Reducing Driving Risks
Recognizing Driving Risks

Recognizing the Risks of Driving: Identifying Immediate & Potential Risks

Updated June 16, 2019

Driving is a risky activity, even when you exercise care and are driving in an “ideal” environment. Motorists who engage in risky driving behavior are further increasing the danger they are exposed to and heightening the potential for a crash or collision to occur, every moment they are behind the wheel.

The first step to creating the safest possible driving environment is understanding what you are up against. When you know the risks you face, it is possible to forge safe driving habits that will lessen the chances of a collision occurring. No matter how dangerous the situation, there is always something you can do to reduce risk and improve your safety.

By paying attention to the road, learning to predict dangerous situations before they occur and making sensible decisions, you can limit the risk you face while driving. Sometimes you will need to take swift, defensive action to avoid an immediate hazard but more often, you must act preemptively, to mitigate risks which may or may not result in immediate danger.

Understanding immediate risks

An immediate risk is a situation which demands immediate action to avoid a crash or collision. Immediate risks quite often take drivers by surprise. To be mentally and physically capable of responding appropriately to an immediate risk, you must maintain a constant state of alertness while driving and continually monitor the roadway around your vehicle.

Here are some examples of immediate risks:

  • A car merges onto the roadway up ahead, traveling at a much slower speed than existing traffic.
  • A pedestrian darts out into the roadway from between two parked vehicles.
  • A vehicle fails to yield the right-of-way at an intersection.
  • A crash or collision occurs on the roadway around or ahead of your vehicle.

The key to dealing with immediate risks is to expect the unexpected. Do not allow yourself to become complacent while driving – you must be ready for anything.

Understanding potential risks

Potential risks will occur far more frequently than immediate risks. In fact, they will be around you pretty much constantly, in every driving situation. A potential risk may never present an immediate danger, though you will need to assume that it may, in order to maximize your safety.

Sometimes, potential risks will develop into immediate risks. Therefore, it is important to act preemptively whenever possible; think of it as “getting a head start” on avoiding danger. If you have taken preemptive action against a potential risk which then becomes an immediate risk, you will be in a far better position to avoid an accident or collision.

Here are some examples of potential risks you may face while driving:

  • You are driving through a residential area where children are playing by the roadside. While they are currently out of harms way, you must keep in mind that they could run into the road.
  • It is dusk and you are driving on a rural highway with woodland on both sides of the road. The roadway is clear, but you face a heightened chance of encountering an animal blocking your path.
  • While driving through an area that has been hit by a storm the night before, you face the potential risk of debris in the roadway.

As there are a practically unlimited number of potential risks on any given stretch of roadway, you must learn to identify and prioritize them in order of the likelihood that they will present danger. It would be physically impossible to act equally against all potential risks at the same time, as avoiding one would bring you closer to another.

Motorists should deal with the most pressing risks first, altering their behavior to mitigate as many potential dangers as possible. Often, one simple action such as reducing speed will help to avoid several potential risks.

Acting to reduce risk

Caution is the key to mitigating risk in any activity. Caution dictates that you must “play it safe” if you are at all unsure about the outcome of any situation. For instance:

  • If another vehicle is approaching a stop sign at an intersection at speed. Do not proceed even though the right-of-way should be yours. Slow down and be prepared to yield the right-of-way.
  • When in a school zone or another area where children are likely to be near the road, reduce your speed, even if you cannot currently see any children nearby.

A cautious driver will always abide by traffic laws, keep their vehicle in good working order, pay attention to weather conditions and continually monitor the roadway. Truly cautious driving demands that you reevaluate the risk around you constantly. Be attentive to changing conditions and make sure you have considered the consequences of any action or maneuver you intend to make before following through with it.

Remember, failing to drive cautiously makes you the potential risk which other road users must avoid.

The reality of risk as a driver

Do not become the type of driver who operates with an “it won’t happen to me” attitude. The risks associated with driving are very real and every year, motor vehicle crashes claim tens of thousands of lives around the United States. Check out these stats:

  • “Unintentional injury” is listed as the third leading cause of death in America. Motor vehicle-related injuries are the second most common cause of unintentional injury-related death.
  • In 2016, some 37,461 people lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. That is an average of 102 deaths every day.
  • In the same year, approximately 3,144,000 people were injured in traffic crashes and collisions.


The reality is that most people who are killed or injured in car crashes do not truly believe that it could happen to them, until it is too late.

One of the most frightening facts about the 2016 statistics detailed above, is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimate 94% of these incidents can be attributed to “human choices”. If the drivers involved had chosen to drive with care, exercise caution and abide by road rules, thousands of people would still be alive today.

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