Defensive driving tips to keep space invaders away

Spencer McDonald
While space may be the final frontier, it’s also one of the most important elements of safe driving. The third of Thinking Driver’s Five Fundamentals is: Keep your options open. Keeping your options open means to keep as much space around you as you can when you drive: space in front, to the sides and to the rear. I try to adjust my speed and position in traffic so that I'm all by myself.

Space gives you time — time to see, think and do what is necessary to avoid conflict with other vehicles.

This third fundamental dovetails with the first two that have been already discussed: think and look ahead, and anticipate hazards.

By planning your position in traffic to provide space, you have the time to use your eyes effectively to look ahead and all around you so you can anticipate the hazards that you may face. Space then gives you the time and the room to deal with these challenges before they become an emergency. Your driving becomes proactive instead of reactive.

Besides being safer, maintaining space while driving is more relaxing because you don’t have to feel on edge in case some dummy makes a move without seeing or considering your position.

How do you create space? It’s easier than you think and if you practise it for a while, you will soon be doing it without even thinking. It will become habitual.

The first and most obvious technique is to maintain a safe following distance. At least two seconds behind the car in front and more if the conditions are anything but ideal. If traffic is heavy and slow, this is even more important because sudden changes in speed several cars in front of you can ripple back quickly. When traffic is heavy, and slower than you prefer, it’s easy to creep up and get too close to the vehicle in front as you hope things will start moving faster. Instead, try driving the speed of traffic (which you are forced to do anyway) but do it with a good follow distance. Running traffic speed but back out of the “pack” will get you there just as quickly, but save you from having to deal with all the drama of driving in a mass of cars and trucks jockeying for position.

“But someone may move into the space in front of me,” you may say. I say, so what? Back off and open up the space again. What’s one car in front of you or 10 cars in front of you for that matter? Who cares? It’s only a couple of seconds, and those guys who weave through traffic and try to get ahead will pull out and go around the guy in front of you, too.

Space to the sides is also very important. That space allows you to make lane changes or lateral movements on short notice if something changes up front that necessitates a lane change, like congestion or vehicles waiting to turn. Keep track of the other vehicles in the adjacent lanes and try to adjust your speed so that you are not driving right beside them.

Space to the rear is tougher, but still possible to manage — at least to a degree. If you are being tailgated, the best strategy is to get that vehicle off your tail. Here’s the strategy: add the following distance that the other driver is not leaving to the following distance between you and the car in front. If you are leaving a distance of three seconds between you and the car in front, and the car behind you is only leaving one second between his car and yours — where he should also be leaving three — add the extra two seconds to make your following distance five seconds. The driver behind you is likely in a hurry and will find that big space in front of you irresistible and pass you. Problem solved.

In the old space invaders game, we just blasted the little alien pests right out of the sky. As much as we may want to so the same to those driving space invaders, the safer and more responsible choice is to change the game and just play “keep away.”