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We’ve all been dealing with a climate of heightened risk over the past two years. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reevaluate the potential hazards involved in pretty much everything we do: from mundane activities such as grocery shopping and pharmacy runs to less frequent excursions like adventures abroad or trips to visit far-flung relatives, we had to completely change how we think about day-to-day dangers. Driving is no exception, so now is a great time for you to start practicing defensive driving.
Despite the fact that we’ve been driving much less overall, with total miles traveled down by about 40% as early as April of 2020, and only increasing by 13% in June 2021, the rates of car accidents and traffic fatalities have actually gone up. The sobering fact is that an estimated 38,680 people died in traffic accidents in 2020, the highest number of any year since 2007. What’s more, 20,160 people were killed in car crashes in the first half of 2021 alone. That’s up 18.4% even from 2020, and is the largest number of fatalities in the same time period since 2006.
While the cause of this spike in accidents and fatalities is not yet clear, one theory is that largely empty highways tempted drivers to push the speed limit and drive less safely, causing more accidents. Another is that drivers took greater risks, such as speeding, neglecting to wear their seatbelts, and driving under the influence, and disregarding traffic laws. Finally, one NHTSA study found that more drivers consumed opioids, cannabinoids, and alcohol in 2020 than they did before the pandemic.
Whatever the reason behind these startling statistics, they show us a clear need to take greater precautions on the road. To that end, we’ve put together our best advice on defensive driving and staying safe behind the wheel.
What is defensive driving?
Defensive driving, simply put, refers to a set of driving skills that best prepares you to respond to hazards on the road. When most of us think of the term “defense”, we might think of sports or martial arts before driving. However, while most of us might not typically think of defensive driving in these terms, it is absolutely an important form of self-defense.
Defensive driving allows you to protect yourself against hazards such as collisions caused by drunk drivers, erratic driving behavior, and inclement weather conditions, along with anything else that might go wrong on the road. Defensive driving, in other words, means hoping for the best, but being prepared for the worst.
Defensive driving details
So, how exactly does one practice defensive driving? We’ve compiled our best tips below, but many states’ Department of Motor Vehicles websites have online defensive driving courses available to help fine-tune your skills, remain a safer driver, and most importantly, avoid a traffic ticket or a collision.
Plan ahead for your trip, and expect the unexpected
Before you leave the house, always make sure you’re up to speed on the traffic and weather conditions along your route. Thinking ahead like this can let you better plan your drive and avoid any trouble spots.
Leaving well in advance is always a great idea as well. Even if you’re already habitually punctual, consider heading out a few minutes early. If you’re on the road ahead of schedule, you’re less likely to become frustrated with other drivers, speed, or tailgate.
Scan your surroundings
Anytime you’re on the road, it’s a good idea to be mindful of developing tunnel vision. It’s a tendency many of us have, especially on long, uneventful drives. Tunnel vision in this case means focusing only on what is directly ahead of you, to the exclusion of anything in your peripheral vision. While it’s important to keep your eyes on the road, it’s better to scan your surroundings, keep your eyes moving, and look far ahead, rather than looking only at what’s right in front of you. This way, you’re better able to see and avoid any hazards.
Slow down; use your brakes
Speed limits exist for a reason. You don’t want to drive too slowly, as this is also dangerous and can impede the flow of traffic, but you do want to stick as close to the speed limit as you can manage. At higher speeds, it becomes much more difficult to brake in time to avoid an accident, and you’re much more likely to lose control of your vehicle. Protect yourself and others by braking early, driving at a reasonable speed, and maintaining a safe following distance from the car ahead of you.
Expect other drivers to make mistakes
You’re only human, and so is every other driver on the road. We all make mistakes, but unfortunately, mistakes at high speeds can come at a high cost. You can’t control other drivers’ actions, but you can do your best to anticipate them.
In terms of defensive driving, this means never assuming that other drivers will do what they should. For example, when you’re at an intersection and your light turns green, it’s a good idea to wait just a moment before driving through. Just because other drivers have a red light doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll stop. Giving yourself an extra second as a safety cushion can help you avoid a collision if another driver runs through the red.
It might sound paranoid, but being constantly on the lookout for cars swerving into your lane, running red lights or stop signs, improperly yielding at intersections, drivers exhibiting road rage, or just driving erratically in general will keep you and other motorists much safer than if you assume they’ll behave as they should.
Stay alert, avoid distractions, and take precautions
Defensive driving starts with the most basic of safety precautions. Wear your seatbelt, and make sure everyone else in your vehicle does too. Make sure your wiper blades work well enough to let you maintain good visibility in the rain. If you’re driving in conditions where you need to use your wipers, make sure your headlights are on as well. Keep your tires properly inflated, and always keep your safety inspection up to date.
Driving defensively also means avoiding distractions. Driving should have your full attention. If you’re driving with pets in the car, keep them restrained with proper pet seat belts or carriers. No matter how late you’re running on your way to work, don’t try to brush your hair, shave, or put on makeup behind the wheel — it’s not the time, and it’s not worth it. If you’re driving with passengers, don’t hesitate to ask them to keep the volume down, or to turn off bright electronics when driving at night. And, above all, please, please, please do not text and drive.
Finally, always stay alert behind the wheel. Part of defensive driving is recognizing when you shouldn’t be driving at all. If you’re too tired or too intoxicated to be behind the wheel, keep yourself and others safe and stay off the road.
Benefits of defensive driving
By now, we hope we’ve made it clear: safety is the most important benefit of practicing defensive driving. Keeping yourself, your passengers, and other motorists safe should absolutely always be your top priority.
As if saving lives isn’t enough, defensive driving can also save you money. Drivers with few or no accidents on their record can expect to pay significantly lower rates for car insurance than drivers who’ve been involved in, or caused, collisions.
Whether you’re already familiar with defensive driving or you’ve made a renewed commitment to safety post-pandemic, Elephant has plenty of resources to help you stay on the right track. Contact us and get a quote today.