Defensive Driving 101: What It Is and Why It Matters


It's about more than just being nice on the road—our primer on how to drive defensively.

urban street
4 min read

You’re first in line at a red light, calmly waiting for the green, maybe even enjoying the music or scenery, when out of the corner of your eye, you see a car drive right up next to you. There’s no designated lane for the car, but the aggressive driver keeps inching forward, jockeying for position, and you can just feel it—as soon as the light changes, you know the driver will gun it and try to cut you off. You wouldn’t be alone in raised hackles, but in these kinds of situations, you really have two choices: once the light changes you can step on it and block the car from merging into your lane ahead of you, or you can take a deep breath or two and choose to drive defensively. When the light changes, and the other driver predictably races ahead, you can simply choose to let them go. It might not be easy to do—after all, the other driver is clearly in the wrong, but as our mother used to warn, “It’s possible to be dead right.”

We hear a lot about aggressive driving and the dangers it poses, but its safer counterpart, defensive driving, gets considerably less attention. Quoted is here with a primer, as well as some tips.

Driving defensively: more than just playing by the rules

From the National Safety Council’s Defensive Driving course: defensive driving is “driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.”

We rounded up the very best defensive driving techniques, which you can start using today (from DriversEd.com and SafeMotorist.com):

  • Plan ahead for the unexpected: scan the road for exit points and know where other cars are on the road in case you need to swerve or stop quickly
  • Control your speed: neither too fast nor too slow, you should aim to drive at the average speed of other cars
  • Remain mentally engaged with the driving task in case you need to react to other drivers’ mistakes
  • Do not expect other drivers to do what you think they should do—this includes stopping at red lights and stop signs, yielding, and following other traffic laws
  • Respect other users of the roadway (ahem, cyclists!) and share the road
  • Be aware of driving in special road and weather conditions
  • Be alert and avoid distractions, e.g., cell phone use, eating
  • Never assume that other drivers are sober or alert, and follow the rules of the road at all times
  • Know your vehicle’s stopping distance
  • Look out for environmental hazards and vehicle emergencies
  • Understand and follow right-of-way laws
Defensive driving is driving to save lives, time, and money.

And finally, aim to not escalate bad situations or provoke other drivers. In other words, learn to let slights and unfair moves go. It can be hard to take the high road, especially if you’re tired, you’ve been in the car for a while, or another driver is clearly driving unlawfully. And, some environments do create challenges. Take city driving: often, if you’re not making power moves, you’re not going to get anywhere. But just remember, your ultimate goal is keeping yourself and your passengers safe.

Save some green with defensive driving, too

If you’re still not convinced defensive driving is valuable, maybe your wallet will change your mind: most insurance companies, in almost every state, offer insurance discounts for customers who complete an approved defensive driving course. You could save between 5 and 15 percent on your premium each year (depending on your driving record, age, and other demographics), just by taking a defensive driving course. And if you’ve gotten a traffic ticket, you could reduce the number of points on your license, and even avoid an insurance rate hike by taking a defensive driving course. For more info on your state’s requirements, look here.

But even if you don’t want to take a course, consider including some of the defensive maneuvers and practices we’ve discussed here—it could save your life.