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Defensive Driving Tips for the Texting Era

The other day, I was driving along a semi-busy road when I noticed that the driver of an oncoming SUV was clearly texting away on her cell phone. I instinctively hovered my right foot over the brake and did the same with my right hand over the horn, ready to swerve and honk if needed.

And right out of the pessimistic corner of my imagination, the texter made a sudden, sharp turn in front of me to enter the parking lot of a Holiday Inn on my right. She started her sudden turn so close to us that braking our car wasn't going to prevent a collision. My instincts had me swerve right, honk, and holler at the same time, and these actions in concert with her snapping to attention and slamming on her brakes saved all of us by inches.

I was pretty shaken up afterward, not only because of the narrow escape, but because Margaret and our boys were with me. Who knows how badly one or all of us could have been injured with a collision? The initial impact itself probably wouldn't have caused serious damage, but we'll never know if there would have been subsequent collisions from surrounding vehicles.

A bit later after the shakes wore off, I gave loud thanks for one of the best investments my parents ever made in my future: a comprehensive course in defensive driving, given by Young Drivers of Canada.

Twenty plus years later, I continue to drive with many of the defensive habits that Young Drivers drilled into my melon. And these defensive driving habits have become more precious by the day, with seemingly so many folks out there who think that they can drive safely while texting, gaming, applying makeup, and doing Lord knows what else while their attention should be on the road.

For anyone who hasn't had the opportunity to take a defensive driving course like the one I did with Young Drivers of Canada, here are the safe driving tips that I best remember and still use from my course:

  • Whenever you see a potential problem, hover your foot over the brake and one of your hands over the horn. Your other hand on the steering wheel should be ready to turn your vehicle.

  • As a matter of habit, whenever you apply pressure on your brakes, take a look in your rear view mirror to make sure that anyone who's behind you is aware that you are slowing down or stopping.

  • When you come to a stop at a light or stop sign, give yourself at least the space of one car length in front, then glance at your rear view mirror until you get going again. If someone comes up behind you not paying attention, that space in front of you should allow you to get out the way. Ideally, you want to honk before having to turn, but it's always nice to have the option of controlling your own destiny by getting out of the way.

  • While you're driving, glance at your rear view mirror every five to eight seconds. Just a quick glance will keep you in touch with who might be around you and possibly approaching your blind spots. You want to be like Jason Bourne, always aware of your surroundings and anyone or any vehicles that might become problematic.

  • Before switching lanes, always turn your neck and look back to the side that you're switching to to make sure that no one is in your blind spot. Side mirrors can cover your blind spots if they are positioned perfectly, but it never hurts to take a quick look back. This is one important reason for keeping your neck muscles, ligaments, and joints healthy with the following simple stretches, done daily:

    Simple Exercises to Promote Healthy Neck Muscles and Ligaments

  • Whenever you're driving on a road where there are cars parked along your right side, keep one of your hands over the horn and be alert for people who are sitting in those cars and might suddenly open their doors.

I'm sure that I'm missing a few priceless defensive driving tips from my Young Driver's course, but I hope the ones mentioned above help prevent bad things from happening. Please consider sharing these tips with loved ones, especially those among your family and friends who are just getting started with their driving careers.

And if you need a little help convincing a loved one to refrain from unnecessary distractions like texting while driving, you might recommend a viewing of Seven Pounds starring Will Smith. This film got trashed pretty badly by the critics, but I happened to love it. Bawled like I haven't bawled in a long, long time.

If you have any defensive driving tips to share with our community, please use one of the comments modules below. Safe and happy driving.


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Thank you for the fabulous post. I have friends that would never think of driving while drunk, and yet think nothing of texting while driving - just as dangerous, as shown by the research.

Really appreciate your tips here. One thing I would add applies to folks in cities where there are many bicyclists - please, please keep an eye on your right mirror before making a right turn. This is the most dangerous situation for bicyclists; it's not a natural check for drivers to do since there would never be a car in that position, but we've had some bad accidents in my city (including several fatalities) where cars have made right turns and hit cyclists who were passing on the right (generally in a bike lane, and the cyclist legally had the right of way).

Safe driving!

Here in Australia, texting or using a cell/mobile phone is illegal, and I believe it should be made so in the USA. Whenever I see someone doing it, I manouevre my car safely out of their way, just to be on the safe side.

My father was a high school driver's education instructor for over 20 years. So I grew up having safe driving on my mind long before I turned 16. One of my favorite quotes from dear ol' Dad: "Just drive your own vehicle."

What he means by this is, never try to manipulate another driver and never let them manipulate you. A common manipulation is to try to get another driver to speed up by tailgating them (driving too closely behind them). Likewise never speed up or spitefully slow down just because someone is tailgating your car.

Drive your own car at your own speed. Always.

I live in Michigan where we get lots of ice and even slippery areas due to accumulation of oil on the roads in the summer.

Children are not taught not to tailgate. It makes me SO nervous! I've had a SCHOOL BUS full of students tailgate me on a slippery expressway in the winter. PLEASE stop - it makes me so nervous!

When I took driver's training, we were taught to have one car length between yourself and the next car for every 10 miles per hour you were traveling. Then, I will feel safe and you'll be safe and not involve me or anyone else in an accident.

I have not had the benefit of the driving course mentioned in this article. However, after having had a bad accident several years ago (not my fault), instinct seemed to take over. I have since followed all these tips when driving. I also do an additional thing that might be helpful to others. I've noticed a lot of people go flying up to a stop sign/light, then slam on their brake at the last second. So....when I'm coming to a stop with traffic behind me, I slow way down far in advance. That way, if someone behind is in a hurry, they have to slow down too; and if they do hit me, at least they won't hit me going so fast!

I came close to having a messy accident years ago and it changed the way I drive forever. I was on a 2-lane highway out in the country and approached some slow-moving farm equipment. I had a clear view that no one was approaching in the opposite lane and decided to pass. Just as I was about to pull over into the passing lane, a police car whizzed past me traveling well over 80 mph. He did not have his siren on but his lights were flashing. It was a bright day so I didn't see them. But I should have! I simply wasn't fully aware of my surroundings.

I used to think I had to look ahead --not behind-- when passing on a 2-lane; looking behind over my left shoulder was just for 4-lane highway driving. Now I realize I must ALWAYS look behind me. ~MOLLY

Nice article. I actually get quite anxious when I see people texting or trying to dial their cellphone in the car while driving. It really should be illegal. I just wanted to make a comment on your defensive habits. They are all good tips, but it is not a good idea to hover your hand over your horn if you are about to have a collision. All cars today have that airbag and if your hand happens to still be there honking the horn when you collide, it will most likely do some serious damage to your hand and/or arm. I think it is best to keep both hands on the wheel so that you can most effectively control your own vehicle if need be.

I remembered these small sentences and phrases from my stern driver's ed instructor, 40 years ago:

Get the big picture (don't look at the end of your front car hood, but look out widely)

Keep your eyes moving (similar to the first one.... helps you "get the big picture")

Always make sure they see you (if the other driver is about to pull out and their head is turned the other way, be wary!-- keep your foot near the brake and hand near the horn, as Dr. Kim says)

Leave yourself an "out" (ready to dart into a space free of cars)

There were a few more, but alas, I've forgotten them at this point in time

Dr Ben,
i am so glad you are safe, i became a fan of yours when i read the article on bad cholestrol, and since then i have been enjoying each of your letters, esp on the vitamins, my wife used to pop those vitamin tables too often , i told her they wont replace your apples(natural ones) and made her read your article.. anyways back to the driving.. some tips that i would like to share..

1) Dont text and Dont make/recieve that call, ITs NOT WORTH YOUR LIFE.(or for more drama, you dont want to limp your rest of the life thinking that was a stupid call to take and such is the price that i have to pay, ) i have intentionally dramatized this coz it will make an impression and your brain will be wary of taking/making calls and texting.

2) Drive while keeping 3 cars distance, and stop with 1 car(as Ben suggested )

3) Switching Lanes, CRANE YOUR NECK TO CHECK BLINDSPOT - PERIOD, no ifs no buts no nothing. Do this activity for 1 month, and see how pleasantly you will surprised by that quite car which is right there when you decided to switch lanes, there is no way to beat the blindspot then to CRANE YOUR NECK.

4) Let your indicator run for 5 seconds before you switch lane.

Great tips, I will start using them straight away. In the UK it is illegal to text while driving. However some people still do it.
As a warning to everyone how dangerous it is, there was a young woman who was texting while driving here a couple of weeks ago. She crashed and her legs were trapped and crushed, then a fire started. She has survived but she lost one of her legs and is badly burnt.
When I drive I try to guess what other cars and lorries are going to do ahead of me. For instance, if a lorry is near their home base you know in advance where that lorry is going to turn. On roundabouts look at the front wheels of other cars, you can see which exit a car is going to take, even if they don't indicate.