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The art of defensive driving

‘Defensive’ is often seen as something negative. The phrase being on the defensive comes to mind, indicating that one has committed an error and is now on the back foot. However, defence can be measures that proactively protects from harm; that anticipate a dangerous, unwanted situation and preempts it. 

Defensive driving is just that. A defensive driver is a safe driver, a cautious one who minimises the risk of an injury to herself and others. Ideally, we should all be defensive drivers and not Formula 1 drivers that we seem to want to emulate. What does defensive driving entail?

Use the indicators/hand signals

Remember other people on the road cannot read your mind. You must signal your intent in time. This does not mean hitting the horn and flashing headlights at people expecting them to part like the Red Sea parted for Moses. It means using the indicators when you switch lanes or take a turn and this must be done in advance so the person behind can move in the opposite direction. This ensures your safety and theirs and minimises any disruption for either party.

The commonly held assumption that I need to only worry about the vehicles in front of me, and I have no responsibility to the people in the vehicle behind is not true. As mentioned earlier, other drivers cannot read your mind.

Check the mirrors

Many Indians drive their two-wheelers without mirrors. The mirrors are not there for decoration or to check if you are looking presentable. The mirrors must be adjusted so that you can see as much of the road behind you as possible. As you drive, be it a two-wheeler or car, make it a practice to take a quick glance at each mirror in rotation to note who is behind you, next to you and what they are doing. This will help you anticipate their move and ensure you are not taken by surprise by them. An example could be when the person behind  you starts signalling a left turn. Keep an eye on them. By law, they should be signalling the turn several metres before they reach the turn. So at this point, they should follow you patiently and take the left. But often they will honk and try to overtake you from the right and cut sharply in front of you to turn left. This will cause you to brake hard, perhaps lose balance or hit them or another vehicle may hit you from the rear. So it's a good idea to keep an eye on them to gauge what they are likely to do and plan accordingly. 

Take your hand off the horn

Indian drivers are chronically attached to their vehicle horns. We honk for everything. We honk to hurry the person ahead of us (even if they have no place to move), we honk at pedestrians, we honk to let the world know we are there, we honk when we break the law so others can get out of our way… the list is endless. I’ve even seen (and heard) people who just honk every 10-15 seconds, no matter what the traffic situation.

Honking is a sign of aggression/road rage and poor driving skill.  A good driver knows that the horn is required only in a select few situations such as when someone is coming too close without realising you are there. A car once started reversing without checking the rearview mirror and so hit my stationary vehicle. I honked and so he managed to brake so there was no damage. Poor visibility (either due to weather or the sharp curve in the road,etc) situations are when it is good to honk briefly but also drive slowly and cautiously. 

The fallout of constant honking is that it becomes background noise which road users ignore; and then  in a situation where honking is warranted, and can save lives, it gets lost in the general cacophony. Research has shown that being exposed to high decibels for prolonged periods can impact our hearing. As a nation, are we going deaf?

Maintaining safe distance 

The vehicle in front may brake suddenly for a variety of reasons - a dog darted out or they saw a pothole suddenly. If I am driving inches from their bumper, then by the time my eyes tell my brain that the driver is braking and the brain processes this and commands my muscles to engage the brakes, I would have hit the vehicle. But if there is some space between me and the other vehicle, I would have the space to brake and stop safely. One might ask how much space is the correct amount to leave? Typically in urban areas where speed is low due to congestion, it should be about a car length. However at higher speeds the gap should be more. This is because, however hard I hit the brakes, the vehicle will take some time to slow down and stop. This stopping distance is proportional to the speed of the vehicle. Sadly, in India, we believe that every inch of the road (and the pavement) should be covered by vehicles.

Factor in the infrastructure

Indian roads are notorious for their poor surface. Roads are often a series of potholes with some sand, stones, and gravel thrown in for relief. Potholes, other than being murder on the back, can also cause two-wheelers to lose balance and fall. This can cause a bit of a pile up. A defensive driver would not only stay within the speed limits but also leave space between her and the vehicle in front, which gives her time to react and stop safely in case there is a spill or crash up ahead. The gap also makes it easier to avoid the pothole or at the least slow down, minimising damage to vehicle and herself. 

Gravel and sand can cause the vehicle to skid. Add to that a wet road or an oil spill and higher speeds and you have a surefire road crash. So drive slow and be aware of the traction (or lack of it) that your wheels are getting on the road.

Plan for the weather

Rain and fog reduce visibility. Under such conditions, a defensive driver would slow down, turn on the headlights to ensure other vehicles can see her. If visibility is extremely poor or non-existent, it is best not to take the vehicle out. If fog conditions are a regular occurrence where you live, then fog lights are a good investment. Skidding is also a concern when it's raining, not to mention potholes get hidden. So in addition to reducing speed, ensuring appropriate lights are used, and leaving early so that stress is not an added factor to contend with, are key.

Track health of vehicle and yourself

A crucial aspect that most people forget is to ensure the vehicle is in good shape. Regular maintenance and periodic checks ensure that in an emergency, the vehicle reacts as required. Brakes, lights, lubricant, windshield wipers, mirrors, etc are components we take for granted but the daily wear and tear, dust, moisture in the air all reduce the efficiency of the vehicle. Also often neglected is the health of the driver - if you are tired, stressed, sleep-deprived, etc, your reaction time, your ability to process information, your decision-making skills are all compromised. 

Anticipate the unexpected

Years ago I taught a friend to ride a two-wheeler. Part of my gyaan was that to navigate India’s roads safely, you need to know and follow the rules but also anticipate and plan for all the illegal and unsafe manoeuvres that others will indulge in. If there is a rule to be broken, our fellow road users will break it, was my mantra. 

Constant vigilance and focus on the road is crucial. Hence, using the hands-free/bluetooth connection for the phone is not a good idea. 

We often admire the Global North for their orderly traffic and excellent road infrastructure and blame everyone else for the traffic in India. What we fail to recognize is that we are part of the problem. Each of us needs to check if we follow all the road rules at all times; do we even know the rules? Only we can change our behaviour. There is only so much the Police can do.

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