Defensive Driving

Many of us spend much of our time behind the wheel. It is important to keep this in mind when planning for the unexpected. Planning for the unexpected should incorporate all of the places you are likely to be. The emergency supplies you keep in your vehicle are important, but so is how you drive and like so many other skills it should become a practiced habit. That will be the focus of this article.

Defensive driving is loosely defined as driving in a manner that strives to keep you in a good defensible position, itilizing techniques that allow yourself time to react to un-expected hazards of all types on the road, and the techniques for how you react to those hazards. It is important to understand that defensive driving IS NOT the same thing as aggressive driving. Good defensive driving may call for aggressive driving at times, but they are certainly not the same. Tailgating the vehicle in front of you would be considered aggressive; however it is definitely not a good defensive driving strategy. By doing so you have drastically reduced the reaction time you have available should the car in front of you suddenly slam on the brakes; have a tire blowout, or countless other possible scenarios.

I will detail the three components that when combined will give you well rounded defensive driving abilities:  Situational Awareness, Proper Posture and Ergonomics, & finally Driving Strategies and Tactics.

Proper Steering Wheel Hand Placement Proper brake pedal foot placement. Proper accelerator pedal foot placement. Scanning the horizon while driving.

Situational Awareness

Situational Awareness is probably the most important element to defensive driving. The sooner you perceive and assess a hazard, the better your chances are to react and avoid it. The single biggest piece of advice for this I can give is to scan the road's horizon (the farthest point you can see on the road you are on.) When you are watching the road's horizon your peripheral vision is much greater. This is where you are heading, and if there are hazards in the distance this is where you will see them first. Your eyes will still pick up on any sudden changes from the other vehicles nearer to you. Sometimes you will see evidence of a hazard before the actual threat itself. For example, if the cars in the distance are all hittng the brakes around the bend, that is a sign there is likely something around that bend that you should be prepared for (this alone is a huge ticket saver). There have been countless times where I have seen a hazard, whether it is a deer crossing the road or a patrol car on the shoulder of a freeway long before the vehicles in front of me did. I have had the unfortunate experience if witnessing vehicles in front of me strike deer that could easily have been avoided. Even from behind them I had seen the hazard in plenty of time for them to have stopped, yet they did not see it until far too late.

In addition to the horizon, you should get into the habit of scanning your mirrors every 15- 20 seconds. Even when you are not planning to change lanes or turn it is always good to be aware of the vehicles around you. Should you need to make an emergency maneuver you will already know the best direction to swerve. Take note of how the other cars around you are behaving. Over time you will get good at anticipating what other cars are about to do. A subtle swerve in their lane can be an indication they are looking to the side and about to change lanes, often without a signal. Closing up on the car in front of them is often a sign they are jockeying to change lanes directly in front of the car that is beside them, etc.

As you learn to be aware of the vehicles around you, also keep in mind where their blind spots are. By doing this you can learn to avoid being in their blind spots, especially when you are anticipating them to change lanes.

Another big component of situational awareness when driving is to eliminate distractions. Purchasing and using a hands free device for your cell phone is probably at the top of this list. It has become law in many states, and it may be required soon in your state if not already. Also remember that as speed goes up, so should your awareness. The speed of your vehicle drastically affects your reaction time. The faster you are going the more focused you need to be. I won't publically condone speeding, but I personally believe that when I get a speeding ticket that tells me I was not paying enough attention for the speed that I was going, and it serves as a relatively cheap reminder of what else I could have missed.

You can learn about other aspects to Situational Awarness beyond driving here.

Proper Posture & Ergonomics

Proper Posture & Ergonomics can play a surprisingly big role in maintaining awareness and in maintaining control of your vehicle during an evasive manuever. By sitting upright with good posture, you can avoid fatigue on long drives. How your seat is adjusted in relation to the steering column will play a big part in how fast you tire.  Learning to properly brace your body in place in ways that keep your pedal foot & arms relaxed and free to do their job controlling the vehicle is crucial. If your arms and pdeal foot are also trying to brace you in a panic situation, you might jerk the wheel or mash the accelerator un-intentially when your reflexes are just tring to brace for an impact. Consistantly practicing proper bracing techniques (described below), while in your normal driving position will develop good habits that become second nature when reflexes kick in. 

Consistency in your driving position is also vital for learning just how much input your vehicle needs from you to maneuver a certain way, as well as to develop the feedback you get from the steering wheel, brake pedal, & vehicle's suspension.

Start with your seat. You should position you seat so that you are as far away from the steering wheel as you can get while still able to reach the pedals with your heel on the floor, and so that your arms can comfortably hold the steering wheel and reach the driving related controls on the dash. From this positions you should be able to scan the mirrors easily without needing to lean your head forward or back. Adjust your mirrors to the new seat position if you notice you need to lean your head when checking them. You should wear your seatbelt. You should be able to brace yourself firmly against the seat by placing your left foot firmly on the lower back corner of the firewall (just beside the clutch in a manual). When backing up, you should also be able to comfortably reach your right arm onto the back of the passenger seat as a lateral brace. These two bracing positions will give you a very positive and secure placement in your seat should you need to brace for an impact in either forward or reverse. They also keep your right foot and your arms free to control the vehicle. You will be surprised how stable your body is braced in this manner. This was the positioning I used quite successfully in a demolition derby. I did not use a 5 point harness in the derby car because it required the ability to turn in my seat and see behind me. I have also raced vehicles that were equipped with 5 point harness systems. Those belt systems are designed to keep you placed firmly in your seat with your shoulder blades pressed to the back of the seat. By design, they do not allow you to lean left, right, or forward. They do this to prevent injury during impacts and they do that very well. What they also teach you is how important seat position is, and that once you get the right seat position none of those extra movements are really necessary.

When backing up, learn to use your mirrors, but also get in the habit of turning and bracing in your seat as described above. It is good to be proficient with mirrors, and without - mirrors can get knocked off very easily.

Learn to keep both hands on the steering wheel, close to the 10 and 2 positions on a clock. Learn to keep your thumbs OUT of the inside of the wheel. This is very important because hitting a curb, another vehicle, or some other large piece of debris with the front tires will violently jerk the steering wheel. If your thumbs are not clear of the steering wheel spokes they will get broken. I like to place my thumbs up on the ring of the wheel. This position may also minimize the damage to your hands should your airbag deploy. When turning the steering wheel, practice using the same hand over hand technique consistently. This will develop good automatic muscle memory that is adept at accurately turning the wheel however much you need and quicky returning it back to center.

Position your right foot's heel on the floor below the brake pedal and in a consistent position where you can comfortably use the ball of your foot to push the brake. The brake pedal is the position where you might be required to use the most force, should you lose power brakes. Without lifting or moving your heel, you should be able to rotate your ankle slightly to push the accelerator pedal. By not needing to reposition the heel of your foot when switching from acceleration to deceleration you can avoid the problem many people often have in a panic situation, where they mash the accelerator instead of the brake.

If you drive an automatic transmission, you may want to occasionally develop the technique to use both feet, one on the accelerator and the other on the brake. This is a more advanced tehnique, but in some situations you can get a more refined control of your vehicle. For example, by loading the brakes into turns without fully letting off the throttle will allow the vehicle to approach and enter a high speed turn without unsettling the suspension, unlike how fully releasing the throttle on a high torque drivetrain can do. This technique requires practice because you need to develop the finer muscle control in the left foot which it often does not normally have as compared to the right. However this should probably not be your normal everyday driving technique as it can lead to dragging the brakes which is hard on the vehicle. I would recommend only occasionally practicing this if you want to develop the fine moter skills for this technique.

Driving Strategies & Tactics

Driving strategies and tactics is the final component to good defensive driving skills. You have learned how to be aware of the hazards around you. Now we will discuss strategies for being in a good position to react to those hazards.  The key component is strive to always keep several options open. Avoid boxing yourself in with traffic around you. I like to try to keep at least one lane (or a shoulder) open next me at all times. Also learn to avoid the blind spots of the vehicles around you as well. When on a roadway with 3+ lanes of traffic, avoid merging into a center lane while you are in the blind spot of someone on the opposite side of that lane - in case they decide to change lanes at the same time and not be able to see you. In this situation, I avoid changing lanes until I am at least a half car length in front of them.

Occasionally while driving run "what if" scenarios in your head, such as: "What if that 18-wheeler lost a wheel directly into my lane?" Doing so will help keep you mentally practiced at quickly assessing a hazard and taking the best available course or action. Doing so will also teach you to keep more evasive options available for yourself in different scanarios.

These strategies apply to city streets just as much as they do the freeway. When pulling up to a red light, stop with enough space in front so that you could pull around the car in front of you if needed. Should someone come up to your vehicle to accost you at the light your best option may be to simply (and quickly) pull off into the other lane. At the very least this would put the threat behind your car which is much more defensible than directly at your door. Remember should you ever need - when in the reasonable fear of your life, the vehicle itself can also serve as a very deadly weapon.

Remember that the brake is not the only option in a panic situation. Often times you can steer yourself out of near collision. If the vehicle is in a slide and it looks like you may not stop in time, the best solution may actually be to completely release the brake and then steer around the hazard. The front wheels cannot provide steering if they are not turning. This is unfortunately a very difficult thing to remember in a panic situation, and to overcome the natural reflex of locking up the brakes takes a lot of practice. Few people have safe places to practice such manueveres. I am of the opinion that public, and safe areas should be provided for drivers that wish to develop such skills. I personally believe the added safety these skills can develop outweigh the dangers of the practice itself. Snow filled, empty parking lots one way to practice emergency manuvers and slide recovery at lower and safer speeds, however it is not legally condoned. 

In summary, the key to well-rounded defensive driving habits are to learn to be more aware of your surroundings. Learn good ergonomics and develop consistency to improve your driving skills and relfexes.  And finally, practice driving techniques that keep your options open, and allow you to react to hazards as they present themselves.

Posted by Mark at 12:11
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