What if that oncoming Jeep swerved into your lane? What if the driver of the bus you’re following slammed on his brakes? What if a dog ran into the road ahead?
Is this pessimistic thinking? Not at all. Playing the “What-If” game is one of the most advanced defensive driving techniques you can use, keeping you alert for the occasional hazard that does threaten your safety. But more importantly, it changes the way you interact with traffic.
Have an escape plan
As you play the “What-If” game with potential road hazards, visualize how you would escape from them, and make sure to leave yourself escape options. Don’t get boxed in by other cars. Slow down, if you have to, to create more distance in front of you.
Try to leave your lane-change options open as much as possible. If another driver stays alongside you, speed up or slow down. Then if you need to suddenly change lanes, you’ll have somewhere to move.
Pay attention to the edge of the road. Is the shoulder wide enough to drive on, if you had to? Is it smooth or rough? Is it level or sloped? The shoulder can be one of your escape routes, as long as you’re moving at a speed that allows you to use it. Reduce your speed, if a rough or sloped shoulder is your only escape route in tight traffic.
If you don’t feel like you have enough places to move for any reason, speed up or slow down to give yourself more room. Create distance from other vehicles in every direction whenever possible, and it’s less likely you’ll be endangered by mistakes they make. Assume that they will make mistakes, and play the What-If game to predict what those mistakes may be. Prepare for the worst and have a plan to deal with it, moment to moment, mile after mile.
Never trust traffic lights
Most of us have seen someone run a red light; maybe we’ve inadvertently done it ourselves. It’s rare, but it happens. We’re human. Still, always check cross traffic both directions before driving through an green light, just in case this is “that one time.”
Avoid mental “auto pilot”
You probably already use these techniques to some extent; most people do it subconsciously. But consciously thinking through situations and planning escape routes brings you to a new level of driving focus. It turns driving into a full-time job, which is what it should be.