17 Must-Know Tips That Will Make You a Better Defensive Driver
Even the most-skilled driver, with a solid safety record, is still at risk for a car accident. Anticipating potential road hazards is the key to defensive driving. In addition to protecting life and limb, it can potentially lower your insurance bill and help you avoid tickets.
You can’t control bad road conditions, distracted drivers, people under the influence or other unexpected situations. You can, though, increase your odds of staying clear of such hazards with this list of 17 defensive driving tips. They key takeaways are:
- Assume other drivers will do the unexpected.
- Keep your full attention on the road.
- Make sure your brakes and tires are in good working order.
Defensive Driving Safety Tips
- Expect other drivers to do the unpredictable, for example, running a red light, backing out without looking or veering into your lane.
- Ignore the constant distractions in your own car, for instance, text message pings, crying babies, eating and drinking, smoking, turning to look at passengers, adjusting the stereo and putting on makeup. Leave your cellphone in your pocket, your purse, your backpack or the glove compartment, and save the snacks and makeup for home or your destination.
- Plan your route before you put the car into gear. Load your destination into your navigation system or check the map before you start.
- Obey traffic laws, including seat belts, stop signs and speed limits. Give yourself enough time to get where you’re going so you don’t feel pressured into unsafe driving.
- Look ahead and keep your eyes moving. Watch the road for potholes and debris, scan the shoulder, check your rearview and side mirrors and be alert to brake lights ahead.
- Adjust your speed and following distance when the weather calls for it. A heat wave means there will be overheating vehicles, more tire failures, and more people out and about. Winter weather will create slick conditions that increase your stopping distance. Be extra vigilant and follow these guidelines for driving in rain, snow, ice and fog.
- Plan for unexpected changes in traffic speed in construction zones.
- Don’t rubberneck. Instead, focus on keeping clear of all those who are gawking around you.
- If someone is tailgating you, slow down enough to give them room to pass.
- 10. Keep an eye out for animals. Certain times of the day and year are more dangerous due to wildlife. The deer rutting season can start in September and usually peaks in mid-November, though it can stretch into the winter months. During this time, bucks aren’t as aware of traffic. Baby animals and juvenile raptors, who aren’t savvy about highways, are a factor in spring and summer. Go slower at night to watch for animals that get caught in the headlights in the road.
- Give cyclists plenty of room and don’t pass them when there is oncoming traffic or on blind corners. Cyclists may swerve into your lane due to a wind gust or to avoid debris.
- Be the one who lets the other driver go first. If you arrive at an intersection at the same time, wait a few seconds before moving through. Even though it may be your turn to go, other drivers may not properly yield.
- Make it easy for other drivers to know your intentions. Stay in your lane rather than trying to gain a few seconds or minutes by passing. Always use turn signals. Tap the brakes when you see traffic slowing ahead to alert drivers behind you that there’s a slowdown.
- Be extra alert during nights and weekends. Driving under the influence is most prevalent when the workweek is done.
- Talk to your teen about driving under the influence. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teens. Drivers ages 16 to 19 are three times more likely than drivers 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.
- Take a course. It will not only improve your driving, it might reduce your auto insurance cost. If you’ve gotten a traffic citation, completing defensive driving training can sometimes get it dismissed, reduce points on your license and keep your insurance rate from going up. The National Safety Council offers online training. Many insurance companies offer educational programs for new drivers in exchange for discounts. Check with your insurer to see what will qualify you for reduced premiums or your local court to confirm approved coursework.
- Maintain your vehicle’s most important safety gear: your brakes and tires. If you do need to stop suddenly, you don’t want to find out the hard way that your brake pads are worn or your tire tread is too thin to provide traction. (Les Schwab Tires does free visual inspections of both without an appointment.)
Defensive driving is a series of hundreds of choices you make about your own driving behavior every time you get behind the wheel. Be the one who watches out for the other driver. Spotting risks ahead of time requires your full attention. With practice, it soon becomes second nature.
Be a Hero with a Summer Road Trip Safety Kit
Picture yourself as the only one with jumper cables at the boat launch when someone has a dead battery. Or looking like a genius when you bring out a deck of cards to keep restless kids busy while you change a flat tire.
Being road-trip ready means more than just carrying a charged cell phone with your roadside assistance number handy.
Keeping a simple summer road trip safety kit in your vehicle during the warm months will make your travel more carefree — and you just might save the day. Here’s what to have.
21 Items to Have in Your Summer Road Trip Safety Kit
- A clear, plastic storage bin to keep everything together and spot items more easily
- First-aid kit
- Fire extinguisher, rated for Class B and Class C fires
- Spare tire, properly inflated, along with the jack, lug wrench and some work gloves
- A ground mat or towel to use on hot pavement if you have to change a tire
- Tire pressure gauge
- Extra windshield wiper fluid in case you go through a “bug storm”
- Rags for keeping your windshield clean, or in case you need to get under the hood and get at hot or oily areas
- Three road flares, orange safety triangles or battery-operated warning lights. If you have to change a flat tire, place them 50 feet apart to warn oncoming traffic. Available at auto parts stores.
- A fluorescent safety vest with reflective strips to improve your visibility if you’re stranded on the side of a busy highway. Sold at most big-box home improvement stores.
- A baseball cap or visor to provide some sun protection if you get stuck in a place with no shade
- A reflective emergency blanket to use for shade. You can buy one at most sporting goods or variety stores.
- Sunscreen, especially if you have small kids along
- Speaking of children, stow a travel board game or some playing cards, an extra diaper if needed, and long shelf-life snacks, like nuts, dried fruit, granola bars and protein bars. Such small things will help keep them occupied and more comfortable in case you’re waiting for roadside assistance.
- Wet wipes
- Pet items. A collapsible water bowl, spare leash and treats may come in handy.
- In addition to a water bottle for every person in your car, carry a gallon of drinking water. Bring even more if you have the dog along.
- Jumper cables
- Multitool or a mini toolkit with Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, adjustable wrench and pliers. These could be useful if you’re hauling a trailer or have gear racks.
- Headlamp with fresh batteries, because flat tires can happen after dark, and you’ll need your hands free
- Duct tape, for temporary repair of a hose leak
When you’re unprepared, an auto breakdown during hot months can be just as hairy as getting stranded in winter. Your summer road trip safety kit will make getting through it a whole lot easier.
A winter road trip safety kit is also a good idea. See what belongs in yours.
Do You Know How to Drive If Your Tire Goes Flat?
Having a tire go flat or completely come apart while you’re driving at highway speed isn’t pretty. It can be especially scary if you’re a new driver.
Here’s an infographic on what to do if it happens to you. And a checklist for preventing flat tires in the first place.
How Can You Prevent Flat Tires?
Avoid tire failure by following these easy tips.
- Check tire pressure monthly, including the spare.
- Slow down if you have to drive over a pothole or other object in the road.
- Don’t run over curbs or other foreign objects in the roadway, and try not to hit or rub the curb when parking.
- Inspect tires for uneven wear patterns on the tread, cracks, foreign objects, or other signs of wear or trauma.
- Remove any stones, bits of glass or other foreign objects wedged in the tread.
- Make sure your tire valves have caps.
- Pickup drivers should be extra careful about proper tire pressure. Overloading and low tire pressure can cause tire overheating leading to tire failure. Sudden flat tires cause more than three times the number of crashes in pickups than in passenger cars, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Not to Worry: 27 Tips for Safest Night Driving
Driving at night can be a travel delight. Your favorite playlist, the open road, a feeling of adventure — what could be better?
But night driving brings into play some serious safety issues. The overall nighttime crash rate is about one-and-a-half times the daytime rate. Night crashes are statistically more severe, with the fatality rate three to four times that of daylight crashes.
The main problem is lower visibility. Visual cues like pavement markings and road signs are harder to see. Your depth perception, ability to make out colors and peripheral vision are all worse at night. Older drivers can be especially challenged: A 50-year-old driver may need twice as much light to see as well as the average 30-year-old.
Another safety issue is fatigue. Our bodies are programmed to get sleepy when it’s dark. If you are a parent taking advantage of young kids’ sleep time to log travel miles, you may be fighting exhaustion.
Plus, it takes a lot more concentration to drive at night. Here are some tips for getting to your destination safely during your night travels.
Before Your Night Travel
- Have the right tires mounted for the time of year, and make sure they’re properly inflated.
- Avoid having to change a flat after dark by checking your tires for wear. Uneven or too much tread wear makes tire failure more likely.
- Adjust your headlight beams. The aim can get a bit off over time, when the assembly loosens or your vehicle suspension sags. Follow the instructions in your vehicle owner’s manual or in this video.
- Make sure your headlights are clean. If they look foggy or hazy, you can polish them in a few minutes with some toothpaste and car wax to get a lot more light on the road.
- Clean your windshield. Glass with smudges or streaks on the inside or dirt on the outside make it even harder to see when it’s dark. You’ll also get tired quicker from straining to see.
- Dirty mirrors can increase glare. Clean your side mirrors and adjust them slightly downward so you can keep glare from other cars’ headlights out of your eyes.
- Refer to our summer road trip checklist or winter road trip checklist to make sure everything else on your vehicle is ready.
While You’re Underway
- Turn your headlights on an hour before the sun goes down and keep them on an hour after dawn. This improves your visibility to other drivers when the sun is low in the sky.
- Stay within the speed limit. You can’t see as far at night. With your low beams on, you can only see a maximum of about 250 feet in front of you on unlit roads. You’ll need that much or more to come to a stop, depending on your speed and the road conditions.
- Keep alert by frequently checking all your mirrors. Staring straight ahead for long periods will strain your eyes and lower your attention level.
- Don’t fight drooping eyelids or wait until you’re nodding off to stop. Do something to get your blood flowing and increase your attention, like doing a few stretches or taking a short walk. Get yourself a cup of coffee, or even take a short nap.
- Any time you need to stop, pull as far over onto the shoulder as you safely can and turn on your hazard lights.
- Clean your windshield whenever you make a pit stop or fill up your gas tank. Extra wiper fluid and a clean towel or some rags are good items to have in a road trip safety kit. Create one for summer and one for winter.
- Increase your following distance. Know that feeling when someone is tailgating you with their headlights shining into your rear-view mirror? It’s nerve-racking and the glare in your eyes can make it even harder to see potential problems ahead or by the roadside. Give yourself and others enough space to react.
- Watch roadsides for the reflections of animals’ eyes. Slow way down if you spot them. If you see one deer, there are likely others, so go slowly to be sure you’re past them all.
- Turn off interior lights. They can create glare that makes it harder to see the road.
- Dim your dashboard lights.
- Keep your car clear of cigarette smoke. It reduces vision.
- Don’t look directly into oncoming headlights. If light from a car coming the other way is blinding or creates glare, watch the white fog line on the right side of the road. You’ll still be able to see the oncoming traffic through peripheral vision while staying in your lane.
- Use high beams when there aren’t oncoming cars and it's right for the road conditions (no fog or heavy rain). They let you see about twice as far ahead as your low beams (350 to 500 feet) and expand your field of vision to the road shoulders. You must turn them to back to low at least 500 feet from an approaching vehicle and when you're within 200 to 300 feet of the vehicle you’re following.
- Use your fog lights for better visibility if it’s truly foggy, but don’t if it’s not. Using them when it’s clear out is unsafe for other drivers and may be a traffic violation.
- Only use any auxiliary lights you’ve mounted on your vehicle if they’re approved for road use. They can blind other drivers and make it hard for your eyes to adjust when you switch down to regular beams.
- If your rearview mirror has a night setting, use it.
- When you see signs for construction zones, be prepared for redirected traffic lanes, equipment and rough roads.
- Be on the lookout for people on foot or bike. Not everyone knows to wear reflective gear.
- Put down your cellphone. It’s a dangerous distraction, day or night, and it’s a traffic violation in many states to use your cell while driving.
- Above all, be a defensive driver during weekend nights, when there are more drunk drivers on the road.
Night driving can be a great way to beat the traffic and enjoy a little peace and quiet. Just be prepared and drive smart.
Get a free pre-trip safety check at any Les Schwab Tires.