Bad Driving Habits and Unsafe Driving

Bad Driving Habits and Unsafe DrivingWe were recently invited by RoadCover to attend a day of Defensive Driving at BMW and as we drove into town the driver instructor asked us to do a “running commentary” on seeing and identifying all the hazards on the road.

He wrote down several points while I was driving, and I must admit this alerted me to some bad driving habits I may have picked up over the years.

On the Arrive Alive website, we have informative content on Defensive Driving behaviour that could make us safer on the roads.

But do we know our “Bad Driving Habits” that we may have picked up over the years and need to guard against?

We asked a few experts in driver training and defensive driving for their response to a few questions to gain insights into the bad habits they observe daily:

How would you describe or define what is a “Bad Driving Habit”?

  • It's any driving technique which is illegal or not in line with international best practice.
  • Something one does that does not “gel” with what a defensive driver normally practices.
  • It is any regular activity that can and will harm your safety when driving. Most of the time these habits are present without the driver even knowing about them.
  • A bad driving habit can be defined as any driving practice that is inherently unsafe, increases fuel consumption and/or places greater strain on a vehicle’s components leading to greater operational costs.
  • Most of the everyday bad driving habits arise from disobeying the law. Examples of such lawlessness (illegal driving in one way or another) include rolling through stop streets, not stopping at traffic lights and speeding.
  • Many are not regarded as “illegal” but could contribute to crashes. Examples would include:
    • Insufficient following distance for the conditions.
    • Not positioning ourselves for maximum control of the vehicle.  
    • Not looking far enough ahead.
    • Resting the arm on the window sill - the body is not in the ideal position to engage with the steering wheel in an emergency.
    • Slouching behind the wheel - where the reaction to hazards is limited because the body is not correctly positioned.
    • Gearing down when slowing down - energy is wasted, and modern brakes are underutilised.

Are bad driving habits “illegal” or merely poor driving?

Are bad driving habits “illegal” or merely poor driving?

  • It is important to recognize that most crashes are the result of illegal, thoughtless and reckless driving.
  • There are a vanishingly small number of bad driving habits which are not actually illegal.
  • Crashes caused by illegal actions are rare and improbable and since most drivers routinely display dozens of bad habits which break at least one traffic law, they should receive more of our attention.
  • For example, inadequate following distance is the direct cause of 30% of South Africa's crashes and is indirectly implicated in another 10%, including some head-on crashes and same-direction crashes which have a lack-of-visibility aspect.
  • But it's illegal to follow too closely! One of the 18 general duties of the driver (which every motorist is required to know prior to sitting the Learner's Licence Test) says that a driver: "...may not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable or prudent..." (NRTA Reg 308 1(b)).
  • The number one bad habit is the illegal usage of a cellphone whilst driving. The temptation to read a message or check Instagram while driving creates a distraction to any driver.
  • Accidents happen in a split second and that’s all it takes. Other bad habits would be the inadequacy of drivers to understand how speed completely limits the ability of the car to react accordingly.
  • Driving involves utilizing both, mental and physical skills in order to be a smooth, safe and overall competent driver. Inadequate or incorrect formative driver training which leads to poor awareness, lack of concentration (distracted driving) and poor physical skills such as holding the steering wheel incorrectly, riding, slipping or coasting the clutch, clutching before braking, harsh steering, harsh braking and harsh acceleration are all examples of bad driving habits that can lead to crashes.
  • So too are people who have a propensity for taking risks: a driver who habitually runs a red light, drives in the emergency lane or overtakes on a barrier line is a crash waiting to happen. Habitual offenders also get into frequent road rage incidences that could be fatal.

Is it fair to say that bad habits start even before starting the ignition by incorrect positioning of the seat? What are the bad habits we display when sitting behind the wheel?

Is it fair to say that bad habits start even before starting the ignition by incorrect positioning of the seat? What are the bad habits we display when sitting behind the wheel?

  • Most drivers tend to forget that the Rules of the Road also include stipulations as to the position behind the steering wheel.
  • Note the general duties of the driver which stipulate that a driver may not: "...occupy such a position that he or she does not have complete control over the vehicle or does not have a full view of the roadway and the traffic ahead of such vehicle..." (Reg 308 1(c).
  • It is up to each driver to ensure they comply with the legal requirement, and they should be able to if they were paying attention while learning for their Learner's Licence Test.
  • An incorrect mindset is probably the biggest failing in before you step into the vehicle.
  • Far too few drivers in the country take driving seriously; we are careless, negligent and do not embrace a culture of voluntary compliance.
  • Because so many drivers have undergone little or no formal driver training, no pre-trip or circle of safety inspection is carried out.
  • Failure to buckle up and obey road traffic rules then add up during the trip, making the reality of a crash that much greater.
  • Seating position is the foundation of driving.
  • Sitting comfortably and sitting correctly are two very different things.
  • Without the correct seating position, you completely limit your ability to control the vehicle effectively.
  • There is a disparity between drivers who sit too close to the steering wheel and those who sit too far away.
  • Having your arms fully stretched out to hold the wheel creates a huge potential for danger. In an accident, it could easily contribute to the driver breaking their arms as they brace for impact.
  • Most people sit either to close or too far from the controls (steering wheel and pedals) which in turn affects the effectiveness of our back restraint and seat belt as an example.
  • This would also affect our ability to look far enough ahead delaying any possible evasive action.
  • Sitting too far back results in the feet being too far from the pedals - in an emergency brake, the leg is stretched which could result (because it can’t bend) in fractures when hitting another object.
  • Arms stretched too far leads to limited control of the steering wheel in an emergency.

What are the most common bad driving habits we find among our drivers?

What are the most common bad driving habits we find among our drivers?

An Inappropriate Attitude for Driving

  • Driving with a bad attitude.
  • An aggressive driving attitude and making rude gestures.
  • Lack of patience in heavy traffic.
  • Tailgating across intersections when traffic lights are out of order.
  • Incorrect positioning behind the wheel.
  • Incorrect seating position. [Especially too far back]
  • Sitting too low and having reduced visibility over the steering wheel.

Incorrect hand position on the steering wheel.

  • Incorrect seating position.
  • Arms too stretched or bent for effective control of steering wheel.
  • Failure to ensure adequate visibility.
  • Inadequate depth of vision.
  • Driving with inappropriate footwear such as flipflops and platform shoes.

Failure to Remain Alert and Vigilant

  • Poor observation and concentration.
  • We also see a lot of drivers who focus too much on their mirrors. This becomes a challenge when trying to use foresight to look ahead on the roads to prevent potential accidents.
  • Distracted driving [ Other than the illegal use of cellular phones while driving.]
  • Driving with the hand on the gear lever.
  • Loud music and inattention to other road users and traffic conditions.
  • Driver fatigue and not taking rest stops.
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. [ When legally below the alcohol limit but with reduced reaction time]
  • Assuming safety at intersections and that a green light is a “Go”.

Non-Defensive Driving Habits

  • Lack of following distance.
  • Stopping to close to a vehicle at an intersection.
  • Failure to ensure there is clear space before maneuvering.
  • Not observing and scanning for vehicles in the blind spot.
  • Failure to ensure that there are always escape routes available and to adapt speed, following distance and position on the road when there are not.
  • Inappropriate speed for traffic, road and weather conditions.  
  • Failure to observe the environment and traffic pattern and react predictively.
  • Failure to use the correct lane for progress and visibility.
  • Yielding at stop streets Not checking and assuming the right of way at intersections.
  • Costing to a stop with the clutch engaged.
  • Clutching before braking, coasting (where the driver engages neutral before coming to a stop), slipping the clutch, (engaging “half-clutch” for longer than is necessary; riding the clutch (when  the driver rests the foot on the clutch) or when a driver brakes or clutches going into a turn or a bend.
  • Multiple vehicles overtaking.

How do bad driving habits differ between men and women - are there some you find more prevalent among specific genders?

How do bad driving habits differ between men and women - are there some you find more prevalent among specific genders?

  • Not a significant difference. A vehicle is a machine and operates according to the laws of physics. Ensuring it remains within those laws requires certain skills and one either has those skills or one does not.  
  • If one has the skills and applies them habitually, one's risk of an incident is small, if not, the opposite.
  • There may be other factors beyond that which influence road risk in one gender versus the other, but they are not relevant to the basic task of driving and we don't find any fundamental difference in driving ability between the sexes once they have been taught the correct skills.
  • Men often sit too far and women to close to the controls.
  • Males tend to be blasé about driving and lose focus. They also tend to drive faster without possibly knowing the dangers.
  • In general, Females tend to be too cautious and as such become nervous. This in itself can also be dangerous due to the lack of assertiveness when driving.
  • Women have handbags etc in the incorrect places.
  • Men tend to be more aggressive behind the wheel and with a greater propensity for taking risks.
  • Women are more often attending to personal grooming in peak traffic.

What do you believe are the reason for our bad driving habits - Is it the poor teaching of bad examples by others?

  • There are a variety of reasons to consider according to Rob -Handfield Jones from
  • We believe we are all perfect drivers. Studies of 18year-olds that have just gotten a licence have revealed that up to 75% believe they are "above average" drivers.
  • We drag habits from the distant past into modern vehicles. Just because your grandfather geared down to "save the brakes" on his 1948 Lincoln Zephyr with drum brakes doesn't mean a modern vehicle should be driven the same way. There are numerous similar examples.  
  • We exempt ourselves from our own standards. I always find it amusing hearing a driver tell me earnestly how " driving instructor taught me that a barrier line is a solid wall..." when he's already crossed several barrier lines in the past 45 minutes on the road.
  • The driving instructor's test was eviscerated 20 years ago and basically, anyone can become an instructor. I won't dwell on that because it's far too complex an issue to deal with thoroughly, but it's at the root of our problems. In fact, it is the direct cause of licensing being rotten to the core and that more than 40% of drivers have an invalid licence (bought, forged or illegal).
  • The law enforcement profession is riven with incompetence and corruption, and for the most part, they long ago ceased actually trying to improve safety. Now they merely selectively enforce whatever laws are most likely to generate revenue. T
  • The Department of Transport and the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport are regarded by some as entirely inept, having failed to deliver legislation which accords with best practice and might take the country's roads in the right direction. The loss of the DoT's technocratic capacity means that law is now routinely drafted on the basis of opinion rather than scientific fact.

Other instructors have suggested some other reasons contributing to our bad driving:

  • Learning to drive from our parents or other drivers who already have bad habits and them not knowing any better.
  • From a K53 level of teaching with many flaws in the curriculum that teach us the basics of driving but not how to control a vehicle in a realistic condition or sticky situation.
  • Plenty of bad examples - many youngsters have only driven in a taxi and they emulate the road behaviour they observed.
  • Being taught what to do instead of being mentored on why they do what they do.
  • In this ever changing world, things are different every kilometre of driving and also every year that new technology’s come out. We need to be able to be agile in our style and be able to learn every day on these topics. 
  • Lack of respect for law and authority - the belief that we can get away with bad actions.

What are the major differences between the bad driving habits observed among our inexperienced drivers as compared to our more experienced drivers?

What are the major differences between the bad driving habits observed among our inexperienced drivers as compared to our more experienced drivers?

  • Rob-Handfield Jones argues that Driving 'experience' is somewhat of a myth. He says:
  • Drivers without proper training almost universally have bad habits, whether they are 18 or 60.  
  • The highest risk age group for drink/driving is 30 - 55-year-olds ("experienced" drivers) and crash risk doesn't drop meaningfully below the levels of the 18-24 year age group until after 40, and the drop is unimpressive. It is only after 60 that fatality risk comes down meaningfully (if one survives that long).
  • However, when one trains a random group of drivers in defensive driving habits, one immediately sees a drop in crash rates equivalent to 40 years of driving 'experience'.
  • Still, when one drives with the average 60-year-old one routinely sees exactly the same poor driving habits one would expect from their grandchildren which raises the question of why 60 year-olds have lower risk despite having the same habits.
  • The inescapable conclusion is that the paramount factor in fatality risk decline with age is risk aversion rather than skill improvement (an 18-year-old may attempt a risky overtaking manoeuvre that the 60-year-old would baulk at). This tends to be bolstered by the fact that the over-70 age group shows a substantial upturn in crash fatality rates as the diseases of ageing impair performance.
  • We need to stop pretending we get better at driving the more we do it. That "30 years of driving experience" people boast about is usually 6 months repeated 60 times.
  • Practice makes perfect? No. Practice makes permanent. And large chunks of what someone learned when they went for their K52 driving licence in a small bakkie in the 1970s is borderline irrelevant on modern roads in modern vehicles.
  • If nobody has ever explained to a driver the reasons and techniques surrounding following distance (for example) they are not going to be able to work it out by themselves from first principles. We go to university to learn complex skills to do our jobs, and we go to driver training companies to learn complex skills to keep us alive in these machines called cars.
  • Mere survival does not qualify one for the accolade of driving "experience". A driver wishing to earn that designation must attend proper training, adopt those techniques as a habit, upgrade skills constantly, and practice them consistently over long periods so that they implement them as a matter of routine.

Other driver training experts also added some important insights on driver experience and bad driving habits:

  • Older drivers have ‘escaped’ the consequences of their actions and the habits have become ingrained.
  • The habits are definitely more prevalent in experienced drivers.
  • Habits are developed over the years of driving. This happens when drivers do not realise these habits may affect them negatively.
  • Inexperienced drivers normally don’t start with bad habits, however, they may develop over the years if these aren't addressed early enough.
  • Some older drivers have not kept up to the pace of technology, so they don’t allow for the benefits.
  • Younger drivers accept what they see as the “norm” and therefore do it because they know no different.
  • Young drivers don’t understand the consequence of “physics” and think the vehicle will get them out of trouble.

Could over-confidence lead to bad driving habits?

Could over-confidence lead to bad driving habits?

  • Bad driving habits have two causes: ignorance and apathy.
  • Ignorance can be rectified by training. Apathy is more complex but arises over time when we have continually taken risks without experiencing any negative consequences, and the shortcutting of proper procedure becomes established routine.
  • Overconfidence is a common outcome of apathy. (refer to the above discussion on driving "experience").
  • Therefore, all drivers should have refresher training at least every 2- 3 years, to point out any areas in which they've lost their edge and ensure that innate human apathy doesn't lead to short-cutting of procedures which might eventually kill someone.
  • Overconfidence in driving allows for the platform for potential danger. This is a major contributing factor in accidents.
  • Too many drivers have the attitude that they know everything and would not need to be trained or checked up on.
  • Overconfidence leads to bad habits like insufficient following distances. Thinking that a vehicle will stop in short distances when it is physically impossible.
  • It also leads to speeding as most people don’t realise the effect of speed and how it varies in different conditions, causing a lot of road deaths annually.
  • This is evident when drivers have engaged in an activity (e.g. Skidpan) and they “think” they are skilled which results in doing things and practising things which are not as yet ingrained.

How would you suggest that we detect and address/ reduce these bad driving habits?

  • Start educating and training at an earlier age.
  • Attend reputable defensive driver training with a proper test six weeks later so you can benchmark your ability against a credible standard.
  • They are professionals and will not only show us what bad driving habits we have but how these habits could affect us in our daily lives.
  • Automate your application of these habits. You should be able to continue to drive defensively without additional effort in the face of adverse conditions, severe distractions, unexpected situations, and the incorrect actions of others.
  • Attend refresher training every couple of years to stay sharp and learn new techniques needed to drive modern vehicles effectively.
  • Awareness/educational campaigns using a variety of platforms.
  • Role models could advocate the benefits of good defensive driving - make it “cool”.
  • We need to enforce the traffic laws without corruption.

A word of appreciation for the following people who assisted with their responses:

Rob-Handfield Jones:

Eugene Herbert: MasterDrive

Ashref Ismail: Fleetmax Africa

Paul De Vos: Toyota Advanced Driving

Gennaro Bonafede: BMW Driving Experience & Motorsport

Also view:

Defensive Driving and Road Safety

Driver Experience, Inexperience and Road Safety

Advanced Driving, Defensive Driving and Road Safety

Truck Drivers and Bad Driving Habits