A guide to defensive driving

View of a semi from a side-car mirror
April 7, 2023

Driving is something most of us need to do every day, but we often forget how dangerous it can actually be. These defensive driving tips can help keep you safe on the road, protect other drivers, and even save you some money.

What is defensive driving?

Defensive driving is an approach to driving that involves anticipating danger, following safety procedures, and having a proactive attitude toward safety. There's a lot to consider and watch out for when practicing defensive driving, but an easy-to-remember summary is The Four A’s established by Smart Drive USA:

  • Alcohol

  • Awareness

  • Aggression

  • Accidents

These four elements don't cover every aspect of defensive driving, but they each touch on an important aspect of road safety. We'll address each over the course of this guide.

The importance of defensive driving

Defensive driving is important for drivers of all ages—from the most seasoned professional to the newest learners. And while there’s no magic solution to prevent all accidents, defensive driving can help you avoid unnecessary accidents and reinforce safe driving habits.

Seven tips to be a defensive driver

While defensive driving includes more than just these seven tips, they're a good place to start. They'll help you set good habits you can practice every time you get behind the wheel.

Avoid distractions

Many drivers have been on the road since their teen years, and while experience is important, we can actually get too comfortable and let our guard down. Familiarity with the road can trick people into thinking it’s safe to split their attention between driving and distractions like cell phones, passengers, makeup, and food.

In reality, distracted driving is more than just risky. It can be deadly. Distracted driving leads to more than 3,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Think about it—that’s 3,000 loved ones that could have been saved with defensive driving.

Avoiding distractions starts with mental focus, but there are practical steps you can take as well, such as:

  • Setting your GPS route ahead of time

  • Putting your phone in driving mode

  • Choosing your music while you’re parked

Don’t drink and drive

“If I drink caffeine, it’ll sober me up.”

“I’m a better driver after a few drinks.” 

“If I drive extra slow, it’ll be like I didn’t drink at all.”

Have you ever heard any of these myths about drinking and driving? The truth is that driving after drinking any amount of alcohol is dangerous. Even small amounts of alcohol can slow your reflexes, cloud your judgment, and dim your vision—even when your blood alcohol content is under the legal limit.

Rather than playing chicken with the legal blood alcohol content, it’s always better to drive defensively. Sometimes, defensive driving means knowing when you shouldn’t drive at all.

If you’re planning on drinking, find a designated driver ahead of time. If that doesn’t work out, use one of several popular rideshare apps to find a ride. No matter what, the solution is never getting behind the wheel with alcohol in your system.

Don’t drive while impaired

Alcohol isn’t the only thing that can affect your driving. Drugs like marijuana and cocaine can also impair your ability to operate a vehicle. In a best-case scenario, driving under the influence of these drugs might get you arrested, get points taken off your license, or cost you your license altogether. In the worst-case scenario, driving while impaired can cause injury or death—not only to yourself but to other drivers and passengers.

While alcohol and recreational drugs are the substances people most often associate with driving under the influence, some legal medications can impair your driving, too. Medications like pain relievers, anti-anxiety medication, sleeping pills, and motion sickness relievers can all impair your ability to drive. 

Always consult your physician when you begin a new prescription, and know how medications affect your body before attempting to drive.

Scan your surroundings

A big part of defensive driving is following the rules of the road. While driving safely is important, you aren’t the only driver on the road, so you should also be aware of your surroundings—both your environment and other drivers.

Keep an eye out for hazards like patches of ice or water, debris, and accidents, and also be aware of the other drivers you share the road with. You can’t predict what another driver will do next, but being aware of what's going on around your car can increase your reaction speed and help you avoid surprises.

Watch the weather

While severe weather like blizzards and hurricanes are obvious hazards, many drivers don’t realize how dangerous mild weather like light rain can be. The way you drive should change depending on the weather.

Here’s how you should respond to changing weather conditions:

  • Avoid driving in the rain when possible.

  • Use headlights when windshield wipers are necessary.

  • Give yourself extra room to brake whenever the road could be slippery.

  • Be wary of black ice. Even if you don’t see ice on the road, slow down if you feel yourself losing traction.

  • Watch out for fog and condensation, which can be doubly dangerous when it freezes on cold surfaces like the road and your windshield.

  • Look your vehicle over regularly, including tire tread and wiper blades.

Follow the speed limit

Higher speeds lead to more injuries or fatalities. Always follow the speed limit, no matter how much of a hurry you’re in.

While it’s tempting to exceed the speed limit—especially when there aren’t many drivers around, or when you’re “just keeping up with traffic”—exceeding the speed limit drastically increases your risk for serious injury or death while only slightly improving your travel time. In fact, driving 10 miles over the speed limit for 30 miles would only save you about five minutes on average.

Maintain a safe following distance

Defensive driving isn’t just an attitude toward your driving—it’s an attitude toward other drivers as well. You never know when another driver may slam on their brakes, make a last-minute merge, or be involved in an accident of their own. Always leave yourself enough room to stop in case the driver in front of you doesn’t behave the way you expect them to.

Avoid road rage

Aggressive driving is one of the biggest dangers on the road. Not only are reports of road rage-induced gun violence on the rise, but the kind of risky, aggressive behavior road rage creates is extremely dangerous for everyone on the road.

Don’t let road rage get the best of you. Remember that you’ll get to your destination in good time, and assume the best in other drivers. Even if other drivers are aggressive, staying calm can help keep you and other drivers safe.

Can defensive driving save you money?

Safety should be your number one priority when you’re behind the wheel. As a bonus, defensive driving can also help put money back into your pocket. Here’s how:

Reduce your accident risk

Accidents aren’t just dangerous, they’re also expensive. Between injuries and vehicle damage, the cost of a single accident can quickly go from pricey to catastrophic. While car insurance is a great way to help reduce the risk of financial loss, the best way to save your money is to practice defensive driving to avoid accidents to begin with.

Avoid speeding tickets

A single speeding ticket can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars, and it can also increase your car insurance premiums.

One great way to keep your hard-earned money is to avoid tickets in the first place. Practice defensive driving, stay off your phone, and follow speed limits to stay on the right side of the law.

Earn car insurance discounts

Defensive driving helps save you money by avoiding accidents and tickets, but what if somebody paid you to practice defensive driving? That’s essentially what safe driving discounts do! Many insurance providers offer discounts for drivers who complete defensive driving courses.

Take a defensive driving course

Look for safe driving courses in your area. A variety of organizations ranging from the National Safety Council and local governments to community colleges, driving academies, and nonprofits offer safe driving courses. Find a course near you to put these tips into practice.

Related links

There’s no good time to get in an accident—but having it happen when your car insurance has lapsed is one of the worst. Learn how, and why, to prevent lapses.

What do you need to do if you’re involved in an accident? Once you’re safe, reporting the accident to the authorities and filing a claim should be your first priorities. Here’s how our claims process works.

The general information in this blog is for informational or entertainment purposes only. View our blog disclaimer.

*Data accuracy is subject to this article's publication date.

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