For most people, the term “defensive driving” brings to mind a parent or DMV instructor’s nervous warnings. But for commercial drivers, defensive driving is a discipline they must master. Developing this particular set of skills helps drivers expect the unexpected, defending against possible collisions that could threaten lives and livelihoods. Here’s what you need to know about defensive driving and why it’s so important.
Defensive Driving Fast Facts
On the average day, roadways are safe places for drivers. Millions of vehicles get from start to finish safely. That being said, the risks that do exist are serious. According to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration FARS data, 37,133 people were killed in motor vehicle collisions on U.S. roads in 2017.
With all the news stories about vehicle recalls and technology malfunctions, you might think collisions occur due to a variety of uncontrollable circumstances. But the truth is, there’s one overwhelming factor that causes almost all incidents. The NSC confirms something we all instinctively know—more than 90 percent of collisions are caused by human error. (This doesn’t even take into account near-misses and near-collisions, either.
- Missing or reacting too slowly to road hazards
- Impaired driving (being sleep deprived or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol)
- Distracted driving (texting, talking on a cell phone or removing your eyes from the road)
- Aggressive driving (includes: revving and hard braking, following too closely or swerving in and out of lanes, speeding)
While we list these risky habits individually, keep in mind that collisions happen because of a confluence of factors. There are likely multiple driving mistakes that lead to a worst-case scenario. For example, running a red light may involve a combination of distraction, impatience, and speeding.
Defensive Driving Leads to Winning Habits
Knowing that all but a small percentage of collisions are caused by human error means that these incidents are avoidable. We can control our driving behavior to create more positive outcomes.
The old adage of “defense wins games” is as true for driving as it is for sports. The point is, if you prepare to adapt to anything that comes your way, you’ll have a much greater influence over the end result. This reflects the primary goal of defensive driving: Learn to anticipate different dangers on the road and use the safety tools available to you to avoid negative outcomes. In short, defensive driving teaches drivers to be more proactive and less reactive.
There are specific safety techniques to use (more to come on that below), but generally speaking the best defensive drivers are continually monitoring their surrounding environment for potential hazards. They focus both on the road directly ahead of them and farther up, while frequently checking rear- and side-view mirrors. The “state of play” on a road shifts constantly and a good driver knows to stay vigilant.
That vigilance pays off—defensive driving can and does save lives. Here’s a real-life example of how a driver’s defensive mindset and sharp attention saved a life. Keep your eye on the motorcyclist on the right screen:
Having that keen awareness of the vehicles surrounding his truck, the driver avoided a potentially catastrophic event.
Defensive Driving Techniques for Fleets
Fleets have a huge responsibility to train their employees to practice the strongest defensive driving possible. Quite frankly, commercial drivers have a lot at stake. They operate larger vehicles, must comply with different safety regulations and are often carrying valuable cargo. How do you incorporate these techniques into your safety program? Here are five bedrock principles to include in your company’s defensive driving courses:
1. Watch and Learn
Train drivers to be aware of their surroundings at all times. Awareness is a skill that must be developed. Run drivers through exercises that help them recognize changes in traffic speed, how to check mirrors, monitor blind spots, etc.
2. Better Late Than Never
There’s no question that the transportation industry has to meet demanding deadlines on a daily basis. Drivers have a lot of responsibility and pressure to make deliveries on schedule and can feel like they’re always rushing. Teach drivers to make smart decisions—it’s better to be late than to rush and overlook warning signs of drowsiness or impatience.
3. Keep Your Distance
It’s advised that a standard vehicle put three seconds of space between itself and surrounding vehicles. You can imagine that time increases for a commercial truck. According to Utah.gov, “A passenger vehicle traveling at a speed of 65 miles per hour would take 316 feet to stop (nearly the length of a football field). In comparison, a fully loaded tractor-trailer weighing 80,000 pounds traveling under ideal conditions at a speed of 65 miles per hour will take 525 feet to stop (almost the length of two football fields).” Train drivers to increase that buffer of precious seconds, depending on road conditions.
4. Don’t Get Distracted (or Impaired)
Everyone knows that drugs and alcohol lead to impaired driving, but many don’t realize that over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs can cause drowsiness or reduced alertness, too. And one of the biggest factors of distracted driving is texting or using a mobile phone while in motion. Educate your drivers on these dangers.
5. Just Breathe
Road rage is common—so much so that commercial drivers have to deal with their fair share of angry drivers. Train your fleet’s drivers to mitigate their emotional reactions and stay calm, avoiding aggression and creating more space between their vehicle and that of an angry driver.
Defensive driving is much more than a catchphrase. By teaching your drivers these skills, you can help your fleet improve its safety and protect your drivers.
For more great defensive driving tips, hear what a retired police officer has to say about how your drivers can shield themselves from drugged drivers.