Defensive driving techniques: What they don’t teach you at driving school
When you get your driving licence, you are capable of piloting a car, but what they don’t teach you is how to capably pilot a car in the real world, where there isn’t a guy in the passenger seat ready with his foot on a secondary brake-pedal. All drivers eventually learn to adapt to their surroundings on different roads and conditions, but many somehow fail to figure out the obvious or are intentionally oblivious. Knowing defensive-driving techniques can prevent you from becoming the latter, and to avoid those drivers without incident as well.
We’ll skip the basic common-sense tips, such as visually checking your tyres before setting off, not eating or applying make-up while driving, using indicators for everything from lane-changes to parking, making sure all your exterior lights work, not allowing kids to jump around the seats, and generally avoiding distractions inside the car.
Eating, applying make-up and using the phone are the most obvious things to avoid, but even simple things such as changing the radio station on your fancy car touchscreen or looking for the a/c button on your cluttered dashboard can lead to accidents on crowded streets. We even saw one so-called automotive journalist suddenly driving erratically as he started talking on a hands-free phone ear-piece, so clearly not everyone is up to multi-tasking as much as they think they are.
Keep your eyes moving, continuously looking in your mirrors and scanning the road ahead, checking for hazards and slowing traffic so you can anticipate problems before they happen. Do not assume that other drivers are going to do what you think they should be doing. Always be ready to react if you forsee a potential situation. It’s something a lot of people miss, as they stare only at the car in front and go into a trance. You need to be aware of everything around your car, not just what’s in front.
Try going with the flow on the highway. Both driving too fast or too slow can be dangerous. Drive at speeds that most other vehicles are travelling. If you feel uncomfortable with the speed on a certain lane, move over to a slower one when it’s safe to do so. There’s no issue with tailgaters if you’re simply not in their way. It’s not your job to enforce the speed limit on others.
Avoid other people’s blind spots. Don’t linger in areas where the driver in front of you can’t see you. Many people will only check their mirrors before making a lane change. If you’re travelling slightly behind and a lane away from another vehicle, assume that the driver of that car can’t see you in their blind spot. Either speed up or slow down a bit to avoid being next to another car for too long. This is especially important when driving next to trucks and vans.
If you see a car speeding or aggressively changing lanes behind you, stay in your lane while maintaining your speed so that the wannabe racer can safely pass you by. If you change lanes, he may not anticipate it and ram right into you, too late to slow down and avoid it.
You have to adapt to road conditions. If you see fog, light rain, sewage puddles, gravel or sand mounds in a certain area, drive slower as there could be more of that as you keep going. You have to adapt to more than just the weather. On inner-city streets, expect pedestrians to dart in front of you, or ignorant people to open their car door in your path, or cars to jump out from parking lots blindly.
And finally, take care of your tyres. Those four rings of rubber are the only point of contact between the car and the road. The point of contact on each tyre is about the size of a hand, so basically, imagine one-fourth the weight of your 2-tonne car in the palm of your hand!
So make sure your tyre pressures are correct. Low pressure greatly reduces safety and tyre life. If the pressure goes too low, the tyre could fail. On the other hand, too high pressure can result in less grip, which leads to longer braking distances and less stability around corners.
We put thousands of kilometres on all sorts of test cars, year after year, with almost no major incidents to speak of thanks to defensive-driving techniques. Hopefully these tips will help you become a better driver as well.