Safe Driving in No Accident

Road Risk v. Defensive Driving

Defensive driving is an extension of ‘Advanced’ driving principles. As well as being in full control of the vehicle at all times, and taking best advantage of the road and traffic situation which exists at the time, the defensive driver makes allowances for all the actions of other road users, and avoids any confrontation.

All accidents begin with vulnerabilities. If drivers allow themselves to be vulnerable to others, they may face a confrontation with another road user or potential incident. If the confrontation is left unresolved, it becomes a crisis. A crisis often leads onto a crunch - or an accident situation. If vulnerabilities are avoided, confrontations, crises and crunches are all impossible.

Defensive driving - the avoidance of vulnerability - is based on effective and efficient observation, on good anticipation, and total control of your vehicle.
Defensive driving means looking for other people’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and keeping well clear from them. More than anything else defensive driving means never being taken by surprise - or found unable to take the correct avoiding action in good time. Give way under provocation - and never react badly to others’ aggression.


Road Rage (Red Mist?) comes in many forms

and not all is caused by

hulky truck drivers !


Defensive driving involves :

Anticipation, awareness, care, consideration, control, planning and responsibility.

Hazard procedures are not only required for junctions and zebra crossings. Anything which may cause you to change speed or direction must be regarded as a potential hazard.

Always put your hazard procedure sequences into practice early:
Full observation - information in and out - must take place all the time
Get into the correct position in good time for every change of direction, use your brakes and accelerator smoothly and safely for every change of speed.
Use your brakes once, and then a single block gear change for each hazard.
Develop your visual search skills, and use them to assist your decision making skills. These skills are even more important than vehicle control skills
Competence at driving leads on to proficiency; proficiency leads to expertise and expertise needs positive safe attitudes.

Treat all other road users as courteously as possible, but remember they may be in a daydream, late for appointments, aggressive, or looking for an accident. Avoid getting involved in their problems.

Always drive in the knowledge that you have the best possible safety cushion around you.


phone at wheel

There are many ways to avoid becoming a statistic - but they

all rely on looking, seeing, observing and perceiving danger

and taking appropriate action soon enough. (and not being on the phone !)


DRIVER BEHAVIOUR as the essential cause of most Road Traffic Crashes 

Very few really bad drivers kill other people; most serious crashes are caused by normally good safe drivers having a bad moment, such as being distracted;  or by two or more drivers each taking an apparently minor risk at the same time.  (Dangerous, or consistently bad, drivers most usually kill themselves in solitary single-vehicle crashes).

However, when road traffic crashes are analysed, all too often it is easy to lose sight of the genuine cause, because of the obvious effects.  It is not enough to examine the apparent causes of road crashes; it is essential to identify the underlying reasons that make people behave in an irrational moment of stupidity. 

For example: What is the essential cause of a standard nose-to-tail collision? 

Is it…

Following too fast? 
Following too closely?          or
Not concentrating on potential traffic changes ahead?

The answer doesn’t matter, because the questions are wrong.

The significant question that should be asked, is ‘why do all drivers drive so closely when following other traffic?’.
Do they assume they can always stop in time? 
Do they not think about the risk at all? 
Do they realise the risk but still not care? 
(This is the critical factor used by the police in evidence for ‘reckless driving’ charges!).

Or could it be that they are keeping the gap closed up to prevent others overtaking and then cutting in? 
(This could be considered crucial evidence in a ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ case!)  A vehicle must be the most lethal murder weapon ever.

  • In 97.5% of all car crashes faulty driver behaviour or road users’ actions are a significant cause.  
  • In 88.5% of car crashes drivers’ actions are the sole cause.


The three main driving behaviour characteristics most likely to cause road traffic crashes are:

1.    Following too closely; causing nose to tail shunts;

2.    Turning right unsafely, and hitting oncoming or emerging traffic;

3.    Overtaking unsafely – and, of course, this is the real killer.

This is how each of these potential death risks can readily be avoided:

1.   Never allow yourself to be fourth (or more) in any traffic queue: always drop back 5 seconds from the traffic ahead of you.  Naturally you need to think in time rather than distance;

2.    Confirm your safe arrival point before commencing any right turn; if you cannot begin wait where you can do so safely.
3.    Appreciate the distances covered in any overtaking situation and confirm that the time needed to complete the action is safely available:  holding back whilst waiting for a clear road ahead is essential.  It takes at least half a mile (or half a minute!) to overtake another vehicle doing 55 mph on a single carriageway. Ask yourself can you really guarantee the road ahead is clear for thirty seconds?  Also ask yourself what do you do if the overtaken driver increases speed!

The following factors are pertinent to ‘Crash Risk Assessment’ and to all associated driver training programmes: 

  • All drivers’ personal risk potential must be identified, defined, discussed and agreed.
  • All specific wrong or hazy attitudes of the drivers need to be changed, or corrected, where necessary and possible.
  • The role of the advanced driver trainer is to instil safer driving attitudes by use of highly skilful mentoring and coaching skills.  This is not done by ‘showing off their own abilities or skills!’.


Proper safe driving assessments and good driver training programmes are based around a formula of coaching and mentoring, and are aimed at:

  • developing drivers’ natural skills
  • recognising and minimising drivers’ personal risk; and
  • re-appraising drivers’ behaviour towards other road users.

It is worth noting that the word ‘speed’ as a cause of vehicle crashes has not been mentioned at all.   A lot of rubbish is talked about with regard to speed as a cause of road crashes.   The term speed is not a cause of anything. However, inappropriate speed – in any circumstances is dangerous and can easily result in death and injury.   A driver exceeding the speed limit is only a significant factor in less than 5.9% of all road deaths.   Yet ‘inappropriate speed’ is a factor in more than 74% percent.  

There is a degree of logic in this that often escapes the thoughts of those who latch on to the simplistic message that speed kills.   Inappropriate speed may be as low as ten mph in a busy shopping area.  Eighty miles an hour on a motorway in lane three may often be the ONLY appropriate speed for that lane; because this is the speed at which all other vehicles are driving.  Not only would it be inappropriate, but it could be considered reckless to try to drive at fifty mph in this outer, overtaking, lane.

This is not to condone breaking speed limits, but that particular example, quoted above, was initiated twenty years ago by Sussex Chief Constable, Roger Birch, when he was Chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), who stated that motorists would not be prosecuted on motorways for driving safely at speeds up to 80 mph: this allowed for the 10% speedometer reading error at 70 mph plus a slight margin. In recent years this principle has completely changed with arguments for ‘zero tolerance’ (although there must always be a 10% error at 30mph allowed for in vehicle speedometers) and where digital cameras are replacing the bobby in the BMW.   Certainly speed limits are much more rigorously enforced these days.

Nowadays all company drivers need to learn to moderate their driving to suit these new heavily enforced safety standards.   However this action will still not necessarily reduce crashes and may even increase the number of ‘nose-to-tail’ shunts.  There is a general agreement that rigidly enforced speed limits increase the nose-to-tail risk by bunching motorists together. This can be seen on any open road where a police vehicle is driving at the head of the traffic queue; semi-comatose drivers can often be seen overtaking in lane three only to brake without mirror use to the consternation of the next following sleepyhead.

Nevertheless speed cameras and the increased risk of losing a driving licence must have an immediate effect on the way all drivers behave on the roads. This of course is part of a professional approach to assessment and training of company drivers.  Drivers must always drive within the speed limits, but they must also drive at an appropriate speed for the road, traffic and weather conditions at all times. 

Properly prepared advanced driver training programmes are designed to gain the active cooperation of each delegate driver to condition short-term behavioural changes towards risk-taking in their own driving.  Long-term changes need the support of the company’s ‘Risk Management Team’ as well.   Each successful course must necessarily be written around each individual company’s own requirements Individual drivers may even need a personal programme devised just for them.
Generally speaking, drivers need to learn three basic principles of risk-free driving.

  • They need to look much further ahead than they previously have.
  • They need to think, proactively, about what they will be doing in five, ten or even thirty seconds’ time.
  • They need to decelerate sooner to give themselves more time to cope.


These three statements are so simple that you could assume that there is no need to say them.  You are wrong.  There are two million severe crash reasons every year; plus a further ten million unnecessary and easily avoidable incidents, that hit and hurt every company’s profits to a most swingeing tune.

Successive Ministers for Roads have initiated ten-year targets to reduce road deaths by one third before the year 2010.  This may possibly happen, but most of the country’s efforts so far have been aimed at vehicle and road design.  The real target has to be individual driver’s own behaviour

We know that safety improvements are constantly being added to make vehicles safer.  Seat belts, Air bags, ABS, SIPS, passenger friendly bits and pieces that make less impact on those inside and out when they meet potentially violent ends.  We know too, that road humps and pedestrian-friendly streets may cause many drivers to slow down, but they also create stress, annoyance and even anger in some drivers.  

Safer cars kill fewer people; but some of those who might have died suffer severe injuries instead.  The annual car-crash rate has stayed the same for many years; it is just that crashes that kill, now only seriously injure.

Statistically, company and fleet drivers stand a one in three chance of being involved in some form of road traffic incident every year.  The likelihood is even greater for those who cover more than 12,000 miles per year.  Some reasons are more difficult to identify and eradicate.  A few are peculiar to the role that the driver plays in the company; others are dependent upon their personalities and individual characteristics.

There is a simple reason for most of this.  Average drivers often believe themselves to be invincible.  It is like buying tickets in the national lottery, ‘someone else always gets the big prize’.  Unlike the lottery there are easy ways in which everyone can increase their chances of winning in the road safety stakes.  There are obvious warning signs to keep drivers safe no matter what else happens.

The most likely psychological reason is that these road users ignore the statistics and drive on auto-pilot without any consideration of risk, because their own thoughts are on other matters at the time?  This is certainly the problem with most drivers!  It may be impossible to concentrate solely on the road ahead for hours on end, but it is still quite possible to plan your driving and channel your concentration into basic safety procedures.

Have you ever put your head out of a moving railway carriage window?  The feeling of the fresh air can be exhilarating; until you realise the risk.

What happens when another train is passing in the other direction?
What happens if some other idiot puts his head through one of the other train’s window at the same time?  

If you are very tall would you pray that your proponent was very, very short?   The real question you should ask though is ‘why take the risk in the first place?’

Yet most motorists do the equivalent of ‘sticking their head out of the carriage window’ hundreds of times on every journey they take. 

It is a cogent thought that if a rail passenger put his head out of a carriage window on every journey, he wouldn’t remain a rail passenger for long.  By the same token very bad drivers don’t last long either. Examination of driving crash statistics often show that most are caused by occasional incidents of bad driving, rather than by consistently bad drivers.   But risk patterns on the roads often go unnoticed.  It is only when two or more drivers make mistakes of speed or positioning at the same time and place that they are noticed.  Similarly to stick your head out of any moving train window is risky at any time.  However, the very first time may easily kill you, because of other circumstances beyond your control.  What could your relatives say to the relatives of the other idiot who stuck his head out of the other train at the same time as you did?

In truth most drivers ignore risk because they do not want to think about it.  More importantly, most road users refuse to think about their own personal risk in relation to its probability.  Yet it is easy to see that some risks are much greater than others.  Rail users tend not to put their heads out of windows because of the buffeting and noise.  That is why railway ‘head-crashes’ are relatively rare.  But similar stupid errors when driving are not always accompanied by excessive noise and wind.

It is not the dangerous drivers who are the cause of most of the 4500 deaths on the road each year which are directly attributable to driver error.  It is the average drivers who just happen to make one of their habitual minor mistakes in driving at the same time as someone else doing the same.   If I cut a corner it will probably be safe – provided no one else decides to approach that corner from the opposite direction too fast.   Whose fault will it be then?  Not mine, surely because I often do it and have always got away with it before.

Driver assessment and improvement training courses make drivers more aware by involving them in the whole of what they are doing.  Drivers are then able to learn to desire to drive pro-actively rather than re-actively.

  •  Annually more than 500,000 crashes cause death or injury to road users
  •  About one quarter of them involve company vehicles and drivers
  •  Company drivers are at risk more than most other groups of drivers
  •  Company drivers have a 67% chance of a crash every year.
  •  A further 1,500,000 crashes cause severe vehicle damage only
  • 12 million incidents are reported annually (from a total of 35 million drivers)
  •  Road traffic crashes killed 3,150 in 2005; 
  •  About 39, 000 road users were seriously injured – for life;
  •  Over 290,000 suffered recoverable injuries;
  •  More 15-38 old people die from road crashes than from any other cause;
  • Each road death costs the country’s GNP over one million pounds;
  • Serious injuries must cost even more in terms of long-term care.
  • Crash avoidance courses cost relatively very little; but only if they work.


2,300 words                         December 2006
Peter Russell
Professor of Road Safety Education







Remember These tick boxes

Planning needs full observation and application 
Effective observation means more than just looking 
Note the speed, position, and possible intentions of all others 

Practise your running commentary skills to improve observation 
Observational skills enable you to make proper judgement of others 
Be fully aware of any potential danger that is around you 

Make early eye contact with all around you 
Be aware of vulnerable road users - the old, young and infirm 
Allow pedestrians ample time to cross the road 

Approach crossings as if you were crossing the pavement 
Reduce speed when children may be around 
Avoid following too closely - never be fourth or more in a queue 

Turn right safely even if it looks clear- still follow the correct path 
Overtake with care - and guarantee you can get past 
Looking leads to assessment, before any decision is made 

Effective looking means covering all zones of observation 
Build, maintain and safeguard your safety cushion 
Acceleration followed by braking shows poor planning 

Finally: Watch all other road users as they give you danger warnings 