There’s a well-known saying in sports: “the best offence is a good defense,” but it applies to the trucking world as well. Defensive driving, defined by the Canadian Safety Council as “driving to prevent collisions, in spite of the incorrect actions of others and adverse conditions,” is one of the best ways to stay safe on the road.
Just as commercial vehicle drivers have to learn the rules of the road, it’s crucial they also learn defensive driving skills and techniques, and continually hone their safe-driving practices.
What should defensive drivers look out for?
“While you can’t control the actions of other drivers or the conditions on the road, defensive driver training can help you learn how to identify potential hazards and respond safely and appropriately,” says Kevin Dutchak, Team Lead, Commercial Auto, at Sovereign Insurance. These hazards include: careless, aggressive, or illegal actions by other drivers; poor visibility and road conditions due to adverse weather conditions; and pedestrians, bicyclists and animals that may be in harm’s way.
To illustrate the need to do more than just obey the rules, Kevin gives the example of a tractor-trailer driver who approaches a green light. He notices that a vehicle in the opposing lane has the left turn signal on, the wheels are turned, and he’s creeping forward. Knowing he has the right of way, the tractor-trailer driver proceeds through the intersection while the other driver makes the left turn and a collision results.
“Who is liable for that collision? The answer is clear: the car turning left,” says Kevin. “But my question to commercial vehicle drivers is: was that accident preventable by both parties?”
If the tractor-trailer driver did recognize a threat, he likely could have prevented that accident. Importantly, Kevin says, drivers should look at potential hazards not from the point of view of who is liable, but from the need to prevent an accident regardless of who might be at fault.
What are the benefits of defensive driver training?
While preventing accidents to keep people safe is the most compelling benefit of defensive driver training, there are several other benefits. These can include: safeguarding the fleet company’s reputation through safe-driving behaviours; reduced violations and fines; reduced equipment losses; as well as fewer maintenance issues, as defensive driving techniques typically result in less wear and tear on engines, brakes and tires. In addition, defensive drivers can reduce stress on themselves, as they’re better managing their driving environment and reducing the risk of collision.
Regular training also provides drivers the opportunity to refresh their knowledge and skills. “Even for experienced drivers, there’s always room for improvement,” says Kevin. “Defensive driver training can identify complacencies that drivers have fallen into, such as not using turn signals or backing up without looking.”
See: Get Out and Look: GOAL in action!
What are some key defensive driving skills and techniques?
According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, defensive driving is based on three ideas: visibility, space, and communication. 1
The basic principles include the following (among others):
- Always be aware of traffic in front, behind and beside you.
- Keep your eyes constantly moving, scanning the road ahead and checking your mirrors every five seconds or so.
- Manage the space around your vehicle to let you see and be seen, and to give you time and space to avoid a collision.
- Leave a cushion of space ahead, behind and to both sides.
- Communicate with other road users to make sure they see you and know what you are doing.
- Make eye contact with pedestrians, cyclists and drivers at intersections and signal whenever you want to slow down, stop, turn, or change lanes.
For fleet owners and operators, one best practice is to have drivers participate in an annual review of defensive driving practices. This would ideally take place in the fall or spring when road and weather conditions are about to change.
See: How to build, roll-out, and enforce a fleet driver training program
“There are additional risks with winter driving, so I recommend a review before the frost, ice, and snow arrives,” says Kevin. “Summer also presents additional risks, particularly with schools out and more children outside, an influx of tourists who are often unfamiliar with local road conditions and traffic flows, as well as road conditions that can deteriorate in dry, hot weather.”
See: Winter driving tips
As there truly is no downside to defensive driving, fleet owners and operators should consider providing regular training for drivers at all levels of experience. Those who do will help keep their drivers and others safe on the road and help keep their fleet running smoothly.
1 Ontario.ca, “The Official Ministry of Transportation Driver’s Handbook: Safe and Responsible Driving.”