Accidents happen. Sometimes they are inevitable. Thankfully improved crash safety structures, and driver assist systems on modern cars have helped to dramatically bring down incidents, injuries and fatalities on our roads.
Fundamentally though, there is no substitute for attentive and careful driving to avoid contretemps, and while regular driving lessens furnish you with the basics, there is a realm of advanced and defensive driving guidance that will elevate your safety behind the wheel. Defensive driving is akin to acquiring a sixth sense on the road. It melds anticipation, understanding, and control, transforming you from a regular driver into a road tactician. The following could save your life.
Learn to anticipate potential hazards by reading the road environment ahead, understanding changing traffic patterns, and predicting human errors.
1. Spatial Awareness
We're hardwired to focus on movement. However, when driving, this often translates to fixating on a single point, usually ahead of you. Instead shift your focus at least every two seconds, continually scanning your entire environment, including checking all the mirrors and glancing left and right. This wide-ranging awareness is foundational in defensive driving, use it to build a moving mental image of your surroundings.
2. Predictive Avoidance
Believe it or not, observing the body language of other drivers can help you predict the immediate future. For example, if a motorist is peering into their side mirror, they might be gearing up to change lanes. Similarly, observe the movement of other cars, if one starts to slow or move off line, it may suggest an up-coming manoeuvre by the driver. Anticipating these actions keeps you prepared and prevents accidents.
3. Employ X-Ray Vision
Okay you don’t have to be superman. However, things happen fast when you’re on the move, so it’s imperative to look as far ahead as possible to be aware of what’s coming. Try to ‘see through’ the car in front; without superpowers, this is done by looking through the windows of other cars.
Remember also that the closer you are to the car in front, the more it obscures the view ahead. By staying back, you’re better able to see around, as well as through the car in front. This is particularly useful if you are behind a van, truck or high vehicle. Plus, the greater the distance the more time and space you have to react and brake if necessary.
4. Identify Escape Routes
In addition to the above points, space management is key to not only creating a safe ‘buffer zone’ around your car, but also identifying emergency exits from unexpected road situations, like someone swerving into your lane unexpectedly on the road. Using the scanning technique mentioned above, try to keep an empty spot next to your vehicle. More basic, but very crucial, is to ensure you leave yourself enough space to brake to a halt in an emergency.
5. Spot the Clues
Read the road ahead for clues to obstacles or dangers. Such as, if you see signs indicating schools, note the time as there may be children around the corner; if dustbins are out on a residential street, watch for a slow-moving bin lorry and bin collectors; or if a car swerves seemingly without reason, there could be a deep pothole, and so on.
6. Watch the weather
Keep your eyes peeled to avoid weather conditions catching you out. For example, headlights can help spot icy patches on roads at night as black ice doesn’t reflect as much light, so it will appear darker. It's also darker, because it's transparent.
Large puddles of water can cause you to aquaplane - at high speed your tyres ride atop the film of water, losing contact with the road and grip. Do NOT brake hard or swerve when this happens, avoid sudden manoeuvres and instead just ease off to slow down and regain grip.
Crosswinds can also cause your car to alter direction if you’re not firmly grasping the steering wheel. Watch for leaning trees and bushes, as well as swirling dust or debris.
Ensure you’re fully familiar with all the controls and systems on your car, and as much as possible, how it behaves and handles, particularly in extreme situations. Most of all, ensure you never drive beyond its, and your, limits.
1. Posture and Position
Too many drivers neglect correct seating and driving position, but this important for maintaining control safely and ensuring comfort. With the pedals fully depressed there should still be a slight bend in your knees. The backrest should be very slightly reclined to about 100 to 110 degrees to the seat base. Your shoulders should remain in contact with the seatback when turning the steering wheel.
To ensure the steering wheel is in the correct position, you must be able to put your wrist on the top of the wheel comfortably. Hold the steering at the quarter-to-three position while driving. Previous advice used to be 10-to-2, but it's been repositioned to allow for airbag deployment. Your elbows should be slightly bent at about a 120-degree angle.
Raise or lower the seat so that you have a clear view of the road, the dashboard, and around the vehicle. You should be able to pivot your right foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal without lifting it off the floor.
Set your rear-view mirror to give you a full view of the road behind you without needing to move your head. Side mirrors should be adjusted to just barely see the edge of your car to minimise blind spots.
2. Art of Deceleration:
Effective slowing down is an art form. Instead of abrupt braking, which can surprise and endanger both you, your passengers and other road users, especially on high-speed roads, try easing off the accelerator earlier. Gentle deceleration warns drivers behind you and maintains a smoother, more controlled driving experience.
3. Left-Foot Braking
On two-pedal automatic cars, using your left foot for braking can cut precious seconds during braking time in emergency situations. However, be sure to practice using your left foot on the brake pedal, as it takes a while to 'train' it, and be careful not to ride the brake while accelerating at the same time.
4. Evasive Manoeuvres
Swerving to avoid a collision could actually make a situation worse if haven’t observed the above techniques for developing spatial awareness, and particularly if you don’t know how your car will react, as it could result in a skid. If your car does break traction and starts to oversteer, where the rear of the car swings out into a turn, you will need to ‘correct’ the slide by steering in the opposite direction. The situation will be amplified dramatically in wet or slippery surface conditions.
5. Get Skills
In order to develop the skills and experience to handle emergency manoeuvres, consider investing in an advanced driving instruction course. The sessions will train you to safely execute emergency stops and learn how to handle skids and slides. Certification from recognised advanced driving courses can even help lower your insurance premiums.