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What is Defensive Driving?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Most of us would like to believe we are above average drivers, but the truth is, the majority of drivers on the road never get past the basics. A philosophy called defensive driving is the basis for a more advanced course in driver and passenger safety. It involves learning a more proactive attitude behind the wheel, anticipating potential hazards instead of simply reacting to them. There are professional defensive driving courses available online or through accredited driver education programs.

One aspect of defensive driving involves understanding a vehicle's limitations and abilities. In an emergency, precious reaction time could be lost while trying to find an emergency brake, clutch or gear shift. Instructors teach students to know what to do in case of brake failure, for example. The idea is to develop an instinct for grabbing the parking brake or putting the car in another gear without losing control.

Another defensive driving skill is knowing how to steer the car out of hazards while maintaining control. Situations like skidding or avoiding road debris call for steering maneuvers not required for a driver's license. Specific lessons on oversteering, understeering and recovery are usually provided in defensive driving schools. Professional drivers also learn techniques to turn a vehicle around quickly or minimize damage during a wreck.

One important skill is anticipation. A defensive driver is constantly scanning the area for potential dangers. A bicyclist on the right could suddenly swerve or fall. The pedestrian on the sidewalk could decide to cross in front of the car, or a small child may jump into the street. The driver ahead may be tired or drunk, while the driver in the oncoming lane could be distracted by a passenger. The box on the road may be empty, or it could contain roofing nails. Defensive driving means anticipating every possible outcome, so that a real situation won't catch the driver unprepared.

Many insurance companies offer discounts to drivers who successfully complete accredited defensive driving courses. Online courses are also available for those who want to improve their driving habits and receive a break on their insurance premiums. Driving defensively is a proven way to reduce the number of accidents on the road caused by inattentive or inexperienced drivers.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WikiMotors, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon352637 — On Oct 24, 2013

Studying a defensive driving course is one pulse point to know more about the safety course like DDC.

By StarJo — On Jan 21, 2013

@JackWhack – Please do get some defensive driving training! I wouldn't want to be driving anywhere near you, now that I know this information about you.

If someone is rolling down a hill out of control toward my vehicle, I'd like to think that they could find their emergency brake. Everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car should know how to use it.

Even if you don't find a class right away, ask your husband or someone where the brake is. That's something that you need to know before you drive at all.

By JackWhack — On Jan 20, 2013

I seriously need some defensive driving training. My husband says that swerving to avoid hitting squirrels is a bad thing and could cause an accident, but it's my gut reaction. I need to be retrained!

Also, I'm not even sure I know where my emergency brake is located. I found it once before, but it was when the car was parked and I was idly searching for it out of boredom.

By cloudel — On Jan 20, 2013

I'm pretty good at basic defensive driving. I have super fast reflexes, so I can react in record time.

I have swerved and braked many times and avoided disaster by doing this. Once, a lady was backing out of her driveway on my road and didn't see me driving up the road, and she began to back out right on top of me. I reacted very quickly, swerving into the left lane and then back again.

I didn't have time to honk, but I would have loved to have let her know what she did. I don't think she was even aware of it, because she followed closely on my bumper and passed me at the first opportunity. That isn't the behavior of someone who is sorry for almost running you over.

By Oceana — On Jan 19, 2013

@vogueknit17 – I thought the same thing. Anytime anyone has called me a defensive driver, they weren't giving me a compliment, so it's no wonder that I thought it was a negative term.

I had no idea you could actually go to school to get a defensive driving certificate. I'm going to tell all the people who called me a defensive driver that they actually gave me a compliment and that they were so wrong!

By anon273782 — On Jun 08, 2012

Anyone can learn the emergency skills necessary to be a good defensive driver. It just takes time, safe space, practice and a good coach/instructor! I would recommend to everyone to take a defensive driving course at sometime in their lives, but for teens it is especially necessary.

By sherlock87 — On Jan 12, 2011

@accordion, I imagine a lot. In my area, at least, we spent very little time on driving "techniques" and much more on rules and regulations. The closest thing to defensive driving lessons I received was during an in-car session when my teacher- I went to a school run by police officers, and many of them were very commanding- ordered me suddenly, as we were barreling down a country road, to put on my parking break. At first I thought he was joking, but he wasn't. Of course, this was the same teacher who took me out on a highway for the first time ever in the heaviest rain I've ever driven in, even in the years since.

I also think it would be even harder to make new drivers who are adults take these sorts of courses; in my state, new drivers over 18 only need to take and pass the driving test to get their licenses, and are not required to complete any sort of driving school at all.

By accordion — On Jan 11, 2011

@sherlock87, I feel the same way about taking a defensive driving class, and I think a lot of teenagers and other young and new drivers would benefit from these sorts of lessons early in their driving lives. I wonder just how much it would take to change the infrastructure of driving schools in the United States so that this became a required part of driver's education.

By sherlock87 — On Jan 09, 2011

I wish I had known where in my hometown to find a defensive driving course. As someone who doesn't drive much and does not really enjoy it, I think taking a class like that would have made me a much better and more naturally comfortable driver, especially when I was a teenager and much less experienced than I am now.

By vogueknit17 — On Jan 08, 2011

While I had heard the term "defensive driving" before, I never realized it was a positive thing, and something you could be trained to do better. In my experience, it has often been used to describe excessively cautious drivers or those who are prone to road rage. Admittedly, the concept of defensive drivers as people who drive carefully in the right way makes more sense as a definition.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WikiMotors, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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