When you drive defensively, you’re prepared for the unexpected. You’re cautious, yet assertive, and ready to take action.

And while you may try to see the good in all people, defensive driving also means not putting fate in the hands of other drivers. After all, over 90 percent of all crashes stem from driver error, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. So while good intentions are one thing, driving focus is quite another.

Defensive driving 101

Self-discipline is the cornerstone to driving safety, and shirking any of these basic tips means you’re putting yourself and those around you at risk — not to mention adding needless wear and tear on your car. Check out these 5 tips to see if you’ve been driving defensively.

1. Look far, far down the road

Knowing what awaits you down the road is not only a life philosophy — it’s an essential defensive driving precept.

People hurtling more than 15 mph is a relatively new occurrence in human history. And, really, anything faster than that speed isn’t natural for us. But behind the wheel of a car, it’s easy to forget just how fast you’re traveling, and many drivers fall into the habit of only watching the vehicle in front of theirs.

So, just how far down the road should you look? As far as the eye can see — and think miles, not feet. Knowing what’s down the road can help you prepare for the worst and effectively respond to the unexpected, especially at higher speeds.

2. Get rid of distractions

Remember when cars didn’t have built-in computers, satellite radios, subwoofers, and GPS systems? Neither do I. But there was a simpler time when cars were just, well, cars. Now drivers have a multitude of entertainment features to alleviate those grueling commutes. And, of course, there’s eating while driving, and the all-too-dangerous — and all-too-prevalent — texting while driving.

The sad truth is that distracted driving is one of the greatest dangers to driver safety. And using your cellphone, listening to music, or enjoying your Thai fusion cuisine are all examples of driving distractions. In 2011, 1.3 million accidents involved cell phones alone. That amounted to nearly a quarter of all auto collisions!

Some of these activities may seem inconsequential, like peeking at your screen to read Grandma’s “LOL” text. But taking 5 seconds to read a text while driving 55 mph is equal to driving the length of an entire football field without watching the road.

Driving always requires your full and undivided attention. That means not only seeing the road, but having your cognition and attention available to discern potential hazards around you.

3. Have an escape plan

You often hear this about home fires, but rarely when it comes to driving. In every driving situation, the most effective way to avoid traffic perils is to position your vehicle so you have a greater chance of being visible to others. Anticipating where you might have to swerve is also vital, so factor in the position of other vehicles around you when gauging alternative paths of travel. With that in mind, try to avoid driving in another person’s blind spot.

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Considering these common scenarios every time you drive will help you be more prepared:

  • The driver in front of you suddenly slams on the brakes (or an animal runs onto the highway, a tire’s blown, etc.)
  • Another vehicle starts to drift into your lane
  • Someone runs the stop sign or red light ahead

It’s, therefore, important to ask yourself a few questions while you drive. Is the lane next to me available? Is the shoulder a viable option? If not, should I increase my following distance? These questions and considerations aren’t meant to drive you crazy (sorry, couldn’t resist) — they’re meant to make you a safer driver. And over time, they’ll become second nature.

4. Maintain a safe following distance

The greatest chance of collision is usually right in front of you, and maintaining a safe following distance is easily one of the most effective rules of defensive driving. It’s also a rule that’s often broken. Even if you staunchly adhere to every other defensive driving virtue, there’s no way you’re truly a safe driver unless you follow this rule every time you’re behind the wheel. Keeping your distance from other vehicles will almost always mean you have sufficient reaction time — or, at the very least, the aforesaid escape route.

A general rule of thumb is using the 3-second rule that you probably learned in drivers ed. In case you don’t remember, you do this by finding a fixed object on the road, such as a sign, bridge, or even a shadow. Once the rear bumper of the car in front of you clears that object, start counting (1,001 … 1,002 … 1,003). If you don’t make it to 3 seconds by the time your front bumper starts to clear that object, then slow down and increase your following distance until you do.

It’s important to note that this rule only applies to dry, sunny weather conditions. When driving in harsh weather or at night, be sure to increase your following distance by as much as 10 seconds.

5. Always be aware of your surroundings

As you drive, have your head on a swivel like a middle linebacker. Frequently check your mirrors and scan the road as far down as you can see (remember that one?). Your eyes should always be alert. If you see a driver is being aggressive, increase your distance or pull over. If the driver is very erratic and reckless, you may want to get off the road by taking the next right or exit.

Additionally, be aware of bicyclists or pedestrians. And while most parents teach their children to look both ways before crossing the street, kids who’re playing outside are prone to get lost in the moment and dart into the street to retrieve a stray ball. Exercise extra precaution during the weekends, outside school hours, or during the spring and summer months when children are more apt to be out.

Now that you’ve sufficiently whet your driving skills, make sure you have the right car insurance so your driving experience is protected on all fronts.

Related links

The Science of Skidding (and How to Avoid It)

Mountain Driving 101: 8 Tips for a Stress-Free Trip

Safe and smart | Car safety

about Evan

From writing content for life coaches to working on indie film press releases, Evan’s motley repertoire has been considerable in the last couple of years. Now he employs his varied aptitude as a content writer for Esurance. He’s also a self-proclaimed polyglot in training with a proclivity for dog-eared books.