What Is Defensive Driving? 13 Rock Solid Strategies & Tricks

What Is Defensive Driving – A Definition

Lane Changing

What is defensive driving? Defensive driving is using actionable driving strategies to eliminate or minimize risk – and help avoid crashes – by actively anticipating hazards on the road.

1. What Is Defensive Driving – Active Vs Passive Drivers

It’s about being active, not passive. It’s about preventing collisions way before they can happen.

A passive driver just drives down the road, minding their own business. They don’t think about the other drivers and road users around them too much. When things happen, the passive driver then reacts.

active vs passive driving

A more active driver drives down the road, but is not just minding their own business. They are minding other people’s business. And you should too!

I know, we hear a lot nowadays to mind our own business. And to not judge. Well, I am telling you for driving, ignore all of that.

Mind people’s business.

  • Judge cars
  • Judge space
  • Judge distance
  • Judge speed
  • Judge the driver’s mental state
  • I mean, someone who has just stolen a car and robbed a bank with it probably doesn’t care about stop sign rules too much. Just guessing.
what is defensive driving

Active drivers are thinking about the other road users and drivers around them. But what exactly about them?

It’s about anticipating the movements and patterns of others, before things happen. This way, when things happen, the active driver is never surprised & always prepared.

The active driver prevents crashes before they ever had a chance.

Turn Left ONLY When Safe

Drivers are somewhat predictable. For example:

  • If a car is in a merging lane on the highway, they are probably merging, even if they forgot their turn signal – it’s not like it’s going to surprise you that they want to merge into your lane, right?
defensive driving tips
  • Most people don’t like waiting behind another vehicle that has stopped to turn left
  • Most drivers don’t like waiting behind a bus that has pulled over to let off passengers

You can get almost psychic here. It’s easy to predict – at least sometimes – where cars are going to go. Sometimes, you’ll know where they’re going before they do.

  • If a lane is closed up ahead due to construction, most drivers will be lane changing to get around it.

The passive driver simply waits for exciting things to happen, and then tries to see if they can get out of situations. Usually, it’s too late.

Crashes happen quickly. The only way to prevent them is to drive defensively and stop all possibilities of a crash. There is no pause button.

2. What Is Defensive Driving – Keep Your Distance

One of the most important things you can do is keep a safe following distance.

keep a safe following distance

You’ve probably heard of the 2 or 3-second rule, and you probably know to increase it on highway speeds or during poor visibility and conditions.

This space is crucial, and gives you the gift of time. Time to deal with things. It also gives you better visibility.

It’s hard to see up ahead if you are staring at the tail lights of the vehicle in front of you because you are too close.

Just remember that there is no such thing as too much space. You can have a huge chunk of space between you and the vehicle in front of you and still be going the same speed.

3. What Is Defensive Driving: Timing

Sorry to sound obvious, but carsOpens in a new tab. are moving things. The driver decides how fast to drive.

I mean, at any given moment, there’s a perceived appropriate speed, for any particular driver to be driving at.

But have you ever wondered how many people could have avoided a collision if they had been in the same spot even 1-2 seconds earlier, or later?

This 1-2 second difference is not about luck, it’s about intentional timing.

Crashes with 2 or more vehicles happen when 2 or more vehicles try to enter the same space at the same time. So, in order to prevent crashes, we need to become experts on space management, and timing.

defensive driving timing

4. What Is Defensive Driving: Eyes & Eye Contact

What you do – or don’t do – with your eyes, is so important. It’s such a critical skill to be able to look as far ahead as you can see, while keeping your eyes moving.

If you look far ahead, you can see issues that are coming up. You have more time to position yourself in a good place, and can plan a turn or lane change if needed.

If you simply stare at the pavement in front of your front bumper, like sadly a lot of drivers do, you’ll be forced to be a reactive, uninformed driver, prone to many surprises.

Car won’t go in a straight line? Read this.

Look At Drivers, Not Just Cars

A lot of new drivers don’t automatically think to look at drivers, so much as at cars.

It’s an essential habit to look for eye contact from other drivers and road users. If a driver is looking right at you, it’s unlikely a crash will occur.

This is simply because of the general idea that in the vast majority of crashes, people don’t tend to hit things that they can see.

In other words, people crash into stuff that they didn’t know was there. Or maybe they couldn’t see, and took a chance. It’s the same thing.

As drivers we can’t talk to each other. So we have to stare at each other instead.

defensive driving eye contact techniques

So, to be defensive and avoid crashes, you need to make sure that other drivers can see you; or at least know that you exist. To know you exist, they either have to see you (preferably) or hear you.

Look for eye contact whenever possible. Purposefully position your vehicle at a certain, strategic spot – in relation to the vehicles around you – at all times.

And since cars are always moving, drivers need to check their mirrors frequently so they have an accurate picture of what’s going on at all times.

And, purposefully and carefully time all of your movements. Take into consideration all road users around you, and their current and potential planned movements.

We really can’t afford to just stare at the scenery, or daydream, or not think about driving, while driving. We really need to treat driving as the passive active, focused, mental sport that it is.

Never drive in another vehicle’s blind spot.

What Is Defensive Driving – Look For Eye Contact

Don’t just look at the car. Look at the driver.

If the driver is looking at you, well, that’s good. It means they’re doing their job at that particular moment.

If you don’t have eye contact at a time when you think you should, you can cover your horn. This means just get ready to honk quickly.

This isn’t to get mad; this is simply to let the other driver know ‘hey, there’s someone here other than you.’ Trust me when I say they would rather hear your horn than crash into you, if those were their only 2 options.

5. What Is Defensive Driving – Let Other Road Users Know You Exist

Don’t be afraid to tap your horn and let the driver know that you exist. That is just much better than having a crash. The other driver doesn’t want to crash, and they might even thank you.

No one wants to have a crash, but humans do get distracted. Or, they are simply looking the wrong way for a variety of reasons.

The following driver – we can see – is facing a yield sign. So, they should yield.

If it looks like they aren’t looking, and/or are not planning to yield, my first plan of attack should be to honk.

New drivers tend to want to slam on the brakes during times like this, but what if there’s a semi truck behind you?

Why bother being rear-ended by a semi truck (or any vehicle) when you can simply honk, and ask the other driver to yield as they’re supposed to.

what is defensive driving eye contact

6. What Is Defensive Driving? Avoid Driving In a ‘Pack’

It seems to be a real thing. Cars, like wolves, travel in packs. It just seems to happen that way. Maybe because of red lights and stuff like that.

driving in a pack

But, you don’t have to travel in a pack. And, it’s relatively easy to separate yourself from the pack.

Then, you’ll be driving ‘alone‘. And it’s kind of hard to have a collision with another vehicle, if there are none anywhere around you.

Even during rush hour, there are options for avoiding the pack problem.

7. What Is Defensive Driving – Keep Track Of Surroundings At All Times

If you don’t know what’s around you, then you can’t do anything useful about it. The way to do this is of course to keep your eyes moving, including mirror checking.

This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s just a habit you can practice, and it gets easier.

  • Is there a space beside you right now?
  • Where’s the space, on your left or right?
  • Is there a motorcycle beside you in your blind spot?
  • Where are the cars?
  • Where are the chunks of space?
  • Keep track of this all the time

8. What Is Defensive Driving: Keeping An Escape Route

defensive driving escape route

Defensive and strategic drivers will always keep an escape route at all times. In the following photo, the black truck has no escape route, except maybe in front.

Try to avoid situations like this where you are stuck between vehicles and have no extra space anywhere.

If something happens, this truck has no where to escape.

This driver could so easily give themselves an escape route if they simply eased off their accelerator, and drove with space – not cars – beside them.

It’s true that we can not control other drivers. So, it’s not always easy to control the spaces beside and behind you.

However, the chunk of space in front of us is one area that we can control the easiest.

If a vehicle is following way too close behind you, you can leave additional space in front of you.

That way, if you need to stop, you can be sure to slow down gradually – not abruptly – and will be able to avoid a rear-end collision if the person behind isn’t paying attention.

what is defensive driving space management
strategic driving

I’m not saying to never have a car beside you; of course there will be one. But just try to time things when you’re driving along, whenever possible, to keep space in front and beside you.

9. What Is Defensive Driving – always assume that drivers want to lane change

It’s what cars do

Expect drivers to lane change, regardless of whether or not their car is displaying a turn signal. Let’s think about this for a minute.

If someone turns right, and then turns right, and then turns right, and then turns right (or turn left and then left and then left and then left) they would be driving in a circle – or should I say a square – all day.

car driving in circles

Most people don’t want to do that because most people drive their car in order to get somewhere, not to drive in circles. I know, this is so very profound.

This means drivers will – for example – turn right and then most likely want to do a lane change sooner or later, to turn left.

You should expect this and leave room for it.

defensive driving practices

Notice the movements of these vehicles

Cars in the left lane want the right lane. Cars in the right lane want the left lane. This is normal, and it’s not just because the grass is greener on the other side… or is it? This is especially common near the entrances to freeways and other exciting ramps, destinations, or properties.

Some Vehicles Lane Changing

10. What Is Defensive Driving – When the light goes green, hesitate for 2 seconds

Just wait several seconds after the light goes green. If there’s a vehicle in front of you, this will automatically help to get your following distance in front.

You always want to make sure to scan intersections before proceeding, especially if you’re the first one.

Remember you can have a large space in front of you AND go the same speed as traffic.

And, it will time it so you’re not in the blind spot or right beside other vehicles.

11. What Is Defensive Driving – Strategic Turning

When turning, stagger it so when you’re turning there is a space beside you, not a car.

Think About Other Drivers’ Blind Spots

Blind spots. You know where they are, right? When going through the blind spots, try to pass through that area quickly and don’t stay in someone’s blind spot.

Stay in front or behind it. So simple.

What is defensive driving: Here is an example of staggered vehicles

I know, we don’t often have the luxury of driving on a road with so few vehicles. But look at this beautiful staggering effect.

The thing is, it’s basically impossible for any of these vehicles to crash into one another right now, right?

what is escape route
  • Each car can see the other cars in his/her mirrors
  • No one is in anyone’s blind spot
  • If someone wants to do a lane change it will be very easy because everyone has at least a 2-second following distance
  • Everyone has their escape route – some extra space on the side they could use if need be
  • Try to drive like this whenever possible

12. What Is Defensive Driving – Be Predictable – Do What You Say You’re Going To Do

If you’re in a left turning lane, then turn left. If you have a right turn signal on, then turn right.

Do not change your mind at the last second. Think of everything from the other driver’s point of view.

Just as you are anticipating others, they are anticipating you. This includes expecting you to do something you say you were going to.

Where do the people around you think you’re going to go? You should probably go there. Use signals early; as early as possible without confusing the other road users.

13. What Is Defensive Driving: Be Patient

In Life, We Must Share The Road, Unless You Own Your Own Road… In Which Case, Can I Be Your Friend?

Remember that all types of people are driving on the road. This includes drivers of varying experience and age levels.

What Is Defensive Driving – Conclusion

Hopefully you have a better understanding about defensive driving techniques.

Humans are notoriously impatient, and imperfect. Just keep this in mind. Get rid of the idea that other drivers will drive properly all the time. It’s just not going to happen. If you have low standards, then you won’t tend to be disappointed, or surprised.

If another driver makes a mistake, don’t take it personally. If you don’t know them, then you have no idea what’s going on in their life.

I just find it helps to have low expectations, and to be very patient. Remember there is never a rush. Take your time, relax, and be safe. Driving is supposed to be fun.


Carmen became a driving instructor at the age of 22 in North Vancouver, Canada.

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