is to practice them in a low-density, low-stress environment such as an empty parking lot or on quiet suburban streets. Once you master the basics, you will have the self-confidence to move to challenging environments where your alertness and concentration are even more critical.

Defensive driving means developing the ability to perform evasive driving maneuvers. To safely execute such a maneuver, you must be comfortable with using all of your car’s controls. You have to be “in synch” with your vehicle’s limits and capabilities. In most cases, you can resolve a problem with basic actions like braking, stopping, turning, flashing your headlights, or tapping your horn. In more complex situations, however, you may have to use a combination of well-timed and smoothly coordinated maneuvers to move your vehicle out of harm’s way or to minimize an impending impact. The only way to be good at executing such maneuvers is the practice.



Defensive driving involves managing time, space and visibility as much as possible. You can never completely control these factors in a particular driving situation, but the better you manage them, the more flexibility you will have in choosing a course of action.



One of the greatest errors committed by drivers is following too closely.
By increasing your following distance, the distance between your vehicle and the vehicle directly ahead of you, you can significantly reduce the chance of becoming involved in a collision. A long following distance allows you to scan farther ahead, makes it earier for drivers ahead to see you in their mirrors, gives you more time to react if the vehicle in front of you suddenly comes to a stop, and provides you with an escape path if another vehicle is about to rear-end your own car. Because rear-end collisions are one of the most common types of motor-vehicle collisions, increasing your following distance is critical to defensive driving.

In ideal low-speed driving conditions, with little traffic congestion and good visibility, you should maintain a minimum following distance of 2 to 3 seconds behind another vehicle. Because at higher speeds your car travels farther in the same amount of time and it takes longer to stop, you should increase your following distance the faster you travel. As a rule, maintain at least a 4-second following distance at speeds between 40 to 60 miles per hour and a 5-second following distance at speeds greater than 60 miles per hour.

One way to determine if you have enough space behind the car you are following is to test the 3-second rule. Pick a fixed object ahead, such as a tree, sign, or telephone pole. Count the number of seconds that pass between the time that the car ahead of you passes this object and the time that you pass it. Use full seconds: “one thousand and one…one thousand and two…one thousand and three.” If you reach the fixed object before you count to three, you are driving too closely to the vehicle ahead of you.

In certain low-speed driving situations, you should increase your following distance to 4, 5 or even 6 seconds:


    • If you are a new driver
    • When driving in severe weather
    • If traction is poor
    • When driving at night or any time visibility is reduced
    • If your view ahead is blocked by a large vehicle such as a truck or bus
    • When following a motorcycle
    • When following an obviously unsafe vehicle
    • When following vehicles with license plates from another state
    • When traveling on unfamiliar roadways
    • When a driver ahead of you is driving erratically or unsafely
    • When a driver behind you is following too closely
    • When pulling a trailer or a heavy load
    • When driving downhill
    • When you are stopped in traffic going uphill
    • When you sense trouble ahead
    • If you fell sick or tired



Always try to surround your vehicle on all sides with a space cushion, an empty space between you and all other cars or objects on the road. This space enables you to have a better view of your driving environment so that you are able to pick up potential problems early. Also, space cushions provide escape routes if you need them.

Space cushions should be at least one vehicle space on all four sides. As you drive, you constantly need to adjust your speed to create a space cushion. In heavy traffic, however, it can be nearly impossible to maintain a large space cushion. In these situations, it is important to keep a safe following distance from the car in front of you.



Drivers who follow other cars too closely post one of the most common and dangerous challenges to maintaining a proper space cushion around your car. One of the best ways to deal with a person who tailgates is to increase the space cushion in front of you so that if one of the drivers ahead of you stops suddenly, you will be able to brake smoothly, letting the person behind you know of your intentions. Also, plan an escape route in case the person tailgating is not able to stop.



SAFE is a defensive driving strategy that you can use to evade potential danger on the roadway. By helping you to manage time, space and visibility in a manner that is simple and easy to remember, it prevents conflicts and makes for safer, less stressful driving.

SAFE stands for scan, assess, find and execute. Following this four-step sequence gives you an organized way to gather, interpret and act on information about the driving environment. When driving you should constantly scan for clues, assess what others are likely to do and what your options are, find a solution or “out,” and execute any necessary driving maneuvers successfully. In some situations, you might repeat this process dozens of times.



The first step is scan the complete driving scene around you. Be aware of other drivers, pedestrians, and any other hazards around you. By scanning ahead, you give yourself time to slow down gradually and to change lanes smoothly while avoiding unnecessary braking. When you eliminate the need to stop or turn suddenly, you are less likely to be involved in a collision.
Look far ahead down the road to spot potential problems. This allows you to analyze traffic situations and road conditions and to predict what might happen long before a driving conflict arises. You should look between 20 and 30 seconds ahead of you. In urban driving, in which you are typically moving from 25 to 30 miles per hour, this is equivalent to 1 ½ to 2 average city blocks. On highways and freeways, when you are moving anywhere from 50 to 70 miles per hour, you should look between 1/3 to ½ mile down the road.

Traffic controls may be positioned anywhere in an intersection. They may be overhead in the center of the road, or off to the side. Always scan for road signs, construction signs, or flashing lights that make you aware of changing traffic flow ahead.

When you scan with your eyes, make sure that you get the “big picture” and not just stare at one particular item. When scanning the areas near your vehicle, look to the sides of the roadways or lanes for pedestrians, cars pulling away from the curb, etc. Alternate glances ahead and to the side with checks in your car’s mirrors, from side to side, and also in the rear.

Perform visual checks in the pattern suggested below:


    • To your right
    • To your left
    • At your rearview mirror
    • At the driver sideview mirror
    • At the passenger sideview mirror
    • At the instrument panel (to check for speed, etc.)

Repeat this sequence as you driving and by remaining alert, you will spot most changing road conditions and potential dangers quickly. You can then adjust your speed and position in plenty of time. Always remember to keep your eyes moving.



The next step in the SAFE process is to assess potential threats on the roadway. The ability to predict problems before they happen is fundamental to defensive driving. Once you are able to consistently and accurately anticipate what others might do in a dangerous situation, the options available to you, the probable consequences of your actions, and how your vehicle will respond, you can make informed decisions to prevent a collision.
The more time you spend behind the wheel, the better you will be at predicting which hazard is the most critical to avoid. As time goes by, your ability to forecast outcomes will improve with the level of your experience.
By looking for certain clues to potentially hazardous situations, such as an oncoming car suddenly turning left in front of you or a pedestrian stepping off a sidewalk, you can anticipate the actions of others on a roadway. For example, if you identify a car at the curbside with its left-turn signal on, the wheels turned toward the street, the driver may be preparing to pull away from the curb into your path of travel. Always be aware of drivers who are distracted, such as a driver drinking coffee while driving or someone on a cell phone.

The potential for danger depends largely on your driving environment. On city streets, for example, pedestrians and bicyclists, vehicles pulling in and out of parking spaces, and double-parked delivery trucks that block your vision are common hazards. In residential or suburban neighborhoods, you must watch for children playing, pets wandering, and cars backing out of driveways.

When driving in heavy rain, at night or in conditions of reduced visibility, you must assess possible hazards as early as possible. Sometimes the road surface itself is a problem. A street that is slick because of the weather or is poorly maintained will affect how your vehicle handles. If you skid on a slippery road or hit a large pothole, you can lose control of your vehicle and cause a collision.



Once you have identified a potential danger and assessed your options, you must find an “out.” An “out” is an escape route that you have identified as the best means of avoiding a conflict on the road. Always position your vehicle so that there is a margin of space around it to provide a cushion between you and other vehicles. Constantly adjust your position in changing traffic conditions to keep that space cushion around your car. This will give you the extra time needed to stop suddenly or to move to the side to avoid a hazard.

Do not assume that others on the road will always take the correct evasive action in a driving conflict. Consider all the possible paths that other drivers may take and think of how you might respond to each one. Look for escape routes in each of the possible outcomes and try to predict what the other driver will do. Not every emergency has a perfect “out.”



The final step in the SAFE method is to execute. You always have a least two options if you encounter danger on the road. You can change your speed, and you can change your direction. In most cases, if you change your speed you will choose to slow down or stop. If you have maintained a safe following distance, you should have plenty of room to slow down before hitting the vehicle ahead. If another car is about to rear-end you or hit you from the side, however, it may be to your advantage to speed up if the road ahead of you is clear of other vehicles and pedestrians.

In some situations, you may decide to change direction if you cannot stop in time and there is an escape path to either side of your vehicle. By swerving or making a sharp right or left turn, you may be able to avoid a hazard with less risk to yourself or others.




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