How do I improve my defensive driving?
March 30, 2017 10:29 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes, while driving, I notice a dangerous situation — another driver who, I worry, hasn't seen me and will cause an accident — and I do nothing, hoping for the best. Afterward, I berate myself for this dangerously passive behavior. How can I improve? Is there some way to practice defensive driving other than just more driving?

I pride myself on my careful, attentive driving. I have been driving for eight years and have never been in a crash.

Sometimes I'll be in a situation like the following. I'm approaching an intersection. Perpendicularly, another car is approaching the intersection. They have a stop sign and I don't, so I have right of way. Yet they look like they're going too fast, as though they haven't noticed the stop sign. I notice this hazard but do nothing to avoid the potential crash. Luckily, they do end up stopping in time. I breathe a sigh of relief.

Afterward, I think... I should have honked, sped up, slowed down, swerved; something!!! Even though it did work out okay this time, it might not work out so well next time.

I have no trouble noticing potential dangers. I have no trouble thinking of potential reactions after the fact. Yet in the moment, I freeze up and hope for the best. I think I have a problem with my instincts, my split-second responses. I would like to improve them.

I think what I need is practice. I am imagining a driving simulator where other cars randomly try to hit you, and you have to avoid them without yourself causing a crash. Does such a simulator exist? Would it help? How else can I practice and improve?
posted by actionstations to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It may be worth looking at some kind of advanced driving training, or at least reading some of the materials around it. Here in the UK there's Institute of Advanced Motorised and RoSPA Advanced Drivers, who both offer training and qualifications - which, as a side benefit, often come with discounts on your insurance. On the books side, the "standard" is Roadcraft, which is the basis of the training given to police drivers and riders. Obviously all UK-centric but maybe there are US equivalents.
posted by A Robot Ninja at 12:34 AM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've been in a similar situation to the one you mention with the stop sign - specifically, a couple of times in the last year I've been in the lane traffic is merging into and noticed someone stuck on the ramp and tried to slow down to let them out. Usually with a huge truck behind me that can't slow down as fast as I can. It's stupid of me to want to stop but I get struck by pity and mercy and want to let the person out in front of me even if the laws of physics suggest it's a bad idea.

Since the second time this happened, I've tried to elevate it to my conscious rather than subconscious driving mind - saying explicitly to myself when I see that situation coming up, "this is one of those and you can't slow down that much even if you want to, it's not safe" rather than letting driving instinct take over. When you're coming up to an intersection and you see someone else approaching it too fast, can you actively start talking to yourself about it? "This is one of those, and my options are [slow down/honk/move into another lane if it's safe/etc.]".

I also have a broad driving principle that I try to apply as often as I can: if something looks off (dangerous, erratic, unpredictable, too slow or too fast behaviour from another driver), my first job is to get myself out of the way of anything that might happen as safely as possible. Sometimes that means slowing way down and letting something play out in front of me; sometimes it means speeding up or overtaking to get out of the lane/area where something might happen.

It goes a little beyond spotting potential dangers, in that I try to do pre-danger assessments all the time as I'm going. Noticing who's signalling and who isn't, who's keeping straight in their lane and who isn't, who's driving aggressively and who's on the phone, keeping an eye on the flow in the other direction if it's a road without a central barrier, or on the other lanes if it's a bigger road even when I'm not thinking of moving over. I am never just driving in my line on autopilot if I can help if. That way I can do pre-planning, like "if that guy goes in for the really dangerous overtake that it looks like he wants to, I can slow down as soon as he does it and that way I won't be near enough to get entangled if it goes wrong".

I do think that near misses where nothing bad happens when driving are kind of an inevitability of having humans behind the wheel, although there's usually a learning/do differently next time moment to be had from them. For me the most important thing is elevating that learning out of the driving subconscious (so not just blindly trusting that my instincts will absorb the lesson and I'll do the right thing automatically next time - I find it's terrifyingly easy to drive by instinct most of the time, especially if you have to do it a lot) and into the more conscious voice in my head that can kick in and say "hey, it's one of these, you've made a mistake here before and this time you're going to approach it differently".
posted by terretu at 2:21 AM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

A number of years ago I caused a minor accident through inattention. I took a place on a 'speed awareness' course, which I barely remember now, but I took away one useful thing: an exercise where you say out loud all the things you're looking at and thinking about while driving.

So you might say "OK, there's a side-road up ahead, and I can see there's someone waiting to come out. Can they see me? I'll slow down. OK, now there's a sign for a school, better look around for any dangers there... there's some parked cars - I'll give them a wide berth in case someone opens a door. There's a bus over there that looks like it might be about to move - I'll adjust my speed so that it has time to move out before I get there."

Just describe all of the hazards you see, and what you're doing about them. It might feel a little dumb, but you're bringing all of those everyday driving decisions to the front of your mind and explicitly verbalising them, and that part makes it useful. I found it led to me being more aware of the road situation and less likely to go off into my own thoughts while on autopilot. It also improved my ability to look ahead for things that might be a problem 10 or 20 seconds down the road.

Obviously this works best when you're along in the car - other drivers will just think you're having a conversation on the hands-free.
posted by pipeski at 2:42 AM on March 31, 2017 [6 favorites]

Just to reiterate that the ideal solution is some form of advanced driving course, however, related to terretu's (edit: and pipeski's) suggestion, if you do nothing else, use the commentary approach, where you verbally (i.e. out loud) narrate what is going on around you and how you should be reacting.

The commentary approach not only makes sure you engage more of your brain while driving, it also brings to your attention what the current safe driving speed is - if you cannot verbally narrate what is going on around you, you are going too fast. This works best when you are narrating to someone else in the car, which is the advantage of doing an advanced driving course, but you can still get significant benefits from doing it while you are driving alone.
posted by oclipa at 2:45 AM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Maybe it's different where you are based, or maybe I'm misunderstanding the description... but isn't this a bit counter-intuitive and bordering on dangerous? The situation you've described above, taken as an example. If I'm following you on that road, and you suddenly slow down or swerve, when you have the right of way, "just in case" somebody hasn't seen you (which you cannot possibly ascertain, only they know), then there's always the possibility of causing an accident due to unexpected actions of your own.

8 years of driving is a lot of practise and experience, and from what I've understood of your message, I don't think you're doing anything wrong by NOT swerving, honking horns, speeding up, slowing down or what-not. You're following the rules of the road, and all you can hope, expect and rely on is other people doing the same.
posted by thingonaspring at 3:48 AM on March 31, 2017 [8 favorites]

My mom taught me to always be looking for an escape route, somewhere you can go if the unexpected happens, other than just slamming on the brakes, which might not stop you in time. So be aware whether you have a clear path of escape onto the shoulder, into another lane, even into the oncoming lane if there isn't oncoming traffic. If you don't have an escape route, that's a signal to be extra vigilant and maybe reduce your speed slightly, if traffic allows.
posted by BrashTech at 4:02 AM on March 31, 2017 [11 favorites]

I live in Connecticut where MOST people drive like bats out of hell. My defensive driving technique is to just chillax, fill up a to-go mug with coffee, put on the radio and just resign myself to driving like a grandpa. Let the people who are swerving around you on both sides go ahead and do it, let the three people going through the cold red light, go ahead and do it, and just go oh well, because by the end of the day, you are either contributing to calm or rage, and I don't need to add extra drama or power struggle just getting from point a to point b.
posted by coevals at 4:38 AM on March 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

In your example of the stop sign, I'd tap the horn. A couple of short bursts to alert the oncoming driver. I also think quick horn blasts are useful around tight blind corners (like parking lots)
posted by askmehow at 5:11 AM on March 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

The problem with trying to signal other drivers that you have the right of way is that some interpret that to mean "giving them room" to do what ever crazy thing they want to do.

A very responsible doctor I chatted with recently mentioned learning "defensive" skills as a cabbie in NYC years ago, know exactly where everyone is around you but don't look at them or move your head.

The stop sign potential collision situation wrenches my tummy occasionally, I don't think there is any obvious strategy, it's all too clear cut with few options other than to be aware and prepared. Slowing a bit never hurts.
posted by sammyo at 5:40 AM on March 31, 2017

If I think a car isn't slowing for a stop sign, I take my foot off gas and cover the brake. I'm ready to brake if necessary but I haven't done anything to impede traffic. 99% of time, it's fine and the car stops. That other 1% I'm prepared for.

When driving on a highway, if I don't have a safe stopping zone in front of me, I again take foot off gas and let the space increase before gassing again. If someone is too close behind me, I'll increase the distance in front of me. Again by removing gas. Again not noticeable to impede traffic.

I do the same if someone is turning in front of me, or walking, etc.

If i feel like car in front of me is too slow, I check my speed. We have a tendency to think that the car in front is impeding progress, but it's a mind thing. So I check speed to reaffirm that we are moving along just fine. Usually this on 401 where normal speed is 120 in a 100 zone.

I constantly watch brakes in front of me, and also in front of them. Two or three cars in front braking gives me more time to react.

Im aware if im sitting in a blind spot and adjust so that I'm not.

I make sure I can see headlights in my rearview mirror before pulling in front of another car. It assures a safe distance. Of course I check blind spots before moving.

I use my mirrors a lot. I know where other cars are. I can see the jerk weaving in and out of traffic so that it doesn't shock me when he suddenly pulls in front of me.

As I say to my kids, it's not how fast you are going, it's how fast you can stop.
posted by Ftsqg at 6:27 AM on March 31, 2017 [19 favorites]

I share your concerns!

I try to be pretty vigilant at defensive driving. I half-joke that I drive as if someone is trying to kill me.

I leave plenty of room between me and the car in front of me. I don't assume a green light means cross traffic will actually stop. I don't drive erratically and don't get in a hurry. Despite all this, like you, I have plenty of after-the-fact times when I think I should have been more careful. The reality is, you can't really plan for crazy. All you can do it be vigilant and be aware of your surrounding.

2-way stop intersections can be particularly difficult, as you have seen. Many people seem to love to run up on the stop sign, and slam on their brakes at the last second. Of course, slowing down at these intersections is prudent. The problem is, cross traffic might not notice that it's a 2-way stop, and that you have no stop sign. So, slowing down too much can look like you are stopping, which they can interpret as "oh it's my turn to go!" resulting in a collision. Sometimes, being overly cautious sends the wrong the signal to other drivers. There's a tricky balance of caution and assertiveness required.

You can search your area to see if the Highway Patrol or some other entity offers Defensive Driving courses. These are usually just classroom courses, but they do exist. As a federal employee, I am required to take one every three years. A few things that I learned in these courses that put into practice:
-At intersections, even if I have the right of way, I still take my foot off the gas and cover the brake, while checking for cross traffic.
-I'm very aware of blind spots of others drivers. I never ride in another driver's blind spot. The worst place to be is on another driver's rear quarter panel.
-I use the 3-second rule when following other vehicles. I also add a second for each "negative condition." Darkness, rain, bad, roads, etc. Obviously, snow and ice put that equation into a whole different category.
-I try to consciously use "triangular scan" when driving. Look at the road ahead, but also scan the left and right. It's a good habit to get into, even in areas where it seems like there is nothing to the left and right to worry about. It helps prevent driving tunnel vision, and keeps you alert.

Happy driving.
posted by The Deej at 6:59 AM on March 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Eight years isn't really that long. Learning to drive safely takes a long time.

It sounds like one of two things could be happening. Most likely it's 1.: you're going too fast so you don't see the potential hazard in time to do something measured and deliberate and notdangerous. But it could be 2.: you're an unconscious BMW driver like me.

Here's what I mean:
Bicyclists in my town can pretty much be relied upon to ignore stops, so even when I have the right of way, I assume they're going to fly through the intersection, and I slow down and get ready to stop until I see the bicyclist stop and put a foot down. In the not-very-complicated part of my brain that is mostly in charge when I'm driving, bikes are no threat and I naturally and unconsciously drive like a rational creature around them. But in the situation you describe, if it's a car menacing my right of way? Then my automatic response is very different. If I'm not staying vigilant and ready to engage my conscious brain, I can totally see me maintaining speed and barreling down the street like an asshole. This is because my default motoring style is type BMW, which is to say if I'm not careful to rein in, I will drive like a lizard-brained aggressive mannerless hoggish idiot.

If you're going at a reasonable speed and have time to see the hazard and react deliberately, then I can't really understand what would motivate insisting on the right of way and courting a wreck other than this kind of autonomic aggression response. It's possible you're doing this without understanding that this is what you're doing: again, eight years is not very long and this kind of stuff happens rarely, so you don't get many opportunities to observe yourself. I've been driving for long enough that I know the shameful truth about myself, and I know I have to stay vigilant to keep the lizard from doing something demented that gets me and god forbid somebody else killed to death.

When you are approaching a potential hazard, slow down to give yourself time to assess the hazard and be prepared to stop forward motion so that you can avoid plowing into the hazard. Take your foot off the gas pedal and tap the brake pedal to flash your brake lights for drivers behind you.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:32 AM on March 31, 2017

I'm a motorcyclist. I take safety on the road seriously. While on a motorcycle (I also drive a truck on occasion) I am effectively invisible to many drivers and must act and plan accordingly.

I would recommend (even if you don't ever want to ride a motorcycle on the road) checking out a basic rider skills course in your area and taking it. Where I live the BRS course is put on by a non-profit foundation that is affiliated with the department of transportation and taking the course allows you to get the motorcycle endorsement without taking the DMV driving test.

Not that that is your goal.

What we are taught is a mental routine summarized by the awkward acronym SIPDE

S Scan the environment
I Identify the threat(s)
P Predict what they might do
D Decide how you would react if they do that
E Execute your decision if it becomes necessary

I do this when driving. I am constantly scanning all other things that are moving, or could move (like parked cars or pedestrians on the sidewalk) and predicting the thing or things they could do that would be most likely to cause a collision with me.

In your "car approaches stop sign and I think they won't stop" situation - I would have identified that threat, as you did. Then, examined things like - are there other cars around that I must consider? If that car enters the intersection, given his speed and mine, where will we meet / collide? Is it better to brake now, prepare to brake by putting my right foot on the brake preemptively or something else? If that car enters the intersection and I must evade, can I turn sharply right while braking to increase my travel distance before collision and thus increase my time to bleed off speed? And if the collision is inevitable, will a glancing blow where the driver's side of my car hits the passenger side of the other be better? Part of that will be affected by what safety features your car has. If it has side curtain airbags this might be advisable. If it does not, but has a front impact airbag then planning for a frontal collision (if one is inevitable) might be preferable.

Then when the other car __did__ stop, all that would be forgotten and I'd be focused down the road on the next upcoming challenge.

Sounds like a LOT of mental overhead but if you do it every time, all the time you are driving it will become automatic in less than a month.

A few times on motorcycles I've found myself braking at maximum brake power before my conscious brain even knew we needed to do so, because this habit is now as automatic as walking.

And I learned it in the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Basic Rider Skills course. Which I commend for your consideration.
posted by BrooksCooper at 10:14 AM on April 1, 2017

Instinct and reaction time are poor bases for good driving. You want to plan far, far ahead and to do that you want to *look* far, far ahead. The basics: look as far down the road as you can see or infer what is going on. You can draw inferences from cars on a curve: are their brake lights coming on? They might see something you cannot. Look for patterns. A clump of traffic a mile ahead? The clump is happening for a reason, maybe there is a pot hole there, or (in California) people are shying like suspicious horses from a wet patch of pavement.

Play "spot the idiot". Someone wabbling around like a lost puppy, or driving aggressively, is the idiot. Attend to the idiot and keep it in front of you as long as you can - then leave the idiot behind you if it is safe. Other idiots will have crash damage - where did it come from? They did -something- to get that crash damage and they might do that thing again in front of you.

Never, never let a drunk driver get behind you. They are drunk. You may be their crash absorber when they goof again.

As far as your own behavior goes, the principle of least astonishment works. Surprising people by getting in the wrong lane following a turn is a counter-example. Strive never to surprise anyone, even the idiot.

I've had no wrecks and no contact with other cars in 43 years of driving. I've had some light crash damage from hitting deer (two instances) which you really cannot predict. Deer are dumb and in October they are aggressive too.
posted by jet_silver at 10:15 AM on April 1, 2017

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