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Module 9

Defensive Driving

In earlier modules, we discussed Nevada traffic laws and the penalties that drivers face when they fail to follow those rules. We emphasized the fact that traffic laws exist to help avoid accidents, control traffic and promote safe driving. In this module, we will further develop our understanding of safe driving techniques by focusing specifically on defensive driving.

First, let’s clear up something:  what does the word “defensive” have to do with driving?  What, exactly, are you defending yourself against when you drive defensively?  The answer is, that even if you follow all the traffic laws and safe practices you’ve been taught, when you’re out on the road there are other drivers who don’t; add to that fact the numerous unexpected hazards that can come up at any time. You’re defending yourself against all of the above.

The goal of defensive driving is to reduce your risk of being involved in a traffic collision through the anticipation of dangerous situations caused by other drivers and hazardous situations.

In some ways, this may be the most important module in the course. You will also likely notice that much of the information in this module will be found at other points throughout your driver education course. This is because being a defensive driver is paramount to your safety and to the safety of others on the road.

We will now cover how important it is to drive defensively, to act responsibly and to remain fully focused on the task at hand (driving!). You will learn the various techniques to help you anticipate the road ahead as well as the actions of others and how to handle those appropriately.

Defensive driving means driving in a way that allows you to anticipate potential danger and react appropriately. In order to recognize potential dangers, you must assume that every other driver on the road is capable of disobeying the rules of the road, and that anything could happen at any moment. Consider that for just a minute, and you’ll understand why you don’t want to let down your guard for even a moment while driving.

The American National Standards Institute defines defensive driving as “driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.”

Driving defensively is much more than just knowing the rules of the road and understanding the mechanics of driving. It is more about driving (and preparing to drive) in a manner that keeps you and those around you safe by your own actions by recognizing and reacting to potential hazards. both in and out of your vehicle.

Let’s face it: Cars are big. They are heavy. They go fast. When not operated safely and responsibly, cars are capable of causing serious property damage, injury, and even death. No matter how confident or experienced the driver is, driving should always be done with caution, care and consideration. Every time you get behind the wheel, you must remember that your primary responsibility is to drive safely and avoid accidents. Let’s break that down: this means you need to always be aware, be sober and be serious when you are behind the wheel. People’s lives depend upon it.

Some statistics about driving

We don’t want to scare you away from driving. But we do want you to understand just how serious this activity is – and how permanent the consequences can be when it is not taken seriously enough.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:
  • A total of 2,823 teenagers died in motor vehicle crashes in 2012.
  • About 2 out of every 3 teenagers killed in crashes in 2012 were males.
  • In 2012, 60 percent of the 16-to-19-year-olds killed in car accidents were behind the wheel at the time of the crash.
  • June and July – when teens were out of school –  had the highest numbers of teenage crash deaths of any months in 2012.
  • Friday, Saturday and Sunday are particularly deadly for teens: 53 percent of car crash deaths among teenagers in 2012 occurred on those days.
  • Nighttime is also deadly for teens: teenage auto crash deaths occurred most frequently from 9:00 p.m. to midnight (17 percent) in 2012.

Don’t become a statistic. Give yourself the time and dedication it takes to develop solid driving skills. Be patient. Be aware of and respect your limits (those particular to you and those imposed by the state) as you strengthen your driving skills.

The SIPDE Process

The best drivers on the road are those who manage risk and reduce the chances of becoming involved in a collision. Safe driving involves being able to continuously identify, predict and react to hazardous situations when you are driving.   The process known as SIPDE was developed to help drivers develop those exact skills.

There are five steps involved in the SIPDE process:
  1. Scan
  2. Identify
  3. Predict
  4. Decide
  5. Execute

Scanning involves quick, continuous glances at the area around you in order to get a complete picture of what is going on. The purpose of scanning is to identify potential hazards in advance. When driving, you should be actively scanning 20 to 30  seconds ahead of you on the open roadway that you are traveling on, constantly looking out for potential hazards.   When we speak of “looking X seconds ahead,” what we mean is. look where your car will be in 20 to 30 seconds.

However, a much simpler, and perhaps more useful and easy-to-remember way of thinking about how far you should look ahead is:  “way, way down the road.”

Keep in mind, however, that not all hazards will be in front of you. Because of this, you should also be checking the area to both sides of your vehicle and behind you for potential hazards. Get in the habit of glancing at your mirrors regularly and keeping a constant look out for what’s up ahead.


With all that’s going on around you as you travel down the road, it’s critical that you be able to identify potential hazards ahead of you, next to you and beside you. The things you will want to identify (and, if necessary, to focus on) are pedestrians, animals, fixed objects, moving objects and of course traffic signs and signals.

This is why scanning 12 to 14 seconds ahead and regularly glancing at your mirrors is so vitally important.


Once you identify a potential hazard ahead, you will need to predict what may happen before it actually happens. Predicting means to be constantly asking, “what if…?”

What if that small child suddenly leaves the sidewalk and runs out in the road in front of me?

What if that driver who just now pulled to the side of the road opens his door into my vehicle’s path?

What if the vehicle to the left of me with its turn signal on for the last half mile finally decides to move into my lane?

Predicting involves anticipating the worse case scenario.


The next step in the SIPDE system is to decide how you are going to avoid the hazardous situation, prevent a collision or reduce the impact involved. This could mean applying your vehicle’s brakes, adjusting your speed, changing direction or moving into a different lane. It could also mean communicating with the hazard by using your vehicle’s lights or horn.


The final phase of the SIPDE system is to execute the decision you have made. In other words, it is now time to put your plan into action should that potential hazard now become a reality. This is where you make the move that you’ve decided upon a moment ago.

Using the SIPDE system does more than decrease the likelihood that you will be involved in a collision. It also makes for smoother driving and reduced stress, so that you’re not constantly finding yourself caught unaware in emergency type situations.

Please take the next 10 minutes to watch the Vision and SIPDE video

The Smith System

Like the SIPDE system, the Smith System uses guidelines to help improve your awareness of your driving environment. While the SIPDE system has you seeking out potential hazards, the Smith System focuses on a broader view of your driving environment. The five components of the Smith System are:

Aim High: When driving you should not focus solely on the road directly in front of you. Instead, you should be looking 12 to 14 seconds in front of you in city traffic and 20-30 seconds on the open highway.

Keep Your Eyes Moving: In addition to looking well ahead in front of you, keeping your eyes moving means: Look to your left and look to your right. Glance at your side view mirrors and rear view mirror every 5  to 10 seconds.

Get the Big Picture: This is similar to the “identify” and “predict” phases of the SIPDE system. You need to have a grasp on what is going on all around you, looking for potential hazards and changes in road conditions in front, to the side and behind you.

Make Sure Others See You: Never make the assumption that other drivers and cyclists know that you are traveling next to them, or moving down the road toward them. And let’s not forget to mention that included in “others” are pedestrians, and you also need to do all you can to make sure pedestrians are aware you are approaching them. You can make sure they see you by using various lights, positioning of your vehicle, and if necessary, the horn, etc.

Leave Yourself an “Out”: You should always position your vehicle in a way that leaves you a “buffer” space around you. Keeping your vehicle a safe distance from others allows you time to react to sudden changes in your driving environment.

Before You Drive

Safe, defensive driving begins before you even set foot in the car. Do a quick visual inspection of the car before you get in. Notice – and fix – any problems, such as a faulty turn signal or brake light. If these aren’t working properly, other drivers won’t know that you intend to turn, for example, or that you have started to slow down in anticipation of a red light. Their confusion could lead to an accident in which you are found to be at fault. As a safe and responsible driver, it is your duty to ensure your car’s safety features are working correctly – every time you drive the car.

When inspecting your car, start with your lights. You can verify that your head and taillights are working by turning them on and checking to see that they are lit. Test the turn signals next, and get out and check. Just because they are blinking inside the car doesn’t automatically mean that the light bulb outside the car is functioning. A faster turn signal sound indicates one of the turn signals is not operational.

While you’re outside the car checking those lights, make sure your tires have the right pressure. Underinflated tires can increase the amount of time required to brake, as well as causing overheating and tread separation in some cases. Remember, low tire pressure is the #1 cause of tire malfunction. Make sure your windows are clean – dirty windows can reflect and refract light, which can impede your vision. Once you are back inside the car, adjust your mirrors. Clear the dashboard of objects that may fall onto your lap and draw your attention away from the road.

This may seem obvious, but make sure you know where you are going and how to get there before you start out. Memorize the directions for short trips or have another passenger help you read them. Here is where a navigation device can be helpful. In addition to guiding you, step-by-step, to your destination, navigation devices also have features that can alert you to speed limits and other obstacles along the way. But…make sure you have set up your device before you start driving!

Be sure to double-check the road and weather conditions before you head out. You may want to adjust your departure time if you know there is a construction project or heavy traffic along the way. If the weather isn’t cooperating, wait until it is safe to drive before you leave, especially if you haven’t driven much in that type of weather.

Lastly, fasten your seat belt. Every. Single. Time.

Hitting the road

Your safety, and the safety of others, depends on how well you learn and practice these principles.

Always maintain a safe speed

Never drive over the speed limit. Do drive under the speed limit if road and weather conditions are less than ideal. Make sure you go with the flow of traffic and use the lanes that are appropriate for your speed. You should try not to accelerate nor brake too suddenly (unless you must avoid a sudden hazard). It is harder to maintain control of your car and to react to unexpected situations if you are going too fast.

Following distance  

In an earlier module, we’ve briefly discussed the danger of following too closely as a violation of the law and how frequently it causes accidents; now we will focus on how to avoid this problem.  You will learn how to judge what a safe following distance is, so that you can always maintain enough space in front of you whenever you drive.  To picture this space in your mind’s eye, think of it as a “space cushion” (as it is often called).

Following distance is defined as the distance between you and the vehicle in front of you when you are both moving on the roadway. When driving, you must always be prepared for the car in front of you to stop, slow down, or react to unexpected road conditions ahead. It could be that the vehicle in front of you is slowing for stopped traffic in front of them or reacting to traffic signals, children, animals, road debris, etc.

In the past—say, when your parents were learning to drive—the way that the idea of a space cushion was generally taught in driver education classes was in terms of “car lengths.”  So, for example, you would have learned that there should be roughly one full car length between you and the car in front of you for every 10 miles per hour of speed that you are traveling, so if you are traveling at 50 mph, you should be 5 car lengths behind the car in front.

The need for a space cushion has not changed, and how you measure it can still be done by thinking in terms of car lengths, but guess what?  Driving professionals finally realized that for most of us, figuring out how many car lengths you are behind another car is really difficult, and that’s why we now recommend measuring your following distance in terms of the number of seconds you are behind the car in front of you.  It’s called the 3-second rule, and it’s an easy method to learn and easy to use.

The 3-second rule

Under normal driving conditions, a good way to determine a safe following distance between you and the car in front of you is to allow a minimum following distance of at least 3 seconds. That means that if you and the car in front of you are going at the same speed and the car in front were to hit a brick wall—or, more realistically—to get into an accident, you would have time to stop before you hit that car.

If you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that the faster you and the other car are going, the longer the following distance has to be:  If you are both traveling at highway speeds, the length of space you need to be able to stop without crashing is much, much greater than if you were going at 10 miles an hour.

To determine that you are allowing a 3-second following distance between you and the vehicle in front of you, follow these simple steps:vid1
  1. Choose a fixed object on the side of the road that the vehicle in front of you is approaching. It could be a road sign, an overpass, or just a big boulder.
  2. As soon as that vehicle passes the fixed object on the side of the road, begin counting: “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three”..:
  3. If your counting reaches 3 seconds just prior to your car reaching the same fixed object you picked, you are following at 3 seconds.
  4. If you find that you’re following at less than the minimum 3 seconds, increasing your following distance is simple:  just ease off the gas pedal slightly to slow down briefly; then test again by picking a new fixed object.

Important:   If another car changes lanes and moves into the gap you’ve created, simply slow down briefly to widen that gap again.

Keep in mind that the recommended 3-second following distance only applies to optimal conditions. If the road is wet, icy, curvy, or visibility is limited (because of darkness or weather), then you must increase your following distance because it will take you longer to react and to slow down and stop if the car ahead of you suddenly brakes.

You also need that extra time to deal with the skids that can occur on slick roads. In the rain, you should increase your distance to at least 6 seconds. In snow, fog or icy conditions, you should increase your following distance to 9 to 12 seconds.

The 3-second following distance applies to most optimal urban driving conditions as well as on the highway, but you should always remember to keep a safe distance for the conditions you are driving in. The fact is, if you hit someone from behind, it will more than likely be declared to be your fault. Keeping a safe distance from the car ahead of you protects you in case the other driver is not being responsible and makes a sudden turn without signaling, or even stops without warning.

If this happens and you are too close, you could lose control and hit the vehicle ahead of you.  Think about it:  you’re going to feel that it’s completely the other driver’s fault, but that’s not the way the law looks at it.  If you hit a vehicle from behind, regardless of what stupid or irresponsible thing its driver did, you are going to be subject to fines, vehicle repairs, increased insurance rates, not to mention possible injury.

Look well ahead

We can’t repeat this enough!  Look well ahead of you so you can anticipate your actions and other drivers’ behaviors and needs as much as possible.  For example, if you see a merge sign ahead, warning of an interchange, you should move to the appropriate lane as soon as you safely can.  If you see a sign for your exit, for example, move over to right lane sooner rather than later so you won’t have to cut over sharply at the last minute.

Also be aware – especially if you’ve been traveling in the right lane – of your lane turning into an exit-only lane. You’ll be given plenty of warning via signs and lane markings, but you should move over to the left early so you’re not blocked in and don’t need to make a last-minute change that interferes with exiting cars.  Plan ahead, anticipate what other drivers may do and take your time.

This is crucial during highway driving: watch for brake lights.  Scan ahead frequently, so you notice brake lights on cars that are two or three ahead of you in the lane. This will help you anticipate what the car ahead of you may need to do and give you plenty of time to respond. While driving on the highway, you should extend your scanning a bit farther ahead and around you. This is because highway traffic can decelerate from 55 miles per hour to 10 miles per hour in a very short time period. To avoid being caught off-guard by these quick speed changes, you should look for the brake lights of cars in the distance. By looking farther down the highway, you can be better prepared to respond.

As soon as you see brakes lights coming on up ahead, you should immediately take your foot off the gas and let it hover over the brake pedal.  This will give you a faster reaction time if you need to apply brake pressure.  (This preventive maneuver, known as “covering the brake,” was introduced in an earlier module.)

Maintaining a safe distance while in a stopped position

Keeping a 3 to 4- second following distance applies to when you’re moving, but what happens when you come to a stop at a stop sign or red light? The answer is, even at a standstill, you want to maintain a “space cushion” to prevent being suddenly pushed ahead if your car gets hit from behind.

To leave enough space, you should stop your vehicle so that you can easily see the rear tires of the vehicle in front of you. Once the light turns green or the vehicle in front of you begins to move, you should count to three before taking your foot off the brake and moving from the stopped position. This will give you enough time to react should the vehicle in front of you come to an abrupt stop.

Keep an eye out

Drive cautiously, carefully and attentively. Adjust all your car mirrors so that you get clear views of all the directions before you start driving. Keep scanning the situation all around you by continuously checking your mirrors. In heavy traffic, you definitely want to keep a close eye on other cars’ turn signals and brake lights. Try to judge other cars’ speeds so you can safely respond as needed.

Avoid larger vehicles and aggressive drivers

If possible, try to keep away from big trucks and buses. Try and avoid driving in front of, beside or behind them. If you are driving behind a large truck, keep your distance. Definitely do no try to pass it from the wrong side. Also watch out for aggressive drivers; move over to the slow lane to let them go around you.

Drive with Headlights

Driving with your headlights during the daytime increases your vehicle’s visibility and helps other drivers recognize you on the roadway. Many recent-model cars come equipped with daytime running lights, which operate continuously as long as the car is in motion; however, if you’re driving a car without them, turning on the headlights is a great idea whenever visibility is an issue, but just remember to turn them off when you arrive at your destination—otherwise, when you return to your vehicle a few hours or a day later, you may find your battery is dead..

Avoid blind spots

Drivers can’t see you if you are in their blind spot. While you hope all drivers would check their blind spots before turning or changing lanes, there’s no a guarantee that they will. So it’s a good idea to avoid driving into the blind spot of other vehicles, especially big trucks and buses. Remember, a blind spot is a space to the side and behind a vehicle that cannot be seen by the driver by looking in any of the mirrors the car is equipped with. It is a high-risk area around the car where accidents can more easily occur. Make a habit of identifying and avoiding cars’ blind spots. A simple guideline to be kept in mind while driving is, “if you can’t see their mirrors, they can’t see you.”

Staying focused and aware

This is extremely important to keep in mind in our technological age. When you drive, you must be alert and focused at all times. You cannot take your attention away from the road – not even for a second! Why? Because there are just too many hazards that can appear without warning, and if you are distracted you won’t be able to react in time. THERE SHOULD BE ABSOLUTELY NO TEXTING OR PHONE CALLS WHILE DRIVING (it’s illegal in Nevada, even if you use your phone when stopped at a red light).

It’s a good idea to limit conversations with passengers to those that are necessary to get you to your destination. Other distractions are out of bounds, too, especially for an inexperienced driver: there should be no loud music, rowdy behavior, eating, or putting on makeup. In other words, there should be nothing to take your full attention away from driving.

Performing well as a driver

One more thing you should check each time before you drive is you. Your attitude has a direct influence on how well you drive. If you are tired, angry, upset or unable to focus, you can cause a serious accident. Once you start driving regularly, you will certainly see other drivers who are letting their attitudes or emotions compromise top safety. Don’t let that be you: do not allow yourself to drive when you are not in a physical or emotional state to do so safely. Here are some times when you should avoid taking the wheel:


Lack of sleep can have deadly consequences for driving. It’s more than falling asleep at the wheel: lack of sleep impacts reaction time. If you have been studying or working long hours or not getting enough sleep, fatigue can affect how well you can focus and react while driving. Fatigued drivers are dangerous drivers; do not drive if you have not gotten enough sleep.


Remember when we said how important a calm attitude and demeanor is to safe driving? We weren’t kidding. Don’t drive angry – take a walk or call a friend to help you vent and calm down before you get in the car. When a person is angry, they are more likely to drive too fast or to drive aggressively. Road rage is a big threat on the road, mostly because it increases the risk of serious accidents. Again, if you are angry, stop driving until you have calmed down.


This doesn’t mean things like texting, though you know that is illegal while driving in Nevada. It’s simpler than that: A driver who is preoccupied with thoughts or conversations is not giving his or her full attention on the road. If you are having trouble concentrating on driving, then you should try to clear your head before going anywhere.

Driver error

Mistakes by drivers is the cause of most road accidents. Even experienced drivers can make mistakes, though poor skills, lack of training, poor scanning habits or poor judgment doesn’t help. As we’ve said, you should make sure you feel physically and emotionally well each time you drive to help avoid errors. And get as much supervised driving practice as you can – that helps.

Disregarding the law

Sadly, some drivers simply do not obey the law, and they put everyone else at risk because of it. Whether they are unaware of the law or are deliberately breaking it isn’t necessarily the point. Either way, be on the lookout for drivers like this and stay well away from them if you can. We’ve already covered the reasons why safe and responsible drivers develop a healthy respect for law and understand its purpose.

Hogging the road

You’ve probably seen drivers who act as if the road was their personal property (some bumper stickers even capitalize on this). These drivers seem to feel entitled to do whatever they like while driving. They may refuse to yield, they may tailgate and bully other drivers, they may block access to lanes or turns, or otherwise drive aggressively. The best thing for you to do is leave them be, avoid driving anywhere near them, and certainly avoid behaving like them. Don’t let your ego get in the way of your safety!

Impaired driving

Do not get behind the wheel if you have taken any substances that can impair your driving. And remember alcohol and illegal drugs are not the only way a driver can be impaired. Some prescriptions and over-the-counter medications can also affect your driving by causing sleepiness or problems concentrating. You should never drive when you are affected by medications or alcohol.

Faulty automotive equipment

Sometimes it’s the driver that’s at fault and sometimes it’s the car. But as we’ve said, even when it’s the car it may still be the fault of the driver. Vehicle maintenance is an important safety issue. You need to be aware of any potential safety issues and get them repaired before they lead to an accident.

The crash data back this up: one of the most common maintenance problems that can lead to a crash is improper tire pressure. If tire pressure is uneven, too high or too low the performance of the car may suffer and even lead to a blowout. Make sure you check your tire pressure often and adjust it if needed. Your owner’s manual will explain how to do this, and many tire shops will check and adjust tire pressure for free, especially if you bought your tires there.

Another key area that you must keep an eye on is the brakes. Be very aware when something doesn’t feel normal when you apply pressure to the brakes. For example, if you notice softness in the brake pedal, or feel a vibration when the brakes are applied, you need to get them checked by a professional mechanic right away. Watch your speed on hills and curves so you don’t unnecessarily wear down your brakes. Start braking early instead of waiting until you have little room to stop. Take care of your brakes and they will take care of you.

Always be aware of the functionality of your lights. Bad lighting is a serious safety issue, especially at night or in bad weather when visibility is poor and you need to be able to see the hazards in the road. Besides, your headlights, taillights and brake lights must be in working order or you can get a ticket! While you can use legally use hand signals in the case of (temporary, waiting to be fixed) faulty turn signals, you still have an increased risk of accidents if your lights are not in working order. Brake lights especially are what other drivers rely on to know that you are slowing down or stopping.

You might not spend a lot of time thinking about your steering and suspension systems, but problems in these areas can cause you to lose control of your car without warning. Be alert: if you notice any vibration in the wheel when driving straight, if you notice the car pulling to one side or the other, or if you hear a whining or clicking noises while you are turning, you should have a mechanic look at your car as soon as possible.

Passenger safety

As we’ve said before, as a safe and responsible driver it is your duty is to keep yourself and your passengers safe. This is important: if your passengers are caught violating road safety laws, you can be held accountable. Remind your passengers of this the next time someone doesn’t want to wear a seat belt, for example. Do not drive until you are certain that you have met all of your responsibilities to your passengers. These include:

  • Ensuring that children are using an approved child restraint (car seat)
  • Ensuring that all passengers are using seat belts – no exceptions!
  • Ensuring that you do not drive while impaired, tired or distracted
  • Ensuring that your driving behavior ensures the safety of your passengers (no eating while driving, no road rage, etc.)
  • Obeying the law and the rules of the road, including all restrictions on your license

Commentary Driving

Commentary driving is a proven driving technique that has been shown to improve safety and to help avoid accidents. It works by having the driver verbalize (speak out loud) what they observe when they are behind the wheel and to verbalize how they intend to react to those observations (before they act). Commentary driving requires the driver to use their defensive driving skills and their knowledge of traffic laws.

Commentary driving is most effective when driving with a parent or other licensed adult so that you can be corrected when necessary. However, commentary driving can also be helpful when you first start driving alone, so that your attention is more focused and so that you can better put what you have learned into practice so that it all makes sense.

Here are a couple of examples of what commentary driving might sound like:

“I am approaching a four way stop. Need to slow to a stop before crosswalk. Pedestrian is on my right—possibly going to cross in front of me. Car is approaching from the right—he will have right of way if we stop at same time. I will still have to wait for pedestrian to cross.”

Another example:

“My speed is 43 mph and the speed limit is 45 mph. I have a following distance of three to four seconds from the car in front of me. The traffic light ahead has been green for some time—will probably change soon, so I will prepare to slow or stop if needed. A car on the right of me is signaling to move into my lane in front of me. I will slow down slightly to allow them to enter my lane…”

Please take the next two minutes to watch this short video on commentary driving:

As you can see, commentary driving is all about you “reading” the traffic around you, out loud, and keeping a running commentary as you drive.

There are several benefits of commentary driving:
  • It helps you become more aware of the problems and common situations that occur regularly when driving
  • You have a better grasp as to just how many things are going on around you when you drive
  • It reinforces the things you have learned during your driver education
  • It gets you actively engaged and involved in the driving process
  • It improves your safety and helps you to avoid traffic collisions

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