5 Tips for Becoming a More Defensive Driver

by John Fabel | Last Updated: 2024-01-24

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 cause 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. The driver, looking at their phone, probably won’t have the opportunity to stop in time and, bam, rear-ends the car in front of them. The resulting accident will, at minimum, result in repair costs and, at worst, may cause injuries or death. All for what? Checking the scores for a ballgame? 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 phone, 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 make turns and change lanes without turning them on, while others drive straight for miles without ever turning them off! My favorite is 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!

Driving defensively means always being at the top of your game and aware that those around you may not be. Here are some other examples of unpredictable driver behaviors to be mindful of:

The bottom line is you can’t control other drivers, only yourself. Drive defensively and don’t make assumptions about what they might do next. Stay focused on your own driving and give yourself plenty of cushion around your vehicle. Safe driving requires vigilance, caution and patience.

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 is one of the simplest, the speed limit sign.

What a pain in the neck, right? The sign says 55 miles per hour, but the flow of traffic is traveling much faster than that. What’s a law-abiding driver to do?

If you are determined to drive the posted limit, stay in the right lane. Driving defensively does not include managing other drivers by driving in the passing lane at the posted speed. You can’t change the way others drive; you can only control your own speed. It’s not speed that kills, it’s difference in speed that kills. Trying to hold up traffic on a busy highway 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, care, and 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 the kind you put on your dashboard in hopes of beating a speed trap here but of an internal radar. A well-developed sense of everything going on around you is a key to defensive driving.

There are plenty of drivers daily who clearly don’t have that kind of radar. You probably see them every day.

Having an internal radar means being constantly aware of the drivers around you and is a vital component of driving defensively. 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 area immediately in front of you, then further down the road, and then back to behind, beside, and around you.

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 buried in their phone, I have time to react and get out of the way. I’ve avoided several accidents in this way.

Don’t forget to check your side mirrors and blind spots when changing lanes. Always make a mental map of where drivers are around you and keep tabs on their driving behavior as well. A good internal radar will help you notice careless, distracted, or competitive drivers around you so that can give them enough space to keep yourself protected.

Value Safety

Valuing the safety of yourself and others is at the root of driving defensively. It’s not just a single action but a mindset. If you are always mindful of the tips discussed here, 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 also develop your own tips and strategies to share with other drivers.

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 or into a vacant lane to avoid a collision if someone in front stops suddenly. Even if you keep a safe distance, these things can still happen, so be prepared always!

Another way to improve your defensive driving skills would be to take a defensive driving class. As it turns out, these courses are good for more than ticket dismissal. You can take a defensive driving course just to learn from it! Sometimes it’s amazing what you can discover that you never thought you were missing out on in the first place.

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.