31 March 2023

Teaching defensive driving and preparing for tough conditions

From speeding to fatigue, and intersections to distractions – there are many causes for a crash.

banner teaching defensive driving

It’s important to develop students’ skills and build their confidence to handle any given condition, whether it’s bad weather, heavy traffic or an unexpected hazard. Exposing drivers to different types of environments may take them out of their comfort zone, but it also enables them to feel prepared.

Defensive driving is about being aware of what’s happening around the car and predicting potential hazards so the young driver can respond safely to changing conditions.

Teaching defensive driving starts with a focus on safety. This includes explaining why certain driving habits and manoeuvres are important, such as using indicators, checking mirrors and blind spots, and maintaining a safe speed.

There’s a knack to teaching this and driving instructor Tim Hartnell—from Proactive Drive who we interviewed last month—has a few tips to help create safe, prepared drivers.

Tim Hartnell interview

When it comes to teaching this, Tim reckons it boils down to three factors.

  1. What’s the driver’s skill level?
  2. What are the car’s capabilities?
  3. What environments are they driving in?

It’s about encouraging the student to develop and use their skills in different ways and make the right decisions. “Most drivers think it’s heavy rain or a bit of fog to be aware of, but it’s not all about the weather. While sunstrike, fog, rain, wind and snow create tough conditions, it’s important to respond safely in unexpected situations too: moving cattle, falling debris and heavy traffic can also create curveballs.”

Using their skills

The basic skills needed to drive safely around town on a good day are very similar to the ones needed to drive out in the country, at night, and in the rain. However, the level of skill that is needed will alter depending on when and where they are driving and the conditions they are driving in.

Some of these skills include:

  • scanning 12 seconds ahead – staying alert and focused
  • good hazard awareness
  • maintaining a safe speed and following distance
  • remaining calm and focused – avoiding distractions.
  • the ability to adjust their driving accordingly.

Checking for hazards

Good driving is about being alert and aware of your surroundings by scanning for hazards and checking mirrors regularly. Aim to teach young drivers to look ahead. This might mean checking for moving cars or pedestrians and anticipating what they might do. It could also mean scanning intersections or other traffic situations that may require them to stop suddenly. Drivers always need to be ready to act in the event of a sudden obstacle or hazard.

It′s also good to explain the importance of having plenty of space between their car and the one in front of them. A good guide is 2–4 seconds depending on conditions. This gives them time to respond safely to anything unexpected, or correct mistakes they have made. To put it simply, if there’s more space, there's less to crash into.

Fatigue and distraction

There are two conditions that are often overlooked – fatigue and distraction. The first port of call is not driving while fatigued, and eliminating distractions such as phone notifications, loud music and intense conversation. When fatigue and distraction crop up during a drive, Tim suggests combatting this with commentary driving, which pulls attention back to the priority job.

Speed – less speed, less harm

In a crash, speed is the single biggest factor in whether anyone is killed, injured, or unharmed. Less speed means less harm. You can teach young drivers how they can manage their speed by:

  • monitoring the speed limit and the speedometer
  • gauging the appropriate speed for the conditions such as weather, roadworks or traffic
  • being aware of any sudden changes in speed.

At the end of the day, it’s about creating safe drivers. Once they have a full licence, they’re allowed to drive anywhere, anytime. We want them to have the skills and knowledge to do it safely. We're setting them up for their future, and we want to set them up for success.

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