In this article
Cars are the most common mode of transportation in the UK. Statistics show that 68% of Brits commute to work by car. With so many people on the roads, it’s no surprise that there are accidents. Between 2012 and 2019, the number of car occupants killed each year was between 736 and 816. In 2020, this was slightly less at 618, likely due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides fatalities, the number of car occupants injured is in the tens of thousands each year. With statistics as alarming as these, it’s no wonder that more and more people are practising defensive driving. But what is it exactly and what are the benefits of it?
What is defensive driving?
Whenever you’re behind the wheel—whether it’s a car, motorbike, lorry or van—you should always be aware of potential hazards. If you passed your driving test after 2002, you’ll have had to take part in the Hazard Perception Test within your driving theory test. This computer-based test measures your ability to recognise potentially dangerous road situations.
During the Hazard Perception Test, you’re shown a video of an everyday road scene as if you were driving a car. When watching each clip, you need to spot any potential hazards and indicate them. The test aims to prove that you can perceive road hazards as a driver.
Defensive driving is a way of driving that focuses on keeping car occupants and other road users safe. By learning to drive defensively, you’ll be less likely to be involved in a car accident—and there are also benefits in terms of fuel consumption and wear and tear on your vehicle too.
Not every driver drives well, unfortunately. Although there are national standards for driving, riding and cycling, once you’ve passed your driving test, there are usually no checks, re-tests or assessments.
The only situations that might require you to redo a driving test are:
- You are 70+ years of age and have a medical condition.
- You have been disqualified for 56 days or more and need to reapply for a licence.
- You want to drive a manual car and you passed using an automatic vehicle.
Is defensive driving important?
No matter whether you drive a car, motorbike, van or HGV, you should always drive bearing in mind the potential hazards around you. Having good observational skills is crucial as this will help you to anticipate any dangers that could arise on your journey. Anticipating events means you can then respond quickly and safely.
Since you can’t rely on other road users to be driving and acting safely, defensive driving becomes especially important. Many road collisions can be avoided by defensive driving. This means you’re mindful of other drivers but also hyper-aware of other drivers’ potential lack of attention.
The more people that drive defensively, the less likely accidents are to occur.
What are the benefits of defensive driving?
Besides the obvious benefit of significantly reducing the likelihood of an accident, defensive driving is beneficial in many other ways too.
Here are some of the additional benefits:
When you drive defensively, you drive steadily and smoothly. You avoid sudden starts and stops, which contribute to the wear and tear of your vehicle and its components. As such, defensive driving means your car will last longer and need fewer repairs, thus saving you money.
With smooth acceleration and gentle braking, you’ll also help to make your tyres and brake pads last longer. Conversely, when you drive aggressively and make sharp turns or brake harshly, these vehicle components will wear down more quickly.
Reduced fuel consumption
Since you’re more likely to be maintaining a consistent speed, not accelerating rapidly or braking suddenly, you’ll improve your fuel efficiency. This will also reduce the strain on the engine too.
Early issue detection
Defensive drivers drive so smoothly that they’re much more likely to notice something isn’t quite right with their vehicle. They might perceive a new sound, sensation or smell, which can lead to early detection of potential issues. Early detection often means quicker and less expensive repairs.
What’s more, defensive drivers tend to be more proactive in general concerning their vehicles and how they approach vehicle maintenance. This makes them more likely to monitor their tyre pressure, fluid levels, and the overall condition of their vehicle, which means the car remains in better condition for longer.
Some insurance providers will reduce your premiums if you complete a defensive driving course. Another option is to have a ‘black box’ installed on your vehicle to reduce your premiums.
A black box is a telematics device that is installed on your car to collect and transmit data on how you drive. This monitors a range of behaviours like speed, acceleration, braking and cornering. It also provides feedback to drivers so they know where to improve. Modern black boxes can also provide real-time feedback too, so if you’re braking harshly or accelerating aggressively, you’ll be alerted.
Who is defensive driving suitable for?
All drivers can be defensive drivers and the more people that drive in this way, the fewer collisions and accidents will happen.
Here’s how defensive driving education can benefit specific groups:
- New drivers: New and inexperienced drivers should learn about defensive driving. This will help them to develop lifelong habits and essential skills to navigate roads safely and respond to a range of different situations.
- Teenagers: Young drivers who learn defensive driving techniques early on will benefit significantly as they’ll be less likely to be involved in a collision, which will help reduce their premiums in the coming years.
- Professional drivers: When you drive as a part of your job, you can’t afford to get caught up in accidents. Truck drivers, delivery drivers, taxi drivers and community healthcare workers will all benefit from defensive driving training. This will enhance skills as well as help them to manage stress when driving.
- Older people: Many experienced drivers learn old habits over time and as we age our reflexes aren’t as good. Defensive driving techniques help keep older people safer on the roads, allowing them to drive well into old age.
- Traffic violation offenders: Many people who have committed traffic violations are encouraged or required to complete courses to help them learn from their mistakes. These courses also improve their driving habits and help them to keep their insurance premiums lower.
- Nervous drivers: Even if you’ve passed your test and you’ve been cleared to drive unaccompanied on the roads, it can be quite daunting. A defensive driving course can be useful to gain additional confidence. If you’re really anxious about driving or travelling, consider whether you have driving anxiety or amaxophobia, which is an extreme fear of travelling in a vehicle.
Defensive driving tips and techniques
Defensive driving incorporates a range of strategies and techniques. Here are some common defensive driving tips:
The biggest element of defensive driving is maintaining focus when driving and avoiding distractions. This means no adjusting the radio, no talking on the phone or texting. It also means being aware of your surroundings at all times and checking your mirrors regularly.
Maintaining your distance
Defensive driving means keeping adequate space between you and the vehicle in front of you. This means you have more time to react if the vehicle in front of you stops or slows down suddenly. In adverse weather conditions, you should allow even more space. It is suggested that you find a fixed object like a lamppost and count three seconds from when the vehicle in front of you passes it.
Watch your speed
Defensive drivers always drive at an appropriate speed for the road conditions, traffic and weather. They will always obey the speed limits too.
Use your indicators
You’d be surprised how many people don’t use their indicators to share their driving intentions with other road users. Defensive drivers ensure these are used for lane changes, merges and turns. Defensive drivers will also check blind spots before manoeuvring.
Be prepared for the unexpected
A huge part of defensive driving is being prepared for the unexpected. This means you should drive and expect to experience sudden lane changes, stops or unpredictable drivers. You should also expect to encounter pedestrians and cyclists who aren’t being mindful of other road users.
Obey traffic rules
This means following traffic signs, signals and rules. Things like darting through an amber light before it turns red is not defensive driving, nor is failing to stop at a stop sign.
Stay in control
Ultimately, you need to remain in control of yourself and the vehicle at all times. This means maintaining proper posture and keeping both hands on the steering wheel. You should also be aware of your vehicle’s limitations. For example, rear-wheel cars aren’t great at manoeuvring in snow or ice so you’ll need to adjust your driving accordingly.
Common driving mistakes to avoid
While looking at what you should be doing for defensive driving, it’s also important to concentrate on what you should avoid doing.
Tailgating is when you follow the car in front of you too closely. The problem with this is that it reduces how much time you have to react to sudden changes in speed, which puts you at a greater risk of rear-end collisions. The safe distance needed depends on how fast you’re travelling, but a general rule of thumb is that there should be three seconds between you and the car in front.
Drivers tailgate for several reasons. These include inexperience, as a tactic to intimidate the driver in front (if they want to pass on a motorway, for example), driving without paying enough attention or being impatient.
Though it is not illegal to tailgate, it is still classed as careless driving and could, therefore, land you with a fine or penalty points on your driving licence.
If you experience being tailgated, there are several things you should do or not do. Firstly, try to stay calm—tailgating is known to cause road rage. You should also assess the situation and ask yourself if you’re driving too slowly or if you’re in a middle or outside lane when the next one is free.
Do your best to make this situation less dangerous for yourself. You should never try and teach the person behind you a lesson by driving too slowly or by touching your brakes on and off to make a point. This is because in doing so, you will increase your chances of being involved in a collision. It is never worth getting into an accident or breaking the law to prove a point.
Whenever you get behind the wheel, always remember that you’re in charge of a heavy and dangerous object. This means you shouldn’t allow yourself to get distracted by your mobile phone, food, drinks, or any other distractions. When you’re distracted, your reaction time is impaired, which increases your risk of being involved in a collision. If for any reason you need to look at your phone, make sure you pull over in a safe place to do so.
Driving while tired
Tiredness is a primary cause of road collisions in the UK and it is believed that between 10% and 20% of all crashes have driver fatigue as a causal factor.
The time you drive matters too. You’re 20 times more likely to fall asleep while driving if you drive at 6 am compared to if you drive at 10 pm.
Typical collisions with tiredness involvement often include cars running into the back of another or running off the road. These collisions also usually happen at high speed because the driver won’t apply the brakes before the crash. As such, the risk of injury and death is high.
When ill or on medication
Sometimes an illness means you’re not fit to drive. Even common illnesses like the flu can make driving less safe. What’s more, many medications, including over-the-counter medicines, can make you drowsy and shouldn’t be taken if you intend to drive. Always check with a doctor or pharmacist.
Always remember that if you’ve consumed alcohol, it takes a while for its effects to leave your body. As such, you still may be over the limit the morning after a few drinks. It’s also illegal to drive under the influence of other substances like cannabis and other recreational drugs.
Final thoughts on defensive driving
In an ideal world, all drivers would practise the techniques of defensive driving. Whatever your reasons for being interested in this, defensive driving is a good habit to pick up. Whether you educate yourself or take a course in defensive driving, remember to always adapt to your surroundings and remind yourself that being in a car is like holding a loaded weapon: it can kill. Safe driving!