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Each year, both on and off the job, motor vehicle collisions remain as one of the leading causes of serious personal injuries and fatalities. By following the defensive driving strategies listed below, you can reduce the odds of having a serious motor vehicle collision:

Following Distance
One of the most important factors in defensive driving is maintaining a proper following distance or “space cushion” from the vehicle ahead. Whenever driving a passenger vehicle, a minimum following distance in normal conditions should be at least two seconds behind the vehicle ahead. When driving a larger vehicle , a minimum of four seconds should be the following distance. During adverse conditions or when towing a trailer, following distances need to be increased even more to compensate for bad weather, or the increased weight added to the weight of the towing vehicle.

To calculate your following distance, watch as the vehicle ahead passes a fixed object such as a utility pole, or mile marker. Then, immediately start counting slowly: “one-one thousand, two-one thousand,” etc. Stop counting when you reach the same fixed object. If you are driving a passenger vehicle and you reach that same object before you finish counting to “two”, or “four” if towing a trailer or driving a truck, increase your following distance. The next time the vehicle ahead passes another fixed object, you can count again and evaluate whether or not you have increased your following distance sufficiently.

Blind Spot Head Checks and Use of Mirrors
Drivers must always make 90 degree head checks of blind spots before changing lanes, turning, or pulling into traffic. Do not rely solely on using mirrors to check conditions. All vehicles have large blind spots where other vehicles can easily be hidden. Drivers should also check their mirrors every 3 to 5 seconds , to watch for other vehicles moving into these blind spots. Leaning forward in the driver’s seat while checking side mirrors can also improve the driver’s sight angle, and allows a larger field of vision. Proper mirror adjustment is also very important. Drivers of passenger vehicles should adjust their mirrors so they can just catch the side of their own vehicle in each mirror. On larger vehicles, the right side mirror should be adjusted so the driver can just see the right back wheel area.

Eye Scan Pattern
In addition to being alert for potential hazards immediately in front of their vehicle, drivers should also be searching 12 to 15 seconds, ahead of their vehicle. In city driving, that’s about a block and a half, and on the highway about 1/4 mile ahead. This allows you to see potential problems with sufficient lead-time to take the appropriate action. Scan the roadway and side of the road ahead for wildlife such as deer for example, when driving in the country. In the city check for obstacles such as double-parked cars, cars coming out of alleys or parking lots, and be on the lookout for pedestrians and “jaywalkers”. By planning ahead, you will have plenty of time to slow down, stop, or change lanes safely.

Avoid Distractions
Stay off your cell phone while driving, unless you have a “hands-free” unit. Plan your route in advance. If you have to consult a map for directions, get off the road before doing so.

Too often drivers do not do not communicate their intentions, and leave other drivers guessing. Whenever there is doubt, try to get eye contact with the other driver. Sometimes all it takes is little toot on the horn or a wave to get the other drivers attention. Drivers should not assume however, that just because they have the other driver’s attention they can let their own guard down. Always expect the unexpected and be prepared. Also be prepared for inconsiderate behavior from other drivers. React by taking the safe course of action, rather than the one that will teach the other driver a lesson.

Discouraging Tailgaters
A tailgater can be defined as a vehicle following so closely that the front wheels of that vehicle cannot be seen in your rear view mirror. Attempting to eliminate tailgaters, and the possibility of getting rear ended by the vehicle behind should be a prime consideration of defensive drivers. Taking the following steps can reduce the risk:

  • Increase the following distance from the vehicle ahead while gradually slowing down, encouraging the vehicle behind to pass. If it is not safe for the vehicle behind to pass, you should be looking to change lanes safely as soon as there is an opportunity.
  • If all else fails, it may be necessary to pull over at your earliest safe opportunity and stop, allowing the tailgater to pass.

Approaching Intersections
A large percentage of collisions occur at intersections. As drivers approach intersections, they should be searching for the following clues that indicate if a change is going to take place that may require you to stop, or make an adjustment in vehicle speed or position: Is there a stale green traffic light (a light that has been green as long as you have observed it)?

  • Is a pedestrian crosswalk light blinking, or are there pedestrians trying to cross?
  • Is there any cross traffic waiting?
  • Is there fast approaching cross traffic?
  • Are there vehicles turning right on red?
  • Is your vehicle beyond the “decision point”? This is a physical spot on the roadway where the driver becomes a greater hazard by making a severe or “panic” stop rather than slowing or proceeding through an intersection.

Scanning Intersections
When stopped at an intersection, drivers should turn their head 90 degrees to the left first before proceeding, to check for conflicts, then 90 degrees to the right. If all is clear, the driver should check to the left again, and if all is still clear proceed through the intersection safely. When traveling through an intersection, drivers should be checking ahead left and right at a 45-degree angle. Also, by reducing your speed and “covering” your brake pedal (resting your braking foot on the pedal without actually braking), you will be better prepared to stop quickly if necessary.

Rear Tire Concept
Drivers should always stop far enough from any vehicle ahead so that they can see the rear tires of the vehicle in front where they meet the road. This leaves a cushion of safety in front of your vehicle that serves the following purposes:

Should the vehicle ahead stall, you should have sufficient space to maneuver your vehicle around it without backing.
Should your own vehicle get “rear ended”, there may now be enough space to prevent your vehicle being pushed into the vehicle ahead.

Delayed Start
Drivers should mentally count 1-2-3 before starting off at a light or other controlled intersection. This allows extra time for crossing vehicles that may be trying to beat the light to clear the intersection. Also, in the event a vehicle in front makes a stutter start/stop, the vehicle behind will have more opportunity to react, preventing a rear end collision with the vehicle ahead. By counting 1-2-3 the driver is also automatically building in a space cushion from the vehicle ahead as described previously.

Note: Drivers should also keep their foot on the brake pedal at all times while stopped, activating the brake lights as a signal to drivers behind.

Use Of Signals
Defensive drivers always signal their intention to turn well in advance. Also, in most states the law requires the use of turn signals 100 feet before a turn. A good rule of thumb to remember is to activate your turn signals at least 5 seconds prior to turning. Another good signaling technique is tapping the brake pedal. This involves the driver just lightly tapping the brake pedal and thereby activating the brake lights to warn the driver behind of a possible conflict requiring a sudden stop (i.e. a driver starting to pull out of a parking space, or a “jaywalker” about to cross in the middle of a block).

Backing & Parking
Defensive drivers try to avoid backing whenever possible, and pre-planning is the key. Try to choose a parking space for example where it will not be necessary to back, or make an extra trip around the block to avoid backing up if you drive by an address. Always remember, most backing accidents can be prevented.


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