While the autonomous cars and other future automotive technologies will make driving safer for all road users, these advancements are still years off. In the meantime, what can you can do to keep yourself, your car and your loved ones safe on the roads?
Don’t worry, there is something: defensive driving.
What is defensive driving?
Almost 90% of all road traffic accidents in South Africa can be attributed to driver error. While some of these accidents might be caused by a loss of concentration or mistakes made by drivers, many are a result of reckless or unlawful driving. In order to protect yourself from the dangerous or reckless drivers you encounter on the road, it is necessary for you to adjust your driving behaviours, remain aware of weather conditions, other road users and situations on the road, and learn skills and techniques that will protect you from these situations, thereby reducing your risk on the road – this is the essence of defensive driving.
Step 1: Be prepared
Before you start learning and implementing the new techniques and skills that will protect you in a dangerous road situation, it’s important to understand that the most important element of defensive driving is being prepared. Avoiding the situations that put you at risk is the first step in driving defensively.
Try to understand and remain aware of the following important factors affect your safety on the road:
- Your driving ability: everyone who owns a car has fantasised about being a racecar driver. However, the reality is that those drivers have heightened and highly-trained skills and abilities that most of us will never have. By understanding your own driving ability, you will be able to effectively plan and prepare for your trips and journeys.
- Vehicle fitness: during holiday periods, the number of accidents that occur on SA’s roads increases astronomically. Many times, this has to do with drivers not being aware of their vehicle’s capabilities to do things like drive long distances, tow a trailer or overtake in high pressure situations. It’s important for drivers to understand their car’s limitations, and ensure that the vehicle is well-maintained and in a good condition.
- Conditions: by staying up-to-date with the traffic and weather conditions on the road, drivers can make informed decisions on when and where to drive, and when to delay or alter their planned routes. This will allow drivers to avoid any dangerous situations and prevent driver-related problems like fatigue or loss of concentration.
- Road rules: it is important that all drivers are educated on the all rules that govern South Africa’s roads, to ensure that they are able to maintain a standard of driving that keeps both themselves and other drivers safe. It also keeps drivers aware of those drivers who are not following the rules of the road, allowing them to avoid these reckless or negligent vehicles in their travels.
- Injury protection: defensive drivers should ensure that they understand how different accidents occur, in what way cars are damaged in the different types of accident, and the types of injuries that occur in these types of accidents. This will keep drivers aware of the importance of ensuring they and their passengers are properly protected on their journeys, for example by safety equipment like safety belts and airbags.
Defensive driving techniques
There are a number of techniques that defensive drivers can utilise to share the road with other drivers who may not necessarily be driving safely or responsibly. Some of these techniques may seem like common sense or basic driving techniques, but many drivers don’t follow them because they think they’re unimportant – the reality is that checking your blind spots, for example, can be the difference between having and avoiding a serious accident.
- Keep aware of the everything that’s happening around you. Regularly check your side and rear-view mirrors and blind spots for potential hazards.
- Don’t only focus on the car directly in front of you, but try to monitor the situation of the cars further ahead on the road.
- Be on the lookout for any parked cars with wheels that are turned towards the centre of road – they be preparing to pull into the road.
- Refrain from travelling to far above or below the average speed of the cars around you, while staying within the speed limit.
- Don’t assume that any other driver is driving safely or responsibly – this will keep you prepared in the event of another driver doing something unexpected.
- Approach intersections with caution, and don’t assume that other road users will obey street signs or traffic lights.
- If another driver does something dangerous or irresponsible, don’t attempt to prove a point to them by changing your driving behaviour.
- Try to make eye contact with other drivers and pedestrians – this will ensure that you know when they have or haven’t seen you.
- Make sure you check your blind spots before changing lanes.
- Avoid getting involved in confrontation and ‘road rage’ incidents.
- If a driver is ‘tailgating’ you (driving very close behind you), don’t gesture or slam on the breaks to annoy or anger them. Instead lightly tap your brake pedal a few times, to encourage them to maintain a safe following distance. If this doesn’t work, either change lanes or slow down gradually, as they will most likely overtake you.
- Avoid travelling in the fast lane except when overtaking.
- If you see a car or cars driving recklessly behind you, don’t make any sudden moves. Move to the slow lane when it is safe to do so, and maintain a larger-than-normal following-distance to allow them to overtake you.
- As a rule of thumb, you should maintain a 2 to 3 second following distance between your car and the car ahead of you in normal conditions. In more dangerous conditions, double that distance (4 to 6 seconds).
- Keep your eyes open for an ‘escape route’ that will allow you to move your vehicle out the way if there’s an obstruction or issue on the road ahead of you.
- Avoid driving in other vehicles’ blind spots for longer than absolutely necessary – be especially vigilant when driving behind or alongside trucks, as they have much larger blindspots.
There are defensive driving classes in most South African cities, which can be easily found online. These courses are a valuable way for motorists to improve their defensive driving skills and practice the techniques mentioned in this article.
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