Defensive Driving Crash Course
Crash Course in Defensive Driving Techniques

Defensive Driving Crash Course: Mastering Safe Driving Techniques

Updated Dec. 15, 2020

As a student driver, you almost certainly have come across the idea of “defensive driving” prior to encountering it here. In every state driver’s manual, all printed driver’s ed materials and on every road safety website, defensive driving is heralded as the solution to the threat we face on our nation’s highways. With roughly 40,000 traffic-related deaths occurring each year, a solution of some kind is clearly required. But what does it mean to drive defensively?

The term itself was first coined in 1964, when National Safety Council employee Chris Imhoff used it to describe a driving technique that motorists could learn, to increase road safety and cut back on accidents and collisions. Today, the National Safety Council’s defensive driving course defines the technique as “driving to save lives, time and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.” Learning to drive defensively is the single most important thing you can do as a trainee driver.

What is defensive driving?

Defensive driving is a set of strategies that reduce the risk of sustaining property damage, injury or death, as a result of traffic accidents or collisions. The technique works by helping you to avoid conflicts and dangerous situations while driving. It also prepares you to deal with hazardous situations that cannot be avoided. Defensive driving recognizes that you cannot control the actions of other drivers and road users, therefore the only way to stay safe is to establish a strong position from which to avoid or respond to the mistakes of others.

A motorist who drives defensively will be proactive about identifying and avoiding risky situations, rather than just reacting to immediate dangers as they occur. Reactionary driving is a common mistake made by new and more experienced motorists alike. If you do not act against danger until that danger is on top of you, you are far more likely to end up in a collision or accident. Defensive driving teaches you to spot future situations that could become dangerous and take steps to avoid them. It is prevention, rather than cure.

Avoiding danger vs evading hazards

Risk avoidance is ALWAYS a more effective safety strategy than hazard evasion – which would involve making some drastic, last-minute maneuver to prevent an accident. Consider this scenario:

You are approaching a drunk driver on the roadway up ahead, weaving in and out of their lane. There is a chance that this driver may collide with your vehicle, causing you to lose control and be injured or killed. You recognize this threat and have two options for keeping yourself safe:

  1. 1

    You make no adjustments to your course or speed.
    If the drunk driver acts in a way that would cause a collision as you draw nearer, you will attempt to evade the danger by performing an emergency stop or steering away from them.

  2. 2

    On spotting the drunk driver, you immediately reduce your speed and increase your following distance.
    As a result, you will not get close enough for any dangerous or unpredictable action they take to affect you.

Which option do you choose? If you’re thinking that option 2 sounds like the more effective and less stressful response, you’d be right. Why risk having to make an upsetting, adrenaline-fueled evasive maneuver in response to danger, when you could completely avoid the dangerous situation ever coming to pass in the first place? This is what defensive driving is all about.

How to be a defensive driver

Defensive driving relies on you taking responsibility for your own safety. Road accidents and collisions are rarely caused by chance alone; as such, they are largely avoidable. You have a considerable amount of power over your fate while behind the wheel. You can either scan the roadway for potential hazards, act against them immediately and stay safe or increase your chances of being involved in a collision by waiting for dangerous situations to develop around you before taking any action. It’s a no-brainer!

Your defensive driving journey starts here. The lessons in this defensive driving crash course will arm you with the necessary tools and strategies to become a proficient defensive driver.

Defensive Driving Tips

Before we discuss the topics you will be covering over the rest of the course, let’s lay out some essential defensive driving tips:

  1. 1

    Search ahead on the road.

    You will not be able to act pre-emptively against potential danger if you only focus on the vehicle in front of you.

  2. 2

    Keep your eyes moving.

    Staring at one spot could cause you to lose concentration or miss important details on other parts of the road.

  3. 3

    Avoid distractions.

    To detect hazards, you must remain fully focused on the driving task.

  4. 4

    Be fit to drive.

    Tiredness, illness, injury and intoxication will all limit your ability to spot hazards.

  5. 5

    Expect the unexpected.

    Do not rely on other road users behaving as you would behave in a certain situation.

  6. 6

    Control your speed.

    The faster you are traveling, the harder it will be to spot hazards.

  7. 7

    Manage your space.

    Keeping a safe bubble of space around your car will give you the necessary time to react to immediate danger.

  8. 8

    Maintain your vehicle.

    A vehicle that falls into disrepair may not handle as well as you need it to in an emergency.

  9. 9

    Always choose the SAFEST action.

    If one action involves less risk than all other possible actions, that is the action you must take.

  10. 10

    Use a space management system.

    This will help you to keep the area immediately around your vehicle free from hazards.

Space management in driving

If the idea of a space management system is new to you, don’t worry, our next module will bring you up to speed. As the goal of defensive driving is to avoid getting into an immediately dangerous situation, you must adopt a hazard detection procedure that allows you to deal with danger before it occurs in the area around your vehicle. Space management systems facilitate this.

Space management is not a new concept; there are a variety of different systems that have been taught under driver’s education programs for many decades now. We will introduce you to some of the main systems in this module! You will see that though they appear different at first glance, all space management systems are built around the same principle: maintaining enough space around your vehicle to see, consider and respond to danger.

The SEE system

Like most other driver’s education programs today, we refer to the SEE system of space management throughout our materials. SEE stands for Search, Evaluate, Execute and is widely considered to be the simplest and most effective method of managing space while driving. Using the SEE system, you will search the roadway for potential dangers, evaluate the situation to settle on an appropriate response and execute your chosen maneuver to avoid danger.

A complete break-down of this system and the techniques required to use it can be found in the second module of this block. We will then go on to explore each stage of the SEE system individually, across the remaining lessons in the defensive driving course.

Searching the road

Here, you will learn exactly how to search the roadway for potential hazards. Keeping your eyes open and staring ahead is not enough! You must know where to look and how to alternate your gaze between different spots, to collect the maximum amount of visual information about the road. Of course, not all visual information is equally important when it comes to avoiding danger. Therefore, you must also learn what to look for and which information to prioritize while conducting your search.

Identifying hazards

A defensive driver actively targets risk-enhancing elements of the roadway environment and arranges them in order of severity. Such elements may include traffic control devices, blind curves in the road, children playing by the roadside, large trucks and water on the road’s surface. Many hazards do not appear to be overtly “dangerous”, but don’t let this fool you. While searching the roadway you are looking for any object or situation which could lead to conflict or demand a change in your driving behavior. By employing a comprehensive search strategy, you can ensure no important details are overlooked. Having collected this information, the next step is evaluation.

Evaluating hazards

With your knowledge of road rules, traffic laws and your own driving skills, you will evaluate the potentially dangerous situation you have identified, to determine an appropriate course of action. This will require a degree of mental effort when you first start learning to drive, though it will become second nature in time.

There are hundreds of different factors that may influence how you should respond to a hazard. Whatever the situation, most hazards can be avoided by altering your speed, path of travel or lane position. In some instances, you may take all three of these actions. In others, the safest choice will be taking no action at all. The module “Assessing and Responding to Hazards” will outline the most common hazard avoidance tactics and discuss some situations in which they may be used. When you have learned to evaluate roadway hazards, execution is the only step of the SEE system left to address.

Executing a maneuver

The way you execute a driving maneuver will depend on whether you were able to act pre-emptively against a potential hazard or whether an immediate danger has taken you by surprise. Unfortunately, this will sometimes happen to even the most cautious of defensive drivers. Rest assured that everything you need to prepare you for unexpected driving emergencies can be found in this final module. We also cover appropriate responses to common hazardous situations to get your work with the SEE system off to a smooth start! Find out how to deal with roadside hazards, hazards at intersections, unexpected lane changes and sudden stops. Remember that you must always choose the safest course of action and frequently, this will mean yielding the right-of-way when another road user makes a mistake.

Managing space as a defensive driver

In defensive driving, nothing is more important than effective space management. If you can keep the space around your vehicle free from obstacles and dangers, you have a situation in which it is practically impossible for a collision to occur. Let’s get started by finding out exactly what an effective space management system will do for you and your driving.

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Different Space Management Systems
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Driving Space Management Systems

Effective space management is a driver’s most powerful line of defense against hazards and traffic accidents. There are several different space management systems commonly taught in driver’s ed programs. Each of these systems work to achieve the same goal: maintaining a safe “bubble” of space around your vehicle.

The SEE System for Space Management
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The SEE System

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Scanning The Road - Defensive Driving Techniques
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Scanning the Road

The first stage of the SEE system – or indeed any defensive driving strategy – is scanning the roadway to detect potential hazards and upcoming changes, which would require alterations to your driving behavior. This step is crucial, as your ability to make safe driving decisions rests on forming an accurate picture of the situation around your vehicle.

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Eating and Drinking While Driving

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Personal Grooming Behind the Wheel

Typical personal grooming activities require one or both hands be taken off the steering wheel, a degree of mental focus and the use of your eyes to see what you are doing. The safest thing to do is allow yourself a little extra time at home to complete your personal grooming routine before setting off.

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Less Common Distracting Activities

There are countless minor tasks which we engage in on a day-to-day basis without thinking, which could prove to be dangerous distractions while driving. You may not think twice about smoking, allowing your mind to wander, swatting away a bug or picking up a dropped object while you’re walking down the street, but you must avoid these activities as much as possible while behind the wheel.

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Driving With Passengers

As a driver, your responsibility is to keep your passengers safe, not to keep them entertained. Any passenger you transport must respect your need to pay attention to the road and must not distract you from the driving task. Remember: your car, your rules.

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Distractions Outside The Car

Distractions inside the car are not the only problem you face while driving. Your attention will be focused on events around your vehicle and on the roadway up ahead, which means you are at risk of becoming distracted by things happening outside the car and by the roadside.

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Dealing with Distracted Drivers

Even the most attentive drivers in the world become distracted from time to time. Unfortunately, distracted driving is a country-wide epidemic in America, so it is something you will encounter quite frequently. You must know how to deal with distracted drivers, otherwise they may end up distracting you in turn.