Mention the term defensive driving and for many people, it conjures up an image of a man in a black suit and shades j-turning a limo with the president in whilst dodging a shower of bullets from an evil villain. But defensive driving isn’t just about pulling extreme manoeuvres in equally extreme situations. In fact, practising basic defensive driving techniques in everyday situations will reduce stress, reduce risk and make sure you get to your destination in one piece. So what defensive driving techniques are we talking about? Well, let’s dive in and take a look.
#1 Leave plenty of distance between you and the car in front
One of the main concepts you’ll need to take on board to practice defensive driving is, that you must not put yourself in a position where you are reliant on another driver to ensure your safety, should an incident arise.
Now that might sound like an unusual statement to make, but an area where many of us fall foul of this is the distance we drive behind another car.
Let’s take an example where we are following a car at just 40 miles per hour. Should the car in front suddenly come to a halt, perhaps because the driver has hit the vehicle in front, your own car will travel a further 12 metres before your brain even registers the event – and that’s assuming you’re alert, fully concentrating on the road ahead and not impaired in any way. Once your brain has registered the event, you’ll then need to take action, either by making an evasive manoeuvre or more likely, by hitting the brakes hard and bringing the vehicle to a halt.
A standard family car with good tyres in good road conditions will need around 24 metres to come to a stop, taking the total stopping distance if you include the reaction time to 36 metres or 9 car lengths. Of course, the faster you’re travelling, the greater the distance becomes and there’s a handy table below to give you an idea of the distances you’ll need to bring your car to a halt, should an incident occur.
Rule number one in defensive driving then is to leave plenty of distance between yourself and the car in front at all times. Remember, the figures in the chart above are the minimum distances required when you, your vehicle and the road conditions are at their optimum i.e. no snow, ice, rain, mud, diesel, oils etc. on the surface.
Now I’m sure many of you will be thinking, I don’t have a tape measure and I’m not good with distances so how can I know whether I’m leaving enough room? Well, a good rule of thumb would be to leave 3 seconds between you and the car in front, so pick a marker point on the road and as the car in front passes it, count the seconds until your vehicle reaches the same point. If you reach it before you count to 3, you are putting yourself in unnecessary risk. Of course, if the road conditions are not optimal or visibility is reduced through low-level sunlight, fog or even rain – it is recommended to increase the time gap further.
#2 Always plan your escape route
So what else should we be thinking about if we want to drive defensively? Well, if we revert back to the overriding concept that you must not put yourself in a position where you are reliant on another driver to ensure your safety – having access to an escape route at all times is a must.
What do I mean by this? Well, let’s imagine you’re in the outer lane of the motorway. You have a car ahead of you, a car behind you and you’re just about to overtake a heavy goods vehicle. Let’s consider the risks. An HGV in the UK can be over 16 metres long. Assuming you are travelling 10 miles per hour faster than the HGV, you will be alongside the vehicle for a total of 4 seconds during which time, if an incident takes place, you will not be able to move your car to the left or to the right and will be fully reliant on the car in front and the car behind making decisions which enable you to find a route to safety.
In reality, this 4 second window is significantly bigger. The ‘risk window’ starts a good few car lengths before you move alongside the HGV and continues for a period after it as well. It’s important then if you are passing another vehicle, to wait until the vehicle in front of you has driven well clear of the vehicle you are planning on passing before you begin your overtake. This rule applies not just when you are overtaking HGVs, but when passing vehicles of any size, on any road, at any speed. Even if the vehicle you are passing is stationary.
And this situational analysis as we could call it, can be expanded to any part of your journey. If you are planning on adding defensive driving to your skill-set, identifying and assessing risk throughout your journey will become commonplace. You’ll need to be checking your mirrors frequently as well as scanning 10, 15 perhaps even 20 seconds ahead of you. In doing so, you will be able to take controlled, evasive manoeuvres for any situation long before the risk becomes critical.
This level of driving does require an elevated level of concentration and you may feel that your car journeys are already sufficiently tiresome and stressful already, without adding another layer of expectations. The truth is though, in adopting defensive driving techniques, your journeys will become far more pleasant and far less stressful.
Driving close behind a vehicle as many of us do, means we’re already on a heightened state of alert, having to micromanage the accelerator and brake as we react to every slight change in speed or direction of the vehicles around us. Of course, as drivers we all make mistakes and when in close proximity to others, this can require us to take extreme evasive manoeuvres, flaring tempers which in turn, reduces our ability to concentrate putting us at increased risk of further incidents. It’s a vicious cycle that, by adopting defensive driving techniques, can be eliminated altogether.