Pillars of Defensive Driving—How to be a Defensive Driver

Pillars of Defensive Driving—How to be a Defensive Driver

When you have employees whose job responsibilities include driving, you have to ensure they drive safely not only to avoid an accident and injuring themselves but also injuring other drivers or pedestrians.

I was recently being audited for quality management at my workplace and as the safety manager in a company with huge fleet of vehicles and over 80% of staff being drivers; the auditor was keen to know what programs I have in place to ensure the drivers perform their work safely, considering the high numbers of road carnage in Kenya. I mentioned to him that I frequently conduct internal defensive driving training's to all drivers. Well, the auditor was curious to know what is defensive driving, because this seemed to be a new term to him. So what is defensive driving?

Well, to my knowledge, defensive driving is a form of training or practice for motor vehicle drivers to consciously drive in a state of awareness of the dangers of the road. It is basically “precautionary driving” being safe on the road to ensure you reach your destination without incidents that are avoidable. Defensive driving reduces accidents, saves time, money and energy and above all saves lives. It is actually an attitude matter on the road. I once came across a sticker note in one of the public transport vehicles “matatu” that read All Drivers are mad except you! This means if you drive like you are the only sober person on the road, chances are you will have minimal incidents on the road.

So how can one be a defensive driver? Defensive driving is not meant to train drivers how to drive from point A to point B, but to let them detest bad driving habits. Defensive driving is a series of interlocking techniques, aimed at reducing accidents, saving lives and damage to property, avoiding injuries, saving time and money. To achieve these, there are four basic pillars of defensive driving, which include; concentration, anticipation, observation and proper planning.

Concentration is a mental effort; it is the action or power to focus ones attention on the road. There are a number of things that can distract a driver on the road; the distracters come into two forms, driver-initiated and non-driver-initiated distracters. Driver-initiated distracters can be avoided. The most common distracters include using the mobile phone, grooming while driving, manipulating vehicle controls like music audio, etc. The distracters can further be divided into four types; visual, cognitive, biomechanical, and auditory.

Visual distracters are things or objects that impair driver’s concentration on the road. There is an argument that billboards for example; if they are very eye-catching a driver can get distracted for several seconds leading to an accident, drivers are advised to avoid staring to objects rather than the road for more than 2 seconds. In the initial days when windscreen wipers were introduced, there was an argument that their potential hypnotic effect was hazardous to driving.

A cognitive distraction occurs when a driver is thinking about something not related to driving. I have come across some drivers who are not aware of their surroundings apart from what is ahead. Many accidents occur while changing lanes because some drivers don’t scan right or left while changing lanes. It is a phenomenon called tunnel vision. I usually advice drivers not to hang things on the inside rear mirror, since one may tend to concentrate on the ornament rather than the road especially if the hanged item is of sentimental value.

Biomechanical distraction on the other hand occurs when a driver is physically doing something else that may affect his sitting position. This includes overstretching to reach out on something, sharing the driver’s seat an issue I have seen in overloaded vehicles, where more people are seated in the front seat exceeding the appropriate capacity. I have also seen sometimes young drivers who lean their seats far much backward to “look cool” this can hinder your ability to steer properly.

Lastly auditory distractions occurs when drivers play very loud music in their cars, loud music will impair the hearing senses and one may for example not hear another car hooting and this can lead to accidents.

Anticipation is the second pillar of defensive driving, it is expecting the unexpected, it is waiting and preparing for something that you know could happen. A good example is when you see a ball pass in front of you on the road, chances are the owner will follow it, and especially small children meaning you got to be careful and reduce speed. The same occurs when you come across a herd of cattle chance are, when one starts crossing the road, there is a very high chance that the rest will follow without warning.

It is good practice that when you approach a junction you should come to a complete stop, scan right, left and right again and only proceed when the road is clear. In our roads where the rule of thumb is keep left, the most danger is on the right side, and that is why you should scan it twice. The vice versa would happen if you are in a country where they keep right.

Observation is the fourth pillar of defensive driving. In driving school we are usually taught that on the road, a driver should have three eyes, the windscreen, and the two side mirrors. I would want to stress that the rear view mirror is equally as important. It helps a driver to have what is termed as situational awareness, meaning you should be aware of what is happening around your 360 degrees. This for example will assist you to avoid drivers who drive very closely behind you i.e. tailgating. A defensive driver will constantly scan the side mirrors every 30 to 60 seconds and the rearview mirror every 10 to 15 seconds, especially on busy roads.

A careful driver will be observant about potholes, bumps, road signs, the terrain and even the weather. It is also important to be aware of other road users like pedestrians crossing the road, cyclist and so on. Many drivers lack the ability to notice a vehicle that is indicating to turn left or right, or even basic things like brake lights that can warn you the car in front is slowing down. It is important to notice cars parked on the road side can be a hazard, basically because the driver can decide to get back onto the road without warning.

The dashboard is a very important place for a driver to observe at all times. The lights on the dashboard can give you a lot of warning signs if you’re keen enough. I sometimes come across drivers who have been flagged down by police because of speed and their excuse most of the time is I didn’t realize I was driving at such high speeds. This can be very true especially when driving high-end vehicles that are very comfortable for you to notice you are actually speeding and it becomes even worse while you drive when the windows are all rolled up.

Looking well ahead is also a very important aspect of defensive driving. Many people get into danger by simply not noticing what lies ahead of them. I once interacted with an old truck driver with many years of experience on the road. He taught me a very simple trick and especially while driving at night. To avoid head on collision he always flashes his lights to the oncoming traffic, if the other driver doesn’t respond, chances are they are asleep. This can give you a chance to start planning in advance for an escape or the other driver will rump onto you. The same applies to driver’s who don’t keep on their lane, you should be wary about them. A good driver will only change lanes while it is safe to do so.

Planning is the fourth pillar of defensive driving. It is the process of organizing yourself in terms of time to ensure you reach your desired destination in a timely and safe manner. A lot of accidents do occur because drivers leave late, and then start overspeeding to compensate on the time lost. Speed kills! A term we’ve heard over the years and I repeat it again. Proper planning like knowing the route, the distance, type of road, the weather and how busy the road is, can help a driver leave on time to avoid over speeding. Many over lapping, unnecessary overtaking and aggressive driving are mostly due to the need to compensate on time lost due to improper planning. Someone once jokingly said Nairobian’s are always in a hurry but ever late.

The takeaway

We cannot control what other drivers do, but we can control how we drive. Defensive driving techniques can help your employees reduce the chance of getting into a traffic accident and potentially hurting themselves or someone else.

Regularly remind your driving staff to be on the defensive when they get behind the wheel.


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