Posted by: safedriver | August 27, 2010

What is defensive driving?

For the almost 23 years I’ve been a driving instructor at Young Drivers of Canada, I’ve heard the term “defensive driving” many times. What is defensive driving? Many years ago it seemed like it was about driving slowly, but now it’s more about staying away from the other driver. Do you drive defensively or offensively?

There are a number of driving schools across North America that describe their program as being defensive driving. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with a lot of their instructors over the years and we’ve discussed what we teach. I was a little concerned to what some describe as defensive. In short, defensive driving is about looking out for the other road user and proactively avoiding problems.

I teach my students to avoid sitting next to other drivers while driving in traffic. If we’re driving beside space, it’s easier to avoid a collision if another driver swerves into our lane. We also accelerate past drivers so we can keep the space beside us. I remember being out with a student and as we passed another driver, they glanced over at us and had a shocked look on their face as we sped past them to create space beside us. Apparently we aren’t allowed to drive faster than a licensed driver, but think again.

Many years ago, defensive driving was perceived as driving slowly. It really means to adjust your position and not hang out near other drivers. It’s also about being ready for the unexpected and having an escape from other drivers. For example, while driving on a multiple lane road my students and I see a lot of pedestrians walking along the sidewalk. Before we reach them, we change lanes to the left lane. This creates space between our vehicle and the pedestrians. If one of the pedestrians walks onto the road, there would be a complete lane for them to do so. I see other drivers who were taught defensive driving who stay in the right lane all the time. If it’s not the safest lane, why stay there?

We also teach our students to match the flow of traffic when necessary to keep the space in front and behind. The reality of this is that we are rarely in a flow of traffic. The traffic is usually well in front or well behind us, which leaves us out of flow. However, if we happen to be in a flow, we travel with the flow of traffic. This avoids tailgating and reduces the risk of being rear-ended. We generally drive the speed limit around 70% of the time. Even rush hour traffic is below the posted speed limit most of the time. Why drive the speed limit when you know it will cause drivers to tail-gate?

Remember, defensive driving is learning how to avoid the risk caused by other road users. Avoid driving in packs and avoid putting your life in the hands of other drivers. Defensive driving is all about surviving on the road!



  1. my driving instructor taught us that when more than one car is involved in a crash, it is because _usually_ because more than one driver made a mistake — the first one did something wrong or unpredictable, the other driver(s) failed to allow the other driver enough space to recover from what might have been only a slight error.

    In other words, we ought to drive in such a way that minor transgressions by other drivers (or by ourselves) don’t become collisions, and we ought to allow other drivers forgiveness in our attitude so that our behaviour is calm and predictable.

    I sometimes find that I still need to remind myself of these lessons, but I have found this lesson has been helpful in keeping me out of tight places whilst driving.

  2. Thanks for good explanation about the “defensive driving”, but i would say instead of keeping away from other drivers we can call it as maintaining the safe distance between vehicles, so that one can have a room to handle the unexpected situation raised by other driver.

    • Thanks for the comment, but in reality, I’m sure we agree on the same process…hopefully.

  3. Another way of describing defensive driving: “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.”

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