Defensive Driving Overview

Defensive Driving Techniques for Truck Drivers and Fleets

Learn the basics of defensive truck driving, truck driver safety, and training to improve driver performance

Approximate read time: 7 minutes

What is defensive driving?

The National Safety Council and the American Society of Safety Engineers define defensive driving as "driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others." Programs that address defensive driving for commercial drivers are considered among the most effective ways companies can reduce costs and risks associated with operating fleets.

Defensive driving training typically goes beyond basic skills and focuses on advanced driving techniques that can be used to anticipate and mitigate potentially risky scenarios. Many organizations use defensive driving to significantly increase the benefits of fleet management efforts and improve overall truck driver safety.

Defensive driving techniques and tips for professional drivers

Defensive driving revolves around anticipating and being prepared for what other drivers might do and how changing road conditions would affect the way vehicles operate. Most defensive driving techniques are based on two core principles:

  1. Creating a buffer
  2. Increasing driver awareness



Although training approaches around these two principles vary, most truck driver safety programs include these fundamental defensive driving techniques:

1. Look farther ahead

Professional driving coaches recommend drivers look at least 12 to 15 seconds ahead to scan for potential hazards and anticipate where threats may occur. “If you get into the habit of scanning farther ahead than you normally would, you give yourself more time to see, think, and act,” said Del Lisk, vice president of safety services at Lytx®. “This is especially critical for drivers of large commercial vehicles or heavy equipment that can’t react as quickly as smaller, more nimble passenger vehicles. The sooner you see something, the more time you have to make a good decision.”

2. Maintain a good following distance

Building and maintaining a safe following distance is one of the cornerstones of safe driving. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends drivers maintain at least four seconds of distance for commercial trucks traveling up to 40 mph to drive defensively. For every additional 10 mph of speed, the DOT recommends adding one second. A truck going 60 mph, for example, should keep a six-second buffer under DOT recommendations. 

3. Leave yourself an out

Creating a physical buffer between yourself and the vehicle in front is one example of leaving yourself an out. Another is to build space to either the right or the left of your vehicle. In the event something unexpected happens, a defensive driver tries to maintain at least one option to maneuver out of harm’s way, either to the side of the road or to an empty lane away from the hazard.

4. Scan intersections before entering

Picture yourself waiting at a red light at an intersection. What do you do when the light turns green? For most drivers, the green light is their cue to accelerate. “Traffic lights tend to draw our attention, so we fixate on the light rather than the intersection,” Lisk said.

Defensive drivers, however, are trained to scan their surroundings right after the light turns green and just before entering the intersection, watching out for distracted pedestrians and cars that might run a red light or fail to stop in time. “Ask yourself if you’ve ever inadvertently run a red light,” Lisk said. “It happens to everyone. When collisions occur at intersections, they tend to be higher severity incidences.”

5. Go the appropriate speed, not the posted speed

Drivers are often tempted to set their speed at the speed limit, plus 5 mph. Defensive drivers, however, adjust their speed according to their specific conditions. Road conditions, weather, visibility, traffic patterns, and whether their vehicle is carrying a full load or is empty all factor into the defensive driver’s decision on how fast they should be driving. Ultimately, good visibility and the ability to maintain safe control of the vehicle should be the guiding principles for determining speed.

Because there are so many variables, Lisk recommends that organizations, rather than set absolute speed limits, provide their drivers with a truck driver safety program that includes how to make good decisions on the road and support those decisions with a culture that prioritizes fleet safety. “It’s important that drivers know that their first priority is safety,” Lisk said. “There should be an understanding that in poor weather, delivery times may need to be altered without putting pressure on the driver.”

6. Avoid having to back up

Incidents involving vehicles backing up are among the most common types of collisions. “It’s simply harder to drive backward. It’s harder to see, and it’s an awkward steering relationship,” Lisk said. “We just don’t have that much practice at driving backward.” Drivers on average travel just 1 percent of their total driving distance going backward, while up to 25 percent of vehicle accidents occur while backing up.

Whenever possible, defensive drivers look for opportunities to avoid backing up. They pull through to the front spot to exit forward, even if it means choosing a parking space that requires them to walk a few extra steps.

Delivery vehicles can opt to park curbside in a designated delivery area or in an area where you can pull forward to leave. Although those parking spaces are not always available, drivers can start by challenging themselves to reduce backing up their vehicles by 10-15 percent to put themselves ahead of the game. If you have to back up, do it slowly to give yourself plenty of time to survey the area around you and give others time to note your presence.

7. Stay alert and keep the mind engaged in driving

Minds can wander, especially if the road is monotonous. To stay focused on driving, actively look around at other drivers. Try to recognize their driving patterns and see whether you can accurately predict what they will do next. “Make a game of it,” Lisk advised. “If a driver makes a lane change from the left lane to the right, can you predict what they will do next? Will they turn right soon? Or are they trying to pass a slower driver?”

Benefits of defensive driving

Defensive truck driving training is one of the most effective ways organizations can reduce worker injuries. Vehicle collisions are the leading cause of occupational injury. In both 2015 and 2016, transportation incidents were the most common cause of workplace fatalities, accounting for 40 percent of work-related deaths, about 2.5 times higher than deaths from slips, trips, and falls, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The National Safety Council estimates that the cost of a single accident could easily exceed $1.4 million.

Weighing those costs, many companies have opted to invest in defensive-driving training and truck driver safety for their workforce as a way to help:

  • Protect employees from vehicle-related injuries and keep workers safe
  • Reduce collisions
  • Cut claims costs, including workers’ compensation claims
  • Manage insurance premiums
  • Safeguard their company’s reputation through safe-driving behaviors

Because defensive driving involves techniques for driving more smoothly, there’s also less wear and tear on vehicle engines and brakes, less chance of passenger falls, and less product breakage.

The actual returns on investment for defensive driving programs vary. A study by the University of California at Davis found that online defensive driver training yielded an ROI of 2 to 1, meaning the benefits were two times greater than the investment. The study noted, however, that organizations can extract an even higher ROI by supplementing the online courses with techniques for supervisors to enforce safe driving behavior. Adding a video-based coaching program that rewards defensive driving behaviors, for example, would increase the ROI to an estimated 5 to 1.

Help improve truck driver safety with fleet technology

Truck drivers can use these defensive driving techniques to help minimize risk on the road. Beyond these, there are additional tools and technology available to fleets looking to improve truck driver safety. 

The use of fleet management technology like dash cams, GPS tracking, and other compliance solutions can all help your drivers stay safe and compliant. This technology can also make your fleet more efficient, improve customer satisfaction, and more.

To learn how Lytx’s video telematics solutions can help you maximize the benefits of your organization’s defensive driving program, contact us today.