What is Defensive Driving?

Have you ever heard of Murphy's Law? It's the idea that "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" — a reminder that, despite all efforts, there's always room for our best laid plans to go awry. And it's an insight that explains why defensive driving is so important whenever you're behind the wheel.

A pedestrian in New York enters the roadway suddenly.  An Arizona driver sneezes and veers into the wrong lane. Someone gets behind the wheel after they've been drinking in a Texas bar. Every one of these situations can happen at any time, and every one can put your life in danger if you're not driving defensively.

Defensive driving is the art of anticipating problems and responding ahead of time so that you can protect yourself and others from dangerous and unexpected driving situations. When driving defensively, your goal is to be aware of potential threats and be prepared to deal with them before they become a problem. 

Avoiding collisions isn't just a matter of making sure you follow the law and do everything right. Even if you do everything right, all it takes for a collision to happen is for someone else to do something wrong. That's why it's so important to expect other drivers make mistakes and to be ready to adjust your driving as soon as you spot a potential problem on the road.

The First Principle of Defensive Driving

Traits that all defensive drivers have in common are that they never take for granted that nothing will go wrong, and they never assume that other drivers will do the right thing. It's this mindset that ensures they never put themselves in unnecessary danger and that they're prepared to react in any emergency.

As such, the first principle of defensive driving is to avoid risky behavior. On the road, it can be tempting to bend the rules sometimes because the risk seems low. For instance, maybe you're feeling frustrated because the car ahead of you is traveling 10 mph under the limit, and there's only one lane going in your direction. On your left, there's a double solid yellow line, prohibiting passing, but the road ahead seems clear. So why not pass? As long as nothing goes wrong, everything will be fine, right?

The problem is, any plan that relies on nothing going wrong is a bad plan. Maybe a car is approaching along a hidden T-intersection on the side of the road. Maybe there's a driver speeding towards you on the other side of the highway. Or maybe your illegal maneuver will confuse the driver ahead of you, causing him to speed up just as you're trying to reenter the lane ahead of him.

The point is, you don't know what will happen, and the only way to ensure your safety is to expect the worst and act accordingly. This means always driving in a safe, legal, and responsible way, even if you have no reason to expect trouble.

Defensive Driving Helps You Avoid Danger

The second principle of defensive driving is to expect others to ignore the first. That is, you must be ready for something to happen that could put you in danger. In other words, you must:

  • Stay alert. Pay constant attention to what other road users are doing and watch carefully for potential hazards
  • Scan the road ahead and keep your eyes moving so that you spot potential hazards sooner
  • Maintain a safe following distance and identify areas of the road you can use if you have to make evasive maneuvers
  • Watch out for changes in driving conditions so you won't be surprised by the actions of other drivers
  • Don't make assumptions about what other drivers will do and be ready to respond when they do something you don't expect

Take action immediately when you notice a potential threat on the road

The Driver's Golden Rule

The golden rule of driving is always treat other drivers the way you want to be treated. As a defensive driver, your goal is to put yourself in a place where you can response calmly, patiently, and courteously when the unexpected inevitably occurs.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. But on the road, a single bad decision or lapse in judgment can easily result in disaster. By driving defensively, you don't just protect yourself. You also give other drivers room to make mistakes safely—just as you hope others will do when the same thing happens to you.

Want to improve your own defensive driving skills? Take lessons with an instructor who can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses as a driver. Enroll in a defensive driving course to find out more about safe and unsafe driving practices. And above all, pay attention to everything happening around you whenever you drive. If you can learn to treat the road as the constantly changing environment that it is, rather than the idealized situation you'd like it to be, you'll be ready for anything that goes wrong.