Defensive driving is a skill that goes beyond basic lessons taught in a driver’s education class. It’s a way of driving that can help keep a driver and his or her passengers alive.
Here are five defensive driving techniques that are worth learning:
1. Having situational awareness. Knowing what’s around you by checking the mirrors, blindspots and seeing 10 cars ahead will help avoid accidents by seeing them before they happen, says Doug Herbert, a racecar driver who teaches a defensive driving class in North Carolina.
2. Knowing how to use anti-lock brakes. If new drivers aren’t taught how to use them correctly, they’ll likely panic the first time they need to use them and will let go of the brake pedal, Herbert says. That’s the opposite of what they should do, which is provide smooth pressure, he says. They’ll hear weird noises when they do it, but that’s normal, he says.
3. Not over-correcting when steering. In rural areas such as Charlotte, N.C., steering too far over to compensate for going off the sloping shoulder of a road is a big cause of accidents, Herbert says. It can be a natural thing to do, but with training and practice, drivers can avoid it on a rural road or a highway when trying to avoid the center divider. Drivers should back off the gas, don’t jump on the brakes and drive straight until the shoulder area becomes flatter so they can safely turn back on to the road, he says.
4. Know how to swerve. Part of looking ahead while driving is looking out for something that may jump out into traffic and cause you to swerve because you won’t have enough time to stop. A child running into the street 20 feet ahead doesn’t give you much distance to stop if you’re driving 40 mph. By keeping an open space beside you, you can swerve into the empty lane and learn to do it without going off the side of the road. This is a skill best learned in a defensive driving class.
Another option is to not swerve abruptly in order to avoid hitting something in the road, since most new cars are designed to take the front-end collision, says Dr. Barbara Bergin, an orthopedic surgeon in Austin, Texas. Swerving to miss something can cause a driver to lose control of the vehicle, possibly causing worse results.
Bergin recalls driving on Interstate 35 with her children in the back seat when she saw smoke and red braking lights, and within seconds two cars and a semi swerved to her left and right, spinning out of control. She decided not to swerve, figuring that her car’s front end would absorb the damage of whatever was in the highway. As cars hit other cars around her, she came upon a cooler and hit it, bouncing off her front bumper.
She took the next exit and stopped at a convenience store, and saw a guy walk out with two bags of ice. “He walked around to the back of his truck, where he had one of those black metal trays in which hunters and beach goers put big coolers,” Bergin says. “To his surprise, it was empty. Bergin and her kids think they knew where the cooler was.
5. Know how to recover from a skid. Like learning how to make an emergency lane change, this is a skill that takes practice and is best taught by a pro. The website DefensiveDriving.com recommends that when you go into a skid, pick out a distant visual target and keep your eyes focused on that target. Doing that will help your hands and feet get you out of the skid. If a front wheel skids, ease of the gas and gently apply the brake to transfer weight forward and regain traction. With a rear skid, accelerate a bit to transfer weight to the rear of the car, and steer in the direction of the skid.
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