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Driver Tips

How Defensive Driving Works

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Approximately 6 million collisions occur on America’s roads each year [source: NHTSA]. These accidents kill approximately 40,000 Americans and injure 2 million more annually. They also cost the U.S. government about $164 billion — or about $1,000 per person per year [sources: KCBSCDC FaststatsLos Alamos National Lab].

No one plans to get into a car wreck, but accidents can and often do happen. Drivers get distracted by cell phones and text messages, take their eyes off the road or simply don’t pay attention. Aggressive drivers hit the gas pedal too hard, switch lanes without warning or follow other drivers too closely.

You can’t prevent accidents entirely, but you can decrease their likelihood by practicing some good defensive driving skills. Defensive driving is all about anticipation — knowing what’s going on around you, predicting what might happen and knowing how to react quickly in case another driver catches you off-guard. It’s also about protecting yourself so that you’re less likely to be injured in a crash. Something as simple as putting on a seat belt could save your life in an accident; in fact, they save about 11,000 lives per year [source: NHTSA]

In this article, you’ll learn some tips to help you drive more defensively. Although no amount of defensive driving can prevent a crash, this advice should help you stay alert, in control and safer out on the road.

How to Drive Defensively

Here are a few tips to help you drive defensively:

Stay focused. It’s hard to ignore that plaintive cell phone ring or text message signal. If you’re running late, you may be tempted to finish breakfast or put on your mascara while driving. Don’t do it. A 2006 study finds that almost 80 percent of all crashes involve some kind of distraction in the three seconds immediately before the accident [source: Auto Trader]. When you’re driving, the only thing that should be on your mind is the road in front of you. Put your cell phone out of reach, even if it’s hands-free — research finds that any kind of phone can take your concentration off the road [source: CNN Money]. Pull over to talk and text, eat, put on your makeup, change the CD or read the newspaper (yes, some people actually do this in traffic).

Be in control. Taking any controlled substance could slow your reflexes and mar your judgment enough to cause an accident, so avoid drugs and alcohol when you know you have to drive. Sleepiness is also a danger on the road. Driving drowsy is like getting behind the wheel with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 (the legal limit in the U.S.), and it leads to nearly 2 million crashes each year [source: Sleep Foundation]. Get a good night’s sleep before you drive, and if your eyelids are starting to droop, get off the road and find a place where you can nap.

Be wary. You may be the best driver in the world, but you still need to worry about other drivers, including the woman who’s putting on her lipstick at 70 miles per hour (113 kph). Put extra space between your car and the one in front of you to give other drivers enough room to make unexpected moves. Check your mirrors constantly and always try to look as far as you can down the road ahead. Always have an escape route you can use quickly if someone sneaks into your lane unexpectedly.

Be safe. Make sure your car is equipped with accessories like air bags, ABS brakes and traction-control systems. Check your tire pressure, lights and fluids before you hit the road. Lock your doors, wear your seatbelt at all times and make sure your passengers do the same (children should be in age-appropriate car seats). Drive within the legal speed limit and follow local traffic laws.

Driven to Distraction

Drivers today aren’t only on the phone — they’re texting, eating, and even grooming themselves in traffic. Here are just a few of the things drivers are doing when they should have their eyes on the road.

  • Eating — 60 percent
  • Disciplining children — 21 percent
  • Using a GPS or MP3 player — 13 percent
  • Grooming — 5 percent
  • Reading — 5 percent


Defensive Driving Courses

All you really need to drive defensively is a little common sense, but you can take a defensive driving course if you think you need some extra help. These classes are often referred to as “traffic school,” a program drivers use to erase points from their license after they get a speeding ticket, but they can also be useful for drivers who just want to brush up on their skills and learn how to prevent accidents. The American Auto Club (AAA), The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and a variety of other organizations offer defensive driving courses.

In a classroom, students spend four to eight hours learning driving techniques such as paying attention, following safely, observing right-of-way rules, passing safely and avoiding driver errors. These courses also teach students how to react safely in a variety of conditions, including how to:

  • Increase following distance and avoid being blinded by oncoming headlights at night, when visibility is low.
  • Allow for safe distances, maneuver around trucks and avoid aggressive drivers on the highway.
  • Drive safely on rain- or snow-slicked roads

Some courses are even held online, so drivers can learn right at home. Online courses feature interactive screens where users learn defensive driving techniques and take quizzes designed to test their new skills. (One program is even taught by stand-up comedians to make the experience more entertaining.)

These courses do cost money — generally between $15 and $45. However, when you successfully finish a defensive driving course and receive a certificate of completion, you may be eligible for safe driving discounts of up to 10 percent off your auto insurance.

To find an approved defensive driving program in your area, check with your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Active and Passive Driving Safety

Learning how to drive defensively makes sense, but accidents can and will happen. Luckily, modern cars are equipped with a number of devices that are designed to prevent accidents, and to keep the car’s driver and occupants safe if an accident does occur. These devices generally fall under two categories: active driving safety and passive driving safety.

Active driving safety refers to devices and systems that help keep a car under control and prevent an accident. These devices are usually automated to help compensate for human error — the single biggest cause of car accidents [source: Forbes]. For example:

  • Anti-lock brakes prevent the wheels from locking up when the driver brakes, enabling the driver to steer while braking.
  • Traction control systems prevent the wheels from slipping while the car is accelerating.
  • Electronic stability control keeps the car under control and on the road.

Passive driving safety refers to systems in the car that protect the driver and passengers from injury if an accident does occur.

  • Air bags provide a cushion to protect the driver and passengers during a crash.
  • Seat belts hold passengers in place so that they aren’t thrown forward or ejected from the car.
  • Rollover bars protect the car’s occupants from injury if the vehicle rolls over during an accident.
  • Head restraints prevent the driver and passengers from getting whiplash during a rear-end collision.

Content written by Stephanie Watson and created in partnership with