When you see the term ‘defensive driving,’ it might bring certain images to mind. For example, a paranoid driver, checking their mirrors constantly, white-knuckling the steering wheel as they cruise down the highway at 10 mph under the speed limit. Or perhaps an overly cautious driver, who just won’t go at a four-way stop, too afraid they might be hit in the intersection. The meaning of term ‘defensive driving’ could perhaps be better conveyed using the terms ‘smart, attentive driving’ or ‘careful, intelligent driving.’ But those just aren’t as catchy.
In truth, defensive driving isn’t some specialized practice that takes long hours to learn about. While finding a defensive driving course in your area could prove helpful, there are some simple defensive driving methods you could start integrating into your driving routine today. Many of these are common sense practices, but sometimes you have to think through the way you’re driving today in order to break potentially harmful habits. Here are a few easy defensive driving tips to get you started and keep you safe on the road.
#1 – Don’t Follow Too Closely, and Avoid Being Followed Too Closely
The first step here is easy to do, and very practical. Tailgating other drivers is frankly pointless, dangerous in almost all circumstances, and explicitly illegal in many states. The legal standards vary, and in many cases the act of following too closely is defined by the observing officer. Basically, if you are following someone too closely, you know it, they know it, and anyone observing will know it. It’s not going to make the person in front of you go faster, and it puts you at greater risk of getting in an accident. Plus, let’s be real: people are crazy, and you shouldn't get in an altercation with someone on the road so you can get somewhere maybe 30 seconds faster.
Additionally, there’s a subtle psychological effect, which perhaps lacks scientific documentation, but which all of us know about: when someone starts tailgating you, are you likelier to speed up or slow down? For most people, it’s probably the latter, which means that tailgating doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of getting someone to do what you want them to.
That brings us to the second part of this tip: try to avoid being followed too closely. Use the passing lane to pass. If someone’s coming up behind you on the highway and you’re in the passing lane and no longer passing anyone, just go ahead and get over. Lane discipline immediately eliminates the majority of tailgating incidents. Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be jerks from time to time who tailgate you for no apparent reason, but the way to deal with them is not to slow down deliberately or brake check them (never a good idea), but to just get over. Let them go be nuts somewhere else. Just shrug it off, it’s not your problem. You’ll keep yourself safer and you’ll let the lunatic behind you get to Arby’s slightly earlier than they otherwise would have.
#2 – Don’t Assume Anything
OK, this is where the advice might start to sound a little paranoid. But if you’ve been driving a while, you know it’s true: you can never assume that other drivers will be safe or sensible. In a perfect world, we could all trust that people wouldn’t run red lights, wouldn’t swerve to make an exit, and wouldn’t back into your vehicle in a parking lot as if you weren’t even there. But our world, sadly, is imperfect, and people routinely do all of these things. These are just a few examples, but the general principle can be applied universally.
- When a traffic light turns green, don’t just floor it. There could be someone about to fly through the intersection on two of four wheels because they just had to make that light, and they could t-bone you. There are countless YouTube videos showing exactly this. Red lights, sadly, don’t actually physically stop vehicles. Pretend you’re crossing the street on foot. Look both ways before you hit the gas.
- Be cautious near exits. People do desperate, dumb things when they think they are going to miss an exit or when they are an inexperienced or nervous driver trying to merge. Anticipate exits and be ready for anything.
- No one wants to beep their horn early. But when you have that moment where you see a car backing up right towards you and you think, “There’s no way they’ll hit me. They’ve gotta see me,” just ignore that cheerful voice of positivity and go ahead and lean on your horn. Maybe you’ll be an early beeper, but that’s better than waiting for the police with a confused, apologetic driver who just can’t believe another car was behind them and who definitely checked their mirror before backing straight into you. Happens all the time.
#3 – Protect Yourself From… Yourself
Defensive driving isn’t just about watching out for other drivers. Sometimes, we can be our own worst enemies on the road. Whether it’s giving in to road rage, texting while driving, talking on the phone while driving, playing with the radio while driving, eating while driving – basically just doing a whole bunch of other stuff while driving – we humans are quite good at distracting ourselves, and we often make exceptions for ourselves that we don’t allow for others.
“Surely, if it’s me sending a quick text, that’s fine. I’m a good driver. I can send a quick text. I’m not like those other bad drivers!”
Skip it. Whatever it is, however important it seems in the moment, it really doesn’t matter. Just focus on driving. We’re talking about the act of operating a vehicle at high speeds where even a small mistake can have disastrous consequences. We drive all the time, so we get used to these conditions, but the truth is that driving really is life or death. No, that’s not cool to think about all the time and it’s kind of morbid and frightening, but it’s the truth. It’s one activity where we really should fully engage our brains and pay attention. And if you find yourself getting bored just remind yourself that your very life is at stake and one swerve of the wheel could send you careening over an embankment to your certain demise. Fun, right?
In all seriousness, these defensive driving tips are really just a reminder of what most everyone already knows. Hot tempers, petty acts of road revenge, driving distractions, and a general lack of awareness aren’t good for any of us. It’s easy to develop bad habits out there on the road, especially when other drivers demonstrate so many bad habits all around us.
So the next time you get behind the wheel, take a deep breath and remember that your main objective is just to get from point A to point B safely. Minor indignities, like letting some jerk pass you after he tailgated you, are pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Just focus on driving safe, and leave the stress in the rear-view mirror.