DEFENSIVE DRIVING SKILLS
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
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
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
- 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
- Traffic conditions: Are you on a six-lane interstate highway
with few cars in sight or a four-lane freeway with bumper-to-bumper,
- 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?
PRACTICE DEFENSIVE DRIVING
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.
MANAGING TIME, SPACE AND VISIBIITY
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
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
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.
THE “SAFE” METHOD
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
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
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
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.