Basic Defensive Driver Techniques

Most everyone has heard of the term ‘defensive driving’ before. But, what does it actually mean? Some may imagine a slow, hesitant driver that only drives in the right lane or uses directional signals a block before making a turn. In fact, defensive driving is actually a set of good habits combined with a driver’s existing driving skills. The standard Safe Practices for Motor Vehicle Operations, ANSI/ASSE Z15.1 defines defensive driving skills as “driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.”

Most licensed drivers are required to take a driver’s education class before being allowed to operate a motor vehicle. However, most drivers have not taken any type of defensive driving training. Defensive driving teaches you how to avoid accidents by recognizing and reacting to problems on the road before they happen.  A defensive driver should be proactive instead of reactive. This means that a defensive driver is always processing and taking in new information – and responding to it if necessary.

To become a better defensive driver, the best option is to take a defensive driving course. Several government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private schools have started specialty courses that can improve the public’s driving skills. Some of these are the National Safety Council’s Alive at 25, Defensive Driving Course (DDC), and Coaching the Mature Driver. Not everyone will want to take a defensive driving course, so here are some easy tips to improve defensive driving skills every day:

Focus on Driving the Vehicle 

  1. Stay alert. Keep your eyes on the road and notice things like directional signs, speed limit signs, and signals while you drive. Check your mirrors on occasion so you have a full view around your vehicle.
  2. Avoid distractions. Keep your focus on one thing: driving the vehicle. Eliminate distractions such as cell phones, conversations with passengers, and the radio. Put your phone away and turn the radio down.
  3. Look down the road. Instead of focusing on what’s right in front of you, make sure that you scan farther down the road. Professional race drivers use a method called High Eyes driving. They focus on the horizon ahead of them instead of the car immediately in front of them.

The Other Driver

  1. Don’t follow too closely. Keep a distance of about 3-5 seconds between you and the vehicle in front of you. Also, when you stop, stop so you can see at least 3 feet behind the rear tires of the vehicle in front of you. This will always give you some time to react if a driver ahead brakes suddenly.
  2. The rules of right-of-way. Always yield to other drivers when necessary. Being patient and giving other drivers their turn helps prevent accidents and road rage.
  3. Anticipate other driver’s moves. While you can’t read other drivers’ minds, you can make an educated guess on how they are going to react. An example of this would be leaving a little extra distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you if they are a brake-happy driver.
  4. No road rage. It can be frustrating if other drivers are erratic, don’t follow rules, or are dangerous drivers. Getting angry can make accidents more likely. Also, avoid eye contact with the other driver. Studies show that many road rage accidents occur when drivers make eye contact with each other. Road rage drivers are looking to start trouble and by looking them in the eye, you may increase their anger.

Driving Conditions          

  1. Controlling your speed. Pay attention to the posted speed limits and adjust your driving accordingly. Keep with the flow of traffic no matter where you are. If other drivers are driving at a dangerously high rate of speed, don’t attempt to match them. Always try to get into a traffic lane where you can stay at a safe speed.
  2. Make other drivers aware of what you are doing. Do everything you can to make other drivers aware of your intentions. When you change lanes, use your directional signal. Use your brake lights and headlights safely and consistently. Keep your headlights on during the daytime hours.
  3. Stay out of other drivers’ blind spots. Don’t linger in an area where other drivers can’t see you in their mirrors or windows.
  4. Watch the weather. Things such as rain, fog, snow, ice, wind, and mud can affect your driving. To make harsh weather driving safer, slow down, leave extra room between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead of you, turn on your lights, slow down on turns and hills, and pull over if you feel it’s too dangerous to drive.

Defensive driving can take some time to get used to. And breaking bad driving habits can be hard to do. Learning defensive driving isn’t so much about improving your own driving skills; it’s about learning how to avoid other drivers doing dangerous things on the road. To get started, you may have to remind yourself about defensive driving techniques, but once it becomes second nature you have become a defensive driver.

-Jay Van Deurzen


Jay graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater with a B.S.E. degree in Occupational Safety in 1985. He began his career working in the risk control departments of various insurance companies. He joined the Society Risk Control Department in 1999.

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