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3 Defensive driving tips to keep your drivers safe

October 18, 2016

Driver training can be very detailed and complex. Andy Peterson lays out how companies can help improve fleet safety.

Andy Peterson

Commercial Auto Segment Director, Risk Engineering

As the Commercial Auto Segment Director for Risk Engineering at Zurich in North America, Andy... About this expert

Truck safety guy

It would be nice to believe that every driver understands the importance and best practices of defensive driving, but that’s certainly not the case. Driving is a learned skill and behavior just like many other skills you might learn. I remember when I first purchased a charcoal grill and was ready to embark upon culinary excellence. First, I burned the hamburgers, then undercooked the steaks and let’s not even talk about the Thanksgiving turkey! One friend said, “It’s all about the feel of the meat,” and another advised, “Look for the grill marks.” It wasn’t until a true friend bought me a food thermometer and took the time to impress upon me the importance of internal cooking temperature that I really could consistently grill any food to an edible state, let alone perfection.  

How does a grilled hot dog relate to defensive driving?

While driver training can be very detailed and complex, even a basic level of training and consistent messaging can be powerful in changing driving behaviors for the better. Consider talking with employees about these topics:

1) Look where you are going

Drivers rarely hit what they see early enough to avoid. Seeing where the vehicle will be in 10-15 seconds can help drivers to avoid developing issues such as stopped traffic, objects in the roadway and other hazards. Using a cell phone while you are driving may result in significant distraction from the driving task.

2) Work to maintain enough following distance

Following distance is key. While drivers may understand that following the vehicle ahead of them too closely may make it more difficult to stop in time, many may not be able to gauge what proper following distance looks like. Zurich suggests a minimum of four seconds following distance for smaller vehicles (such as cars and light pickups) and six seconds for heavy vehicles. This guidance is similar to that provided by a number of  organizations, including the Department of Motor Vehicles in Vermont and the Professional Truck Driver Institute. However, there are many reasons why more space may be required under some circumstances, including:

  • Road and weather conditions
  • Length or weight of vehicle
  • Speeds traveled
  • Visibility
  • Driver-related issues

Companies that don’t talk with employees about following distance may be surprised to discover the employee’s opinions after a crash. Another important reason to maintain appropriate following distance is that it can give the driver the time to scan well ahead and all around their vehicle, rather than needing to focus on the brake lights of the vehicle directly in front of them.

Sometimes other drivers will move into the safe following space, but when this happens, drivers face a simple choice: make an adjustment and work to regain the space or remain too close and put themselves at the mercy of other drivers.

3) Know what’s going on around you

A 360-degree awareness of what is around the vehicle can keep the driver informed about vehicles approaching from the rear and those to the sides. This provides particularly important information when a driver needs to change lanes or swerve in an emergency situation. Learning to consistently use mirrors and glances to check around the vehicle and fill in the missing picture is an important component of defensive driving.

Taking some basic steps to plan consistent messages and working with employees to improve driving behaviors can help reduce vehicle crashes, which is good for everyone on the road. Considering that vehicle crashes are the number one cause of on-the-job fatalities, keeping our workers safe on the road also means they are more likely to get home to their friends and families at the end of the work day.

The Network of Employers for Traffic Safety designated October 3-7 as Drive Safely Work Week. Employers can obtain information and resource materials from the NETS website.

Like any learned skill and behavior, periodic education and direction can reinforce best practices and add new ones.