How to Be a Defensive Driver in Heavy Traffic

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Defensive driving isn’t easy during heavy traffic. If you leave the required space between your vehicle and the one in front of you, it opens space for another to fill.

Watching cars fill in the space isn’t pleasant since it pushes your vehicle further back into traffic. Moreover, the vehicles behind you might become irate and decide to honk at you.

Nonetheless, defensive driving is an important facet of sharing the roads with others. It helps prevent accidents and massive pile-ups, especially in congested situations.

The following is information on how to be a defensive driver in heavy traffic.


What Is Defensive Driving?

In 1964, Chris Imhoff coined the term defensive driving. As part of the National Safety Council, Imhoff developed the first course to teach driving techniques for safer habits. 

The elements of this driving practice emphasize focus, courteous behavior, and awareness.

Most drivers know that they must maintain a safe distance between their vehicle and the one in front. When drivers drive on each other’s bumpers, it’s known as tailgating. If authorities spot it, they will pull over the tailgater and deliver a citation.

The courses developed by Imhoff teach drivers how to anticipate hazards and deal with them. The point is to prevent accidents and minimize damage.

The lesson that these courses drive home is to leave enough space between vehicles. Some call it the three-second rule. 

3-Second Rule

Vehicles don’t immediately come to a complete stop when you step on the brakes. Plus, heavier and larger vehicles require more time to stop.. If you factor in weather conditions, such as snow, ice, and rain, all vehicles require more time to stop.

Therefore, take this fact into account. Then, it makes sense why you need to leave three car lengths of space between your vehicles and those in front. 

That’s the space you’ll need to come to a complete stop without hitting another car, especially at 50 – 70 mph.

Elements of Defensive Driving

Some safety professionals believe that the elements of defensive driving include:

  • Putting safety first in all conditions
  • Becoming a courteous driver, even in adverse situations
  • Keeping vehicles maintained

The vehicle collision data for 2022 remains preliminary. However, the National Safety Council continues compiling it. They found that the number of drivers back on the road has increased to pre-lockdown levels. 

They’re trying to figure out why the incidence of accidents and deaths is trending higher in 2022 than in 2021, even though drivers drove more miles.

Maybe more drivers need to remember their defensive driving lessons from high school.

Sometimes vehicle collisions happen and no one is at fault. You’ll still need to speak with a legal professional who can provide guidance. Learn more.

How to Become a Defensive Driver

Now that you have read through a brief refresh of defensive driving, it’s time to remember how to apply it. Specifically, how to apply these skills in heavy traffic.

Every city has a slightly different definition of congested roads and highways. For example, Des Moines, Iowa, and Los Angeles, California, will see it differently. So will Sacramento, California, and New York City, New York.

Nonetheless, you’ll leave three car lengths between your vehicle and the one directly in front. Eventually, the flow of the lanes evens out as vehicles exit the highways. Therefore, it’s not necessary to tailgate. 

If keeping three car lengths open feels frustrating, keep in mind that you’ll need to change lanes too. By remaining mindful of others, they’ll leave the space that you need. 

Next, to anticipate hazards, you don’t need to drive the tallest vehicle on the road. Instead, listen to the traffic news occasionally and make mental notes of the most common road and highway accidents. You’ll notice that tailgating is often the culprit.

Your job on the road as a defensive driver is to spot tailgaters and avoid them. You also want to avoid driving near clearly agitated drivers. If you spot trucks and haulers, remember that their blind spots are large. Assume that they will not see you if you try to change into their lanes.

Finally, maintain a joyful mindset. It’s not fun watching a vehicle cut you off or change into your lane without warning. However, there is no use making a mountain out of a molehill.

Instead, focus on going home, work, or school safely. Think about the great things happening in your life that don’t involve road congestion while keeping an eye on the road, remaining alert and focused.


It’s possible to be a defensive driver in heavy traffic. Defensive driving makes congested road conditions safer to navigate. If you need a refresher, take low-cost online courses or pick up a free DMV manual.