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Defensive Driving Techniques

The first rule of driving

On your drive home from work, at some point in time you've likely found yourself slowed down to a stop, peering over other cars to get a glimpse of crushed metal and broken glass at the site of an accident and wondering what caused it. Chances are that one or the other of those drivers was not driving defensively. What is defensive driving, anyway? Simply put, defensive driving is driving with the safety of yourself and others first and foremost on your mind. Driving defensively means learning and using safe driving tactics every time you drive.

The first rule of Texas defensive driving is also the simplest: “Don’t hit anything!” If everyone drove defensively and followed this rule, there would be far fewer accidents on Texas highways. Below are some defensive driving techniques. Practicing these techniques consistently will make you a better, safer driver. They could even save your life!


Adjust your attitude!

It's all too easy to allow stress and fatigue to affect your driving. It's also easy to give in to the rush of righteous anger that rolls over you when someone else does something stupid or malicious on the road. However, if you get carried away by strong emotions while you're driving, your judgment will suffer. Remember, when you are driving, you are in control of a ton of steel with a flammable gas tank that's hurtling through space at speeds humans had not conceived of moving at until mere centuries ago. In order to drive safely, you have be both physically and mentally present in the driver's seat. If something happens in front of you, you need to be able to take action immediately. You simply cannot afford to let your emotions or a misplaced sense of pride distract you and put lives at risk. Road rage and distracted driving are two of the biggest Texas driving safety hazards.

The inside of your car should be like a Zen oasis of calmness and mindfulness. Put on some happy music, take some deep breaths, and focus on the road and the cars around you. If someone else is driving aggressively, simply smile and let them go on ahead. They may think that getting wherever they are going is more important than driving safely, but YOU know better. Let them by, and continue focusing on what's really important-navigating safely through traffic.

Speaking of focusing on the road...If you are talking on a cell phone, trying to read a map, or looking at the person beside you, then you are not focusing on the road. Defensive driving means driving without distractions!


Learn to foretell the future

One of the most important Texas defensive driving strategies is being able to predict potential "trouble spots" before they happen. Fortunately, you don't need a crystal ball or a Jamaican accent to see into the future when you're driving. Now that you've learned to focus on the road instead of your emotions or other driving distractions, you should be able to anticipate likely problems before they happen. Do you see a group of cars bunched together, riding each other's tails? That's a potential multi-car pile-up, so give them some extra room. Do you see an aggressive driver cutting in and out of traffic? Give him some room, too! Remember, you can't control the actions of other people. What you can do is try to stay out of their way. Also, remember to be especially cautious when approaching “accident hot spots,” such as intersections and the entrance/exit ramps of freeways.

Consider what traffic conditions are likely to be on the roads you expect to travel. Is it rush hour on a road that you know can get dangerous in heavy traffic? Consider re-routing. For example, if you live in Houston, it is probably worth the extra money to take the Hardy Toll Road instead of I-45 during hours when traffic is especially heavy.


Communicate with other drivers

Another important defensive driving strategy is to make sure you communicate with other drivers. Now, "communicate" does not mean yelling, screaming, or making obscene hand gestures. If you think that any of these actions are valid methods of communication, please see the section on attitude adjustment above. No, communicating while driving has nothing to do with expressing your feelings. Instead, it has everything to do with expressing your intentions. If other drivers know what your next move is going to be, they can plan for it. Do you need to turn or change lanes? Start signaling early, at least 100 feet before you plan to do so. Tap your brakes if you are going to slow down, so that people behind you can adjust their speed or change lanes accordingly. Also, make sure that all the lights on your car work. Your turn signals are not serving their intended purpose if no one can see them!


Know your place on the road...and stay there

To ensure a steady flow of traffic with fewer chances for accidents, make sure you keep your vehicle where it’s supposed to be. Obviously, this means staying on your side of the road and not crossing the double yellow lines.  Also, almost everyone also knows not to drive in the turn lane. What gives most people trouble is a multi-lane road in which all vehicles are going the same direction. Which lane should you choose? It depends on what you're trying to do. If you know you have an exit coming up or you are traveling more slowly than other vehicles on the road, you'll need to travel in the far right lane. The center lane is ideal for traveling long highway distances at a steady speed. The far left lane is for passing and insane speed demons only. If you are in the left lane and someone is moving faster than you, move over to the right and let them by. Remember, don't let the fact that someone is going faster than you ruffle your feathers. It's their speeding ticket, after all.

Also, make sure to observe all rules on passing. A double yellow line means not to pass. If you have a dashed line on your side of the road, you can pass if it's safe to do so. Just make sure to give yourself enough time to get back on the correct side of the road before you get in the way of oncoming traffic!

Finally, make sure to yield the right of way when required-for example, when you get on the freeway, the other cars have right of way. Other drivers are not expecting to have to slow down for you. If you cut them off, you are inviting a rear-end collision. At an intersection without any signs or signals, it’s “first come, first served.” Vehicles already in the intersection have right-of-way over you, as do vehicles that reach the intersection before you. In the event of a tie, the vehicle on the right has right-of-way. Emergency vehicles always have right-of-way!


Watch for signs

Traffic signs exist for two reasons: to keep traffic moving smoothly with no accidents and to warn motorists of potential hazards. Either way, Texas driving safety requires you to keep an eye out for these signs and to heed their warnings when they appear. If you see a stop sign, stop! If you see a yield sign, remember that you need to yield right-of-way to the other vehicles. A school zone sign? Slow down, cover your brakes, and watch for children.


Adapt your Driving to the Environment

Defensive driving on a Texas freeway is very different from driving inside a city or town. For freeway driving, you need to focus not only on your immediate surroundings, but also on the horizon. Remember, if you're traveling at 60 miles per hour, it's going to take you at least the length of a football field to come to a complete stop. At higher speeds, stopping distance increases even more. So, you need to be able to see potential obstacles such as a traffic jam or an accident as soon as possible. Then, you can start slowing down and start signaling to other motorists that there is a problem by turning on your flashers. The most dangerous thing you can do on a Texas freeway is to hit your brakes.

However, in Texas cities, you'll need to adapt your defensive driving strategy to account for the many potential obstacles that can appear in the blink of an eye in densely populated areas. Anything from a child on a bicycle to an old lady with shopping bags could appear in your lane at any moment. To keep your reaction time as fast as possible, use the follow Texas defensive driving strategies:

  • Be alert.
  • Drive without distractions. It only takes a few seconds for someone or something to pop out in front of your vehicle.
  • Slow down. The faster you go, the longer it will take you to stop.
  • Cover the brake when you drive in these conditions. Covering the brake means driving with your foot gently resting on the brake. This will shorten your reaction time if you do need to stop in a hurry. Don't apply pressure unless you actually need to slow down or stop, though. You'll spend a fortune on brake jobs and the drivers behind you will have no idea what you are doing.

In rural areas of Texas, you need to watch for people, their pets and their livestock. Don't harass riders on horseback-horses spook easily, and it's all too easy for the rider to fall and get seriously injured if the horse takes off. Wait until they signal that it's okay for you to pass them. Also, watch for potential driving safety hazards such as tractors, riding lawn mowers, ATV's, etc.  These vehicles often go much more slowly than your car, so slow down if you see one traveling up ahead.

Adapting to your environment also means taking the weather into account. If it's below freezing outside, you need to watch for ice. Dry pavement should look whitish-gray and dull, but ice will be shiny. If it's foggy, you have to make sure other vehicles can see you. Put your low beams on-high beams will actually reduce your visibility. Drive slowly, but try to keep moving. Stopping in the middle of the road makes you an easy target for a rear-end collision. If you have to stop make sure to get all the way off of the road and turn on your emergency lights on. In the rain, try to drive so that your tires move in the tracks of the car in front of you. This will give you the best possible traction. However, don’t follow too closely-you can’t stop as fast on slippery roads.


Know how to handle emergencies

When something goes wrong on the road, your immediate reaction is to panic, freeze up and hit the brakes, but that’s usually not the best way to handle the situation. In fact, usually that just makes things worse. Keep your cool, and remember the following Texas defensive driving tips:

Hydroplaning- Hydroplaning is much like trying to drive a car mounted on ice skates-no traction whatsoever. If you feel your vehicle start to glide out of control, take a deep breath and remember NOT TO HIT THE BRAKES! Instead, release the gas pedal and try to regain control of the car by downshifting. This will help put your wheels back into contact with the road again.

Skidding- Take your foot off the gas pedal, and steer into the turn. To steer out of a skid, you should turn the steering wheel in the same direction that your car’s back end is going. Downshift if possible, and try to get your wheels on something dry.

Brakes- If your brakes go out, shift the car into neutral and try to get it off the road, preferably to a place with something soft ahead of you. Downshift to slow the car down, and try using the parking brake to stop the vehicle.


The main thing to remember if something unexpected happens on the road is to stay calm. Take a deep breath and try to think of the best, safest way out of the situation. Then, act accordingly.

Remember, your best protection against an accident in Texas is to use defensive strategies consistently. If you need more of a refresher course on driving safety, try taking a Texas defensive driving course. Driving University offers a state-approved course that will teach you in-depth strategies for driving safely. The course is available online, so you don’t even have to leave your house to take it. Even better, a certificate of completion from a Texas defensive driving course may entitle you to a discount on your auto insurance! To sign up for a Texas driving safety course from Driving University, click here.

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