What is defensive driving?
The National Safety Council and the American Society of Safety Engineers define defensive driving as “driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.” Defensive driving is considered among the most effective ways companies can reduce costs and risks associated with operating fleets. Defensive driving training typically goes beyond basic skills and focuses on advanced driving techniques that can be used to anticipate and mitigate potentially risky scenarios. Many organizations use defensive driving to significantly increase the benefits of fleet management efforts.
Defensive driving tips and techniques for professional drivers
Defensive driving revolves around anticipating and being prepared for what other drivers might do and how changing road conditions would affect the way vehicles operate. Most defensive driving programs are based on two core principles:
Although training approaches around these two principles vary, most driver safety programs include these fundamental defensive driving techniques:
1. Look farther ahead
Professional driving coaches recommend drivers look at least 12 to 15 seconds ahead to scan for potential hazards and anticipate where threats may occur. “If you get into the habit of scanning farther ahead than you normally would, you give yourself more time to see, think, and act,” said Del Lisk, vice president of safety services at Lytx®. “This is especially critical for drivers of large commercial vehicles or heavy equipment that can’t react as quickly as smaller, more nimble passenger vehicles. The sooner you see something, the more time you have to make a good decision.”
2. Maintain a good following distance
Building and maintaining a safe following distance is one of the cornerstones of safe driving. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends drivers maintain at least four seconds of distance for commercial trucks traveling up to 40 mph to drive defensively. For every additional 10 mph of speed, the DOT recommends adding one second. A truck going 60 mph, for example, should keep a six-second buffer under DOT recommendations.
3. Leave yourself an out
Creating a physical buffer between yourself and the vehicle in front is one example of leaving yourself an out. Another is to build space to either the right or the left of your vehicle. In the event something unexpected happens, a defensive driver tries to maintain at least one option to maneuver out of harm’s way, either to the side of the road or to an empty lane away from the hazard.
4. Scan intersections before entering
Picture yourself waiting at a red light at an intersection. What do you do when the light turns green? For most drivers, the green light is their cue to accelerate. “Traffic lights tend to draw our attention, so we fixate on the light rather than the intersection,” Lisk said. Defensive drivers, however, are trained to scan their surroundings right after the light turns green and just before entering the intersection, watching out for distracted pedestrians and cars that might run a red light or fail to stop in time. “Ask yourself if you’ve ever inadvertently run a red light,” Lisk said. “It happens to everyone. When collisions occur at intersections, they tend to be higher severity incidences.”
5. Go the appropriate speed, not the posted speed
Drivers are often tempted to set their speed at the speed limit, plus 5 mph. Defensive drivers, however, adjust their speed according to their specific conditions. Road conditions, weather, visibility, traffic patterns, and whether their vehicle is carrying a full load or is empty all factor into the defensive driver’s decision on how fast they should be driving. Ultimately, good visibility and the ability to maintain safe control of the vehicle should be the guiding principles for determining speed.
Because there are so many variables, Lisk recommends that organizations, rather than set absolute speed limits, provide their drivers with a driver safety program that includes how to make good decisions on the road and support those decisions with a culture that prioritizes safety. “It’s important that drivers know that their first priority is safety,” Lisk said. “There should be an understanding that in poor weather, delivery times may need to be altered without putting pressure on the driver.”
6. Avoid having to back up
Incidents involving vehicles backing up are among the most common types of collisions. “It’s simply harder to drive backward. It’s harder to see, and it’s an awkward steering relationship,” Lisk said. “We just don’t have that much practice at driving backward.” Drivers on average travel just 1 percent of their total driving distance going backward, while up to 25 percent of vehicle accidents occur while backing up.
Whenever possible, defensive drivers look for opportunities to avoid backing up. They pull through to the front spot to exit forward, even if it means choosing a parking space that requires them to walk a few extra steps. Delivery vehicles can opt to park curbside in a designated delivery area or in an area where you can pull forward to leave. Although those parking spaces are not always available, drivers can start by challenging themselves to reduce backing up their vehicles by 10-15 percent to put themselves ahead of the game. If you have to back up, do it slowly to give yourself plenty of time to survey the area around you and give others time to note your presence.
7. Stay alert and keep the mind engaged in driving
Minds can wander, especially if the road is monotonous. To stay focused on driving, actively look around at other drivers. Try to recognize their driving patterns and see whether you can accurately predict what they will do next. “Make a game of it,” Lisk advised. “If a driver makes a lane change from the left lane to the right, can you predict what will they do next? Will they turn right soon? Or are they trying to pass a slower driver?”
ANSI/ASSE Z15.1-2017 Safe Practices for Motor Vehicle Operations, American Society of Safety Engineers, 2017. http://www.asse.org/ansi/asse-z15-1-2017-safe-practices-for-motor-vehicle-operations/
“Safety Talk: Backing Safety,” Colby College, Environmental, Health & Safety Department. http://www.colby.edu/humanresources/wp-content/uploads/sites/170/2015/05/Backing-Safety-Talk.pdf
National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2016,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Dec. 19, 2017. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/cfoi.pdf
Safer Drivers, Safer Roads,” National Safety Council. https://www.nsc.org/safety-training/defensive-driving
U.C. David Analysis of Return on Investment for Loss Prevention Programs,” University of California Office of the President, Risk Services. https://www.ucop.edu/risk-services/_files/bsas/roi_ucd.pdf