5 Ways to Become a More Defensive Driver

by John Fabel | Last Updated: April 8, 2021

Whether you are an experienced driver or just taking to the road, it is likely that you have been encouraged in some way to drive defensively. Certainly great advice, but what does “driving defensively” actually mean?

Driving defensively offers motorists many benefits. Defensive drivers receive fewer tickets and are much more likely to avoid accidents. Here are five good driving habits that all defensive drivers share:

While this is by no means an exhaustive definition, adopting these habits can help any driver get from Point A to Point B with much less opportunity for incident.

Eliminate Distractions

Distracted driving is a huge topic these days and rightfully so. Distracted drivers are the cause of many, if not most, of the accidents on the road, and it’s easy to see why. Imagine a driver looking down at their phone (shouldn’t be too much of a stretch). Suddenly, the driver ahead of them is forced to brake because of (pick one) an accident or police blocking the road or unexpected slow traffic or an animal/stalled car/random piece of furniture on the road. Phone looker probably won’t have the opportunity to stop in time and, bam, they rear-end the car in front of them. The resulting accident will, at minimum, result in repair costs and, at worst, may cost injuries or death. All for what? Checking the scores for a ballgame? Or just simply texting someone?

When you’re in your car, texting can wait. Checking up on news or game scores can wait. Seriously; it’s not cool. Don’t do it. Distracted driving is the absolute worst thing on the road. If you have a hard time divorcing yourself from your car, put it in your glove compartment before turning your key.

I recently spoke with an individual who had been in an accident due to the driver behind him texting. To make matters worse, the texting driver never stopped. Now The individual I spoke with is left paying both repair and medical bills out of his own pocket. All of this because someone else chose to drive distracted. Trust us—that text can and should wait!

Don’t Rely on Other Drivers

Just because the driver near you seems to be driving in a predictable way, don’t presume for an instant that that can’t or won’t change in a heartbeat. You are much better off managing your own driving than trusting in the driving of others.

A good example of this comes in the use of turn signals. Some drivers perform maneuvers without ever using them while some cars seem to always have them on even though they never make a turn or move out of their lane. My favorite or the drivers who leave their turn signals on while crossing a bridge. Sometimes I wish they would make a turn just to get out of my way!

There are a couple of situations in particular where you do not want to trust the turn signals of another driver. One is when you are Entering a roadway from a parking lot or side street. If the driver approaching on your left has a turn signal on, it’s best not to trust it. Don’t make a move onto the roadway until it is clear that the other driver is committed to his turn. If that driver has his signal on for no reason and you pull out You could be struck in your driver door.

Another time when a signal is not to be trusted is one given by the driver ahead of you. If the driver has had their signal on for a while and you lose patience and try to overtake them, what happens when they do finally decide to make a move? There will likely be a collision and it will be one for which you will be held responsible. In this situation, you will likely be the one cited for an improper pass or following too closely.

Pay Attention to Traffic Signs

The roadway is filled with signs to help drivers maneuver safely. Unfortunately, it seems that many either don’t notice them or have forgotten what they mean soon after they pass their written permit tests.

It’s easy to spot these sign-ignoring drivers. They are the ones driving at excessive speeds, making illegal turns, trying to butt into a long line of cars because they ignored a merge sign two miles back, or are crossing four lanes of traffic to take a last minute exit.

Granted, some signs can be confusing, like this one…

confusing traffic Sign

However, most are fairly straightforward. Case in point, one of the simplest, the speed limit sign.

What a pain in the neck, right? The sign says 55 miles per hour, but everyone else is disobeying the speed limit. Go the speed limit, but if everyone is going faster, stay in the right lane. Driving defensively does not include trying to slow down other drivers by sitting in the passing lane driving the posted speed. You can’t change the way others drive, you can only control your own speed. Think about it, it’s not speed that kills, it’s difference in speed that kills. Trying to hold up traffic is far more dangerous than driving 100 on the road alone.

Speed limits are developed by individuals and teams with a very high level of education and experience. These top engineers designed them with a lot of thought and care as well as practical experience. Trust me, as much as you’d like to think so, you do not know better than they do.

Keeping an appropriate speed increases your reaction time to potential hazards. Pay attention to your speed and don’t be lured into danger by the speed of other drivers.

Keep an Active Radar

We aren’t talking about Cobra or Escort radar detectors here, but an internal one.

How often do you see drivers tailgating other drivers at high speeds? Or not even aware that there is someone next to them or behind them. having an internal radar means being constantly aware of the drivers around you

A great strategy to improve the skills needed for a high internal radar is to keep your eyes constantly moving. You will eventually get into a flow of this. Your focus should be changing regularly between the areas in front of you, beside you, and your mirrors.

Personally, when I come to a stoplight, I’m always looking in my rear-view mirror once I’m stopped. That way, if the car behind me doesn’t stop because the driver has their head is buried in their phone, I have time to react and get out the way. I’ve avoided several accidents in this way.

Don’t forget to check your side mirrors and blind spots when you are changing lanes. Always make a mental map of where drivers are around you and keep tabs on their driving behavior as well.

If you notice someone who seems a bit competitive, maybe it’s best to keep your distance.

Value Safety

This is probably the most basic thing when it comes to driving defensively and safely. It’s not just a single action but a mindset. If you follow all of the above tips for starters, you will be on your way to making the roads a safer place for us all.

We’re all in this together! This list of tips is also just the tip (no pun intended!) of the concrete iceberg. You can develop your own tips and strategies to share with other drivers as well.

To kickstart your safe future driving, an online defensive driving course is a great place to start. Personally, I’ve even taken a defensive driving course just to learn from it! I truly felt like a different driver afterwards. It’s truly amazing what you can learn that you never thought you were missing out on in the first place.

For example, I have a habit of always giving myself a way out of bad situations in traffic. If there is stop-and-go traffic on the highway, I try my best to keep a 4 to 5-second space between myself and the cars ahead, always looking for paths of escape if someone happens to brake suddenly. (This is almost a daily occurrence for me in Dallas!). By keeping this space cushion I can dart swiftly and carefully onto the shoulder of the highway to avoid a collision if someone in front of me stops immediately, Even though you are keeping a safe distance these things can still happen, so be prepared always!

John Fabel

I have a long and checkered history with defensive driving. I took my first "court invited" course at age 15 and realized immediately that there had to be a better way. Since that first experience, I have gone on to teach defensive driving classroom courses and to author four internet courses in 2 states. After nearly 25 years in the industry, I can help you find a course that will be the best fit for you.