Car safety technology has advanced in leaps and bounds over the past few decades, but even the best car safety tech can’t yet correct all unsafe driving behaviours and habits.

You may consider yourself a safe driver, but mistakes (whether by you or someone else) do happen and can increase the risk of a crash. So, what can you do to protect yourself and others?

Adopting defensive driving techniques, like anticipating other drivers’ movements, controlling your speed, and maintaining a safe distance, can help minimise your chances of being involved in a crash.

Here’s what you can do to become a defensive driver.

What is defensive driving?

In general terms, ‘defensive driving’ refers to a number of safe driving techniques that enable drivers to spot potential hazards and adapt their driving habits accordingly to reduce the chance of being involved in a car crash or other road incident.

When you drive defensively, you have more control behind the wheel. You will attempt to anticipate what other drivers are going to do, and can adjust your driving to limit any harm they could cause.

Before you get behind the wheel next, here are some defensive driving techniques that could potentially save your life.

1. Maintain a safe distance

As much as is practical, keep your car at a safe distance from other cars – particularly, the car in front of you. In good conditions, such as on a sunny day with good visibility and a dry road, you should drive at least two seconds behind the car in front of you. You can determine this by watching the car in front as it passes a landmark, then steadily count to two. If you pass the same landmark before you finish counting to two seconds, you’re travelling too close behind the car in front. However, don’t forget this is not a hard and fast rule, and a safe distance even in ‘good’ conditions may change – for example, you may need to leave a longer gap on higher speed roads.

If you’re travelling in wet weather conditions, on regional roads, in areas where visibility may be restricted, or on roads with poor conditions like excess dirt or gravel, increase your following distance.

2. Stay alert and aware of your surroundings

Being aware of your surroundings is one of the most crucial aspects of defensive driving.

Effective awareness strategies include looking further than one car ahead of you so you can anticipate potential hazards on the road ahead, checking your mirrors regularly so you’re aware of the movements of other road users around you, and limiting in-car distractions like disruptive passengers, as well as never using your mobile phone.

3. Anticipate other road users’ intentions and actions

It can be dangerous to assume that drivers and other road users around you will always adhere to road rules and drive safely. Here are some ways you can anticipate the intentions of road users around you:

  • If someone flashes their lights or gives you a wave to let you in front of them, don’t assume it’s safe to change lanes until you have done your own checks (including checking your blind spots, and using your peripheral vision).
  • Be alert and responsive to the potential presence of all road users, including motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians, so you can better anticipate their intentions.
  • Anticipate when a bus will need space to merge back into traffic.
  • If you’re behind a car that overtakes a large vehicle, such as a road train, truck or bus, don’t assume there will be space for you to do so as well. Assess the situation when you are directly behind the larger vehicle and have clear visibility of the road ahead before you overtake.

4. Clearly signal your intentions

Though you may be anticipating what other drivers are trying to do when merging or turning, don’t assume they are doing the same for you.

According to the Road Traffic Code 2000 (WA), you must give warning of your intention to turn, diverge, change lanes or overtake. While ‘warning’ depends on a number of factors and there is no explicit definition, you should use your indicator to give enough warning so other road users can take appropriate precautions.

When preparing to brake, gently use your brakes to slow down before coming to a complete stop, giving the car behind you enough notice to slow down, too.

5. Use caution at intersections

If you’re at an intersection and the light turns green, check for cars that may have run a red light and could still be passing through the intersection from another direction. Many drivers will try and make it through the intersection once the light is yellow and turning red, so doing an extra check before you enter the intersection could prevent a crash.

Also check for pedestrians who may be crossing, particularly before turning – just like drivers, pedestrians may try to rush through a flashing red pedestrian signal, and still be on the road when your light turns green. So whether you’re making a left, right, or a U-turn, make sure to check as you must give way to pedestrians. At signalised intersections you may see flashing yellow beacons by the pedestrian crossing light on the road you are turning into; these indicate that pedestrians may still be using the crossing and act as a reminder they have priority.

6. Keep an eye out for reckless or dangerous driving

A key component of defensive driving is protecting yourself from the actions of other drivers. If you notice somebody driving recklessly, by aggressively changing lanes, swaying in and out of a lane, speeding or abruptly stopping and starting, keep your distance as much as is practicable.

7. Try to predict hazards or risks

If you spot a potential hazard or risk on the road ahead of you, predict ways in which you can avoid it (if you eventually need to).

For example, if you view a trailer overflowing with materials that aren’t properly secured, change lanes in case anything falls onto the road and could force you to swerve dangerously.

If you spot a hazard on the road that has potential to cause a crash, safely pull over (if possible) and report the hazard to Main Roads WA.

8. Control your speed

Though it may seem obvious, it’s essential to always drive to the conditions and at a controlled speed to ensure you stay in complete control of your car – even if it means you’re driving below the posted speed limit (within reason).

According to the Road Traffic Code 2000 (WA) on a freeway, you must not drive more than 20km/h below the speed limit applicable to the zone unless:

  • Traffic congestion prevents you from driving at a speed that is within 21km/h of the speed limit; or
  • If for any other reason, it is unsafe or imprudent to drive at a speed that is within 21km/h of the speed limit (for example, in severe weather conditions).

For roads that are not freeways, you cannot obstruct other vehicles by driving ‘abnormally slowly’. For example, on a stretch of road where a speed limit of 80km/h applies, a driver would be obstructing other vehicles if they were to travel at 20km/h and there was no reason for driving at that speed.

Take a defensive driving course

There are a number of driving schools in Perth and around WA that offer defensive driving courses. These courses aim to make drivers more aware of their surroundings on the road, and include specific techniques like emergency braking in poor weather conditions, tips for driving on gravel or dirt roads, and hazard detection skills and techniques so you can potentially reduce your chances of a crash. Driver Risk Management offer a range of driver training courses that cover several of these techniques. 

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