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Defensive Driving Techniques

There's no doubt about it, California traffic can be crazy! Driving across the state, you'll experience everything from bumper-to-bumper traffic jams to steep, curvy mountain roads. When it comes to staying safe in all of these different conditions, driving defensively is imperative. Using defensive driving techniques can help prevent accidents on the road, ensuring that you get home safe and sound. Would you like to learn how to reduce your risk of becoming a California crash statistic? Read on to discover some tried and true defensive driving strategies.

Stay focused on the road

A common theme of modern-day life is multitasking: Making an important phone call while ordering coffee at a drive-thru used to be considered the height of rudeness, but these days it's just par for the course. We have become so busy and stressed out that doing one thing at a time seems wasteful, almost lazy. This attitude is becoming increasingly common, and increasingly deadly when people try to multi-task on the road.

To be a safe driver, you must clear your mind of all distractions and focus only on the road. When driving, your mind should be focused on one thing and one thing only: not hitting anything! If you are distracted, you won't be able to spot potentially hazardous situations in time to avoid them. On the other hand, if you always pay attention to the road and the other cars you share it with, you'll be able to avoid likely trouble spots and take action quickly enough to save yourself if a problem does occur.

Driving without distractions means just that: no distractions. That means no reading, no checking emails, no talking on your cell phone...just driving. In fact, California has just announced a new law to help cut down on the number of distracted drivers on California freeways. Effective July 1st, 2008, drivers can no longer use a hand-held cell phone at all while driving. If you are over 18, you may still use a Bluetooth earpiece, hands-free headphones, or your speakerphone-but you really shouldn't. This is a primary offense, and a mere glimpse of you talking on your cell phone is reason enough for a police officer to pull you over. If you are under 18, you can't use a cell phone while driving, period. Even if you have a hands-free headset, you could still be cited for using a cell phone if you are under the age of 18 under the new statute.

California traffic

California is famous throughout the world for its car culture. It's a good thing Californians love their cars, because the equally legendary congestion on California highways means that they spend quite a bit of time in them. Congestion contributes to accidents because there is little room for error when you have so many cars packed as close together as sardines in a can. Accidents only contribute to the congestion, because everyone wants to stop and rubberneck. It's a vicious cycle, really! To make sure you get in and out of heavy traffic safely, remember to stay alert and focused. Sure, traffic jams are frustrating-but don't drive angry! Listen to some music, do some deep breathing, and don't succumb to the urge to road rage. Keep at least a 3 second gap in between you and the car in front of you, so that you'll have time to react if something happens further up the road. Be especially cautious heading into accident hot spots, such as freeway exit ramps and intersections.

California Highways

California is a huge state, and its major cities are connected by miles and miles of highways and interstates. How can you navigate these roads safely? First, make sure to obey the speed limit. The speed limit on divided highways in California is usually 65 miles per hour. However, speed limits can vary depending on local conditions, so make sure to keep your eye out for speed limit signs. There are a few highways in California that are signed at 70 miles per hour.

Speed limits are calculated based on a speed that is both safe and comfortable for most drivers on the road. Going faster than the speed limit is dangerous because it gives you less time to react if something happens in front of you. The faster you are going, the longer it will take for you to stop. However, if someone wants to go faster than you, go ahead and let them pass. After all, it's their ticket, not yours.

Make sure to stay in the correct lane on the highway, too. The far left lane is reserved for passing and for people who don't think the speed limit applies to them. The middle lane is the smoothest lane for extended travel, and the right lane is for slower vehicles and vehicles that are about to exit. Watch out for the HOV lane, marked with a white diamond. There should be a sign telling you how many passengers you have to be carrying to use it. Also, if you have a hybrid or a low-emission vehicle, you may be able to get a special VIP sticker that lets you use the HOV lane even if it's just you in the car.

If you encounter an obstacle up ahead, remember this: the most dangerous thing you can do on the freeway is hit the brakes! Change lanes to get around it if possible. If you have to stop, tap your brakes first to let the driver's behind you know what you are doing.

City driving

California has several big cities jam packed with cars, traffic, pedestrians and other assorted hazards. Driving in urban areas presents a unique set of challenges, but driving defensively can help you avoid accidents here, too. One of the major challenges faced by urban drivers is the constant parade of obstacles that can materialize right in front of your car in just a split second. So, driving with a clear head and without distractions is just as essential in the city as it is anywhere else. In addition, it's a good idea to cover your brake when you drive in the city. "Covering your brake" means riding with you foot resting on the brake but without applying any pressure. It shortens the distance that your foot has to travel in order to stop your vehicle, thereby shortening your reaction time. Also, use special caution at intersections. They are more deadly than freeways, often due to drivers being in a hurry and not yielding the right-of-way or obeying traffic signals when appropriate. Before you cross, look to your left, then to your right, and then to your left again. Unfortunately, you can't trust other drivers to obey traffic laws. Even if you have right of way, make sure your path is clear before you move on.

Special situations: weather and terrain

One of the best things about California is that it's one of the only states where you can go from the beach to the mountains in a single day. However, for drivers on California highways, this also means that you have to know how to handle yourself on different types of terrain and in different types of weather. Driving in California can mean anything from driving in dense San Francisco fog to braving the scorching heat of Death Valley. Here are some tips to help you drive defensively no matter what part of the state your journey takes you to.


When driving in fog, make sure to use your low beams. You need for other drivers to be able to see you, but your high beams are too much of a good thing. They produce glare and make it more difficult to see where you are going. Slow down to help compensate for your decreased visibility. Also, make sure to clean your headlights and your taillights before you start out, so that other cars can see you clearly. Don't stop in the middle of the road-someone coming up from behind might not be able to see you until it's too late! If you have car trouble or can't see well enough to continue on, pull over to the right shoulder and turn on your emergency lights.


Steep mountain grades are a challenge for your car. Make sure to keep your car well-maintained, especially the brakes. Both your regular brakes and your parking brakes must be in good working order-you don't want your brakes to give out on the way down! If your brakes do stop working, downshift to try to slow down. Turn on your emergency lights so that people know there's a problem, and look for something soft to steer into. Try the emergency brake-it may cause your car to skid, so make sure the coast is clear, but it usually works even if the main brakes don’t. If you are going down a mountain and you can’t stop your car, aim for the runaway truck lane so that you'll have a safe place to stop.

Also, mountain roads are often steep, windy and narrow. Be careful, especially around turns. If you can't see around the turn, drivers on the other side can’t see you, either. Blow your horn to let them know you're coming. If you are an a road that's too narrow for 2 cars and you encounter another vehicle, the vehicle facing downhill should back up to let the vehicle going uphill pass. Finally, remember that steep inclines and turns obstruct visibility-slow down so that you have enough time to react to any obstacles in your path.


Visibility is not a problem in the desert-you can see for miles. However, the heat can be hard on your car. Part of driving defensively is preparing for and preventing emergencies. Make sure to keep your car in good condition. Additionally, stash some water in your trunk in case your car overheats or you get stranded. To quote the Boy Scouts, it's always better to be prepared!
California is a beautiful state. However, it’s peppered with potential driving hazards. Drive defensively, stay alert, and you’ll be able to enjoy the gorgeous California scenery safely.

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