The key to understanding defensive driving is in the name. It’s a collection of techniques that put you in a better position to defend yourself, your passengers, your vehicle and those around you against all kinds of hazards on the road. It’s more than just following the rules, it’s being ready to handle challenges before they become problems.

The best part is that it’s really easy to be a defensive driver. In fact, you probably already know the techniques from when you first learned to drive, it’s just a matter of remembering to use them and turning them into habits.

Of course, you have to know the behaviours before they can become habits. But when they do, they will help you avoid being one of the over 100,000 Canadians harmed in vehicle collisions each year. Here are some simple things you can start doing today to become a safer, more defensive driver.

Stay informed

It’s always better to find out about new rules and regulations before you hit the road. An excellent resource for timely updates and tips in Canada is Transport Canada’s Twitter account. Their posts include timely reminders and travel advice on more than just driving, but other forms of transportation too, for example, flying, taking the train, and even snowmobiling.

Be sure to also check the weather conditions, especially for long journeys, so you know what to expect and can ensure you have the right tools and materials to deal with it, such as windshield fluid, a pair of sunglasses, an ice scraper, etc.

Stay alert

Staying alert is often equated to being awake, but it’s about much more than that. It may seem obvious to quote a dictionary, but in this case it’s a valuable reminder: Miriam-Webster’s definition of alert (as an adjective) is “watchful and prompt to meet danger or emergency.” While being well-rested and checking your mirrors regularly is very important, that’s just the beginning.

Pay attention to the speed of the drivers around you, and try to identify where their blind spots are so you can avoid them. When driving next to roadside parking, check which way the parked vehicles’ tires are facing so you can identify which ones may be attempting to pull out.

The other aspect is the preparedness. Keep both hands on the wheel, be ready to hit the brakes at any time, and don’t be afraid to slow down when you notice a potential hazard.

You should also make an effort to limit the distractions inside the vehicle. Using a handheld device while driving is illegal all across Canada, and for good reason. According to the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, 26% of fatal crashes and 27% of crashes with major injuries could be at least partly attributed to distracted driving in 2012—these figures have only increased between 2006 and 2015, and are likely still on the rise. The research does note that the growth may be somewhat due to better reporting of these incidents, but even if the numbers have stayed relatively the same as they were in 2012, that’s still a big component we should all be wary of.

Budget enough time

It’s remarkable how little things bother you on the road when you’re in no rush to get where you’re going. A State Farm Canada (now called Dejardins Insurance) survey from 2015 found that one in three drivers experience road rage once a month. Factor a little buffer time into your commute not just in case heavy traffic puts you behind schedule, but to put your mind at ease so you can really enjoy your drive.

This will also help with preventing distracted driving, because having time to spare will make sure that pulling over to respond to a text, have a bite to eat, or find something in the glove box won’t feel like a hinderance.

Increase your following distance

By reading this article you’re already on your way to becoming a safer driver, but keep in mind that not every other driver on the road is likely to be as proactive as you are, so you can’t expect them to react to things the same way.

It’s a fact of life that you will encounter aggressive drivers at some point. The best response is to yield to them. It might be tempting to fight fire with fire, and assert your presence and claim space the same way you might when you encounter a black bear on a hiking trail, but that only puts you in more danger on the road.

The only driver you can influence with guaranteed results is yourself, so give others a wide berth and maintain a safe following distance of three seconds. A good way to think about following distance is as the amount of time you’re giving yourself to react if the vehicle in front of you suddenly stops. You can easily check your time just by picking a landmark – for example a telephone pole – and counting the time difference between when they pass it and when you pass it.

It’s a good idea to increase your following distance by a few seconds if you’re following a larger vehicle, say a semi or a truck pulling a trailer, or if the driver is exhibiting very risky behaviour. Of course, if you encounter a driver who’s really putting others in danger, you should call the police.

Clock your escape route

Once you’ve given yourself the time you need to react, it’s then time to think about your escape route.

The Australian Academy of Science wrote a fantastic (if highly technical) article about how a difference of just five km/h can be the difference between stopping in the nick of time, and a devastating crash. Check it out here. While the obvious moral of the story is to watch your speed and distance, it’s also a reminder that you may not always be able to come to a full stop in time, in which case you need to be able to steer around the obstacle to avoid it.

Whether you’re in the middle of the highway or on a quiet country road, make sure that you always have somewhere to go in case something happens. Even when you’re sitting at a red light, take note of the space around your car. If something happened behind you and you got rear ended, do you have enough space ahead of you to be able to pull forward to lessen the impact?

Signal early and often

Of course, you don’t want to signal too early, but it’s always a good idea to give the other drivers on the road as much advance notice of your plan to turn or change lanes as possible. A half-city block is the best rule of thumb.

This helps both you and the other drivers on the road. Broadcasting your intentions means they have more time to react, and you have less chance of getting hit.

While driving defensively puts you in a better position to avoid collisions, even the best defensive drivers can end up in circumstances beyond their control. If you or someone you know is in a serious car accident, call Helping Hand at 1-888-228-HURT. Our personal injury team can help.