In Summary
  • Defensive driving is essentially driving in a manner that utilises safe driving strategies to enables motorists address identified hazards in a predictable manner.
  • These strategies go beyond instruction on basic traffic laws and procedures.

Approximately six years ago, Charles Ofwono underwent defensive driving training. One of the lessons of the training was about how to avoid or prevent accidents resulting from other motorist’s driving behaviour. In most cases, accidents happen because a motorist, not necessarily you, is driving badly.
“I was trained that when I am driving, I should be able to observe the behaviour of the motorist driving behind, ahead and on the side. I was trained that if another motorist on the road starts driving in a worrying way, I should be able to respond in a way that leaves me and my car safe. I was also trained to anticipate motorist’s behaviour and read their minds for the sake of my safety,” Ofwono explains.

Driving at a safe distance
In defensive driving, the distance you create between your car and the one ahead of you is called a safe distance. Unlike the two, three or four second rules, you are supposed to create a safe driving distance that can be covered by two cars. However, this is determined by the speed at which you are driving.
“I was trained that when driving in traffic jam, I should be able to see the rear tyres of the car driving ahead of me because it is a reasonable distance for me to react in case of anything. And if it is on a highway, I should be able to create a safe distance where I can control the car in 15 seconds. If I have 15 seconds to react, I should be able to stop the car,” Ofwono adds.

What defensive driving is
Paul Kwamusi, a road safety consultant at Integrated Transport Systems, explains that from a road safety point of view, defensive driving is where you drive to avoid road accidents in spite of the erroneous actions of other road users or the adverse driving conditions. Defensive driving is an advanced driving concept that secures you from being involved in accidents through a strong and safer attitude towards other road users.
“Defensive driving differs from basic driving because it is all about attitude change towards safety. The aim here is to avoid crashes as much as possible and it includes avoiding crashes, even those caused by the other road users,” Kwamusi explains.

Components of defensive driving
To successfully apply defensive driving skills when you sit behind your steering wheel, you should be able to understand the following characteristics.

Judgement
Ofwono explains that your ability to make a judgement depends on your driving experience and competence. By experience, it basically means the time you have spent driving. This is because in defensive driving, judgement is directly proportional to your level of competence. And this means that the higher your levels of competence, the better your judgement will be on the road.

Knowledge of the car
By knowledge, you should be in position to understand how your car works or functions and also understand its basics. This includes checking for things such as the car coolant and make sure it is in the right amounts before you enter the car and drive off. You should also be able to check your car tyres to make sure they all have enough pressure. If one or all the tyres are old or bad, traction will be limited.
“Most car tyres come with expiry dates and the expiry dates are written on the sides of the tyres. Tyres also have speed limits to help you understand the maximum speed beyond which you should not drive a given tyre type,” Ofwono explains.
Your knowledge on how your car brakes should also not be forgotten. This is because when you step on the brake pedal, some cars take some more time to brake while there are those such as the Mercedes Benz whose brake systems control the car within the shortest time possible.

Driving speed
As a defensive driver, you should drive at a speed that allows you to control your car in case of an emergency such as an accident. When you drive at, say, 120 km/hour when you are fresh from driving school, there is a high likelihood that you will not control the car within a short time because your brains have not yet mastered to drive at such a high speed. Your driving experience and skills are also still so low to control the car at this speed.
Driving at a speed you can manage is also important in different weather conditions and the terrain or nature of the road. If it is a tarmac road and it is rainy, you have to keep at a slow speed because the road is not only slippery but that you also need a lot more time to control your car in rain.

Crash prevention techniques
The key to any good defensive driving strategy is knowing how to avoid traffic accidents and recognise potential hazards before it is too late. In a typical defensive driving course, students learn crucial crash prevention techniques that include:
Scanning the roadway and adapting to surroundings
Employing the two-second rule for following distances
Knowing your vehicle’s stopping distance
Being aware of reaction distance
Environment hazards
Vehicle emergencies
Sharing the road
Passing and necessary clear distance
Right of way
Speed adjustments and railroad crossings

The five car rule
James Bright, a defensive driving trainer, explains that as you drive, mentally, you are driving a total of five cars. However, what you have to understand is that you drive each of the five cars differently. The first car you are supposed to drive is one ahead of you. You are expected to value it by watching how it brakes, how it indicates and how it reduces speed.
The second car you drive is your own car, the one you are driving. In your car, you are supposed to not only be keen with the passengers on board but you should also understand their behaviour and influence on you. The third car is the one coming your way.
“The main reasons why you need to be more attentive with the oncoming car is because its driver may decide to turn in front of yours after realising that you are moving at a slow speed. You need to be alert and attentive so that so you do not ram into them,” Bright explains.
The forth car is the one driving behind you. The driver in it may decide to overtake your car without indicating as well, or when you have not seen it. The fifth car is one that is parked by the roadside.
“You may not know why the car is parked. It could be due to a mechanical breakdown or when its driver has parked probably to have a rest. From nowhere, they may choose or decide to join the road. It is upto you to be alert and have enough foresight to predict what is ahead of time and reduce your speed whether the motorist has joined the road without indicating or not. You should also be observant and sober to understand that something is about to happen,” Bright concludes.