Skip to main content
Skip to page content

Defensive driving

The truth is you have the power to avoid virtually every accident. Identify red-light runners, sudden stoppers, random turners and comers-out-of-nowhere in time to take effective precautionary measures. If you’re in tune with the road, it's easy to spot deteriorating conditions. You can prevent tires from failing and your car from going out of control. Learn how you can become a better defensive driver with these three defensive driving tips.

Driver's cockpit view of car driving down highway

See and be seen

Turn on your headlights – not just the parking lights – whenever visibility is low, which includes:

  • From at least 30 minutes before sunset until half an hour after sunrise
  • When it's raining (even if it's just drizzling)
  • When it's foggy

This is so you will BE SEEN during the most dangerous driving times. Switch on your headlights whenever you're on a two-lane highway, even in bright daylight. Use your headlights when others have theirs on: The other guys are trying to tell you that they're having trouble seeing you! (You aren't saving electricity, gasoline or your headlights by not using them.)

Keep your windshield and side windows clean, inside and out. Use an anti-fog compound on the inside and a water-repellant on the outside. If the interior fogs up, turn on your air conditioner and turn the selector to outside air, not recirculation.

Rubber wears out, so replace windshield wipers every nine months or so, and keep your windshield washer fluid full.

Set your mirrors to avoid car blind spots. If you see the side of your car in the exterior mirrors, they are set INCORRECTLY and are largely useless. For the correct setting, imagine your mirrors as three photographs pasted together to make a panorama of the road behind you: The images on the outside edges of the interior mirror should overlap those on the inside edges of the exterior mirrors.

Give yourself the best chance

Modern technology is amazing. Take full advantage of it. If you’re in the market for a used car, make sure it's a '97 or newer model to get upgraded side-impact airbag standards. Buy a car with an anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic stability control. These computer-based driving aids will perform amazing feats to help you avoid car accidents. It's like having your favorite race car driver take the wheel during emergency situations.

Close up view of the treads on a car tire

Tires are the single most important safety component on a car. Buy high-quality tires and maintain them. They're expensive, but think about it this way: If you're going skydiving, would you buy a bargain parachute? Check your tire pressures monthly and make sure they are at least what the vehicle manufacturer recommends: Three or even five pounds per square inch (psi) high is better than one psi low. There's little penalty for placing air pressure a bit high, but low pressure is the leading cause for tire failure.

Imagine repeatedly bending a wire coat hanger: That's what's happening to the interior structure of a tire with inadequate pressure. The damage will not be visible, but may be fatal. If your tires have been run under 20 psi for any distance, or slammed into a curb or a big pothole, have a tire dealer demount and inspect them.

Don't squeeze the last few thousand miles out of your tires. A tire's ability to perform is severely compromised by the time it reaches 4/32-inch tread depth. Replace tires at least every six years, regardless of tread depth remaining.

Know your car and yourself

Sadly, the first time most drivers explore their car's capability is in an emergency. Know your car’s and your own ability. Start by learning the edges of your car, so that you will instinctively know if you can drive around or through a bad situation. One way to do this: Intentionally run over the "Botts’ Dots" raised lane markers. Also, you can create marker poles with PVC pipe and "T" connectors. Place them a foot wider than your car and practice driving through them.

Car driving down a track lined with road cones

Next, explore braking ability. If you have ABS, find a vacant parking lot. Pound the brake pedal and hold it down. You'll be shocked at how quickly your car stops. One of ABS' greatest benefits is that it allows you to steer during maximum effort braking, so practice turning while braking. Without ABS, squeeze the pedal aggressively but avoid locking the wheels, as that will damage the tires and, if the rears lock first, the car may spin out.

To learn your car's handling ability, you could enter an autocross hosted by your local car club: Any well-maintained street car is eligible and no special safety equipment is required (though tire wear will be accelerated). Some clubs host inexpensive autocross driving schools for novices. Or, a cheap and entertaining way to learn how to "turn in the direction of the skid" is to spend some time on your local fun park's kart slick track.

Energy lives here