Defensive Driving: Steer Clear of Disaster

Defensive Driving is an excellent skill to know

Defensive driving is defined as a set of safe responses to potential hazards, including other drivers, damaged road surfaces, debris, inclement weather, and more. Getting behind the wheel isn’t risk-free, and employing defensive driving techniques can help keep drivers and street/road users safe.

However, I’ll argue that’s for civilized places and during normal times, when 90% (or more) of risks are related to the conditions of the road, weather, or traffic, or as stated, to other traffic participants: drivers, vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, and so on.

In this article, I’ll talk about a different type of defensive driving, one that is required for safer mobility considering circumstantial threats deriving from a more volatile and fluid situation. More specifically, from dangers presented by social unrest and/or criminal activity.

These include robberies, hijacks (and carjacks), flash kidnaps, and other hits frequent in less developed and third-world countries, but also protests, riots and other forms of social unrest. As the situation deteriorates globally, I expect those things to also become more frequent in developed countries, or parts of these.

Try to avoid dangerous neighborhoods when driving

Driving in High Crime Places

I’m speaking from experience: Brazilian cities are inhospitable and violent in many ways, including driving. Car accidents kill nearly 60.000 people every year around here. Road conditions (pavement, signaling, etc.) can vary from pristine in some places to dangerously neglected in others. A significant number of drivers are poorly trained, tense, and uneducated.

Putting it like that makes it sound like motoring around in São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro is akin to driving in a war zone. It’s not; 90% of the time, it’s an eventless, ordinary fare and a lot like driving in Mexico City, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or LA. You’re just more exposed to risks than circulating in European or Japanese cities (though, in general, bigger cities everywhere tend to be more tense and dangerous).

Anyway, the point is that you’ll find specific situations and conditions in more dysfunctional places, and these risks require extra doses of planning, situational awareness and other cautions, just like it does for walking and doing other things in fluid or unstable places.

Defensive Driver Primer

Special courses teach drivers evasive maneuvers, such as those seen in Hollywood movies. Granted, real life is much different: there is danger involved, and the idea here is not to become a trained pilot or special agent. However, the principles and goals are still valid for anyone trying to step up from regular, careless driving.

Defensive driving has two primary ingredients: mindset and practicality. As mentioned earlier, practical aspects must be experienced, so in this article, I’ll focus on the mindset skills and concepts, and briefly go over some practical ideas and tips as a starting point.

Covering the Basics

Most people love driving with windows rolled down on a sunny day and listening to audiobooks, podcasts, or good music. That’s fine and dandy if you live in Switzerland or other safe places with high HDI (human development index). I mean, you can drive like that anywhere, but doing so will put you at a disadvantage against other drivers (for the attention of criminals).

Don't let your phone be a distraction

If you’re an easier prey than others around, you’ll get targeted. The criminal logic is a cost-benefit analysis and they usually go for the easiest and most convenient, less risky hit – even if the eventual results aren’t that enticing when compared to a “better” victim (say, one driving a new BMW or other luxury car). So, those thinking they’re safe from driving an old, beat-up car should think again.

The typical profile of an “easy prey” includes open windows, distracted (using a smartphone, listening to loud music, a backpack or purse (or any personal belongings of value) on the passenger seat, and so on. That kind of reckless behavior is easily identified and targeted by predators.

Bumper or window stickers are also giveaways that wrongdoers and scammers can use to gather personal information that could later get used against the driver or some relative or acquaintance.

Planning and Preparing

Study your itinerary beforehand when driving to an unknown place or through less familiar routes. Check for detours, bottlenecks, interdictions, and overall safety of the neighborhood(s) you’re going through. Stay tuned for news of manifestations taking place in your city and avoid those at all costs. Getting stuck in the middle of a riot or protest is the last thing you want, trust me.

Don’t rely on the navigation system, as these won’t account for dangerous zones and may inadvertently send you into no-go areas. For instance, in Rio de Janeiro, where the favelas intertwine with middle and high-class neighborhoods due to the geography and development of the city, drivers get robbed or have their cars shot when sent to traffic and gang-controlled zones by the GPS. The same happens in other cities in South Africa, Haiti, Mexico, and others.

This “information” is slowly being integrated into navigation apps to avoid dangerous streets and routes. However, those without an idea of a city’s zones can still fall into a deadly trap. If you’ve just moved to a different town or have a new commuting route, do your homework and improve your safety by a good margin before even getting behind the wheel.

Surveillance and Threat Detection

Extreme situational awareness, as I call it, is quickly becoming vital in large and medium cities everywhere. With the rise in crime and social unrest, those moving around in urban spaces with their head in the clouds or distracted by smartphones and vehicle media systems are turning themselves into the low-hanging fruit.

Being attentive and alert is perhaps the ordinary citizen’s best defense against predators. I have avoided being boxed in traffic and robbed, not just once but several times, and just by staying 100% in the moment, tuned to the surroundings, looking all the time in the mirrors, and paying close attention to everything happening around me.

Be aware of the movement around “hot” spots or areas, such as diplomatic missions, official buildings, police stations, airports and train stations, and also hospitals and other governmental institutions. These tend to get problematic during crises and other emergencies. Plan your routes around and away from those.

Knowledge Base

Get to know the most common tactics used by thugs against drivers in developed and developing places. Drivers from cities like São Paulo, Johannesburg or Buenos Aires, San Francisco, or Chicago have at least a sense of those in their subconscious from the sheer media exposure and repetition of cases.

This advice may sound surreal to first-worlders. Study criminality? Yes, because your well-being and that of your family, or even your life, may depend on that. If you know what you’re dealing with and have at least an idea of what to expect, you can detect it more quickly and increase the chance of avoiding being attacked.

There are channels and blogs that specialize in that kind of content. They take closed-circuit TV and social media footage of robberies and other stuff, analyze the steps, reactions, and outcomes, and give insights and tips to avoid getting caught. One of the best, in my opinion, is Sonny Smith’s @sixsightco, but there are others, so do your research.

Practical Maneuvers

By all means, do an extreme driving course if you can. Even if it’s one of those day driving experiences where drivers do a few skids and radical maneuvers in a couple of different vehicles (for instance, an SUV and a sedan) on dry and wet roads at different speeds and different surfaces with the oversight of an instructor.

It’s not something mandatory and may sound radical to some, but knowing what a vehicle can and cannot do (or stand) and how it will react in extreme situations will provide some insight and feeling that can prove helpful to avoid or evade a bad situation.

If possible, steer clear of road rage incidents

More Safety Tips

  • Thugs bump a victim’s car so that when the victim pulls over, an accomplice gets in the victim’s car and takes off. In really violent places, this can happen at gunpoint.
  • If someone bumps into your mirror and throws it off, find a safe place (for instance, a gas station or building) before opening the windows and re-adjusting them.
  • Watch out for cars or motorcycles that are “obviously” following you. That doesn’t mean being paranoid, just observant and alert. Trust your instincts.
  • Be cautious if an unmarked police car flashes at you to stop. Until they have shown you their official IDs, keep the windows closed and the doors secured.
  • Look for vehicles whose lights flash and drivers wave to get your attention. Don’t stop for anything.
  • Get into the habit of locking your car doors and keeping your windows and sunroofs covered in danger zones (this is VERY basic in unstable places).
  • Avoid getting boxed in by giving at least a car’s width between you and the automobile in front at stoplights, so you can easily maneuver around the obstruction.
  • Use your car’s mirrors to observe your surroundings, but remember that being calm is always the best action.
  • Keep a safe distance from any odd barricades. Stop at intersections where young people have gathered in groups. Consider taking a detour if they are standing in the road staring at you.
  • Avoid helping a broken-down car on a lonely road, especially when it’s dark or if you’re by yourself. Call the police or the road authority and inform them instead.
  • Avoid getting involved in road rage episodes. When things are tense, people tend to be more violent and given to irrational attitudes. People get beaten or even shot in these events.
  • Don’t think you’re not susceptible to that either. Avoid taking the wheel if you are tired or emotional, angry or upset.


I can’t stress the importance of information and awareness for safe driving in volatile and fluid environments enough. Being prepared, informed and calm also helps immensely.

Most drivers find that crucial driving behaviors can be picked up simply by being more proactive, always paying attention, staying aware of potential hazards, and paying attention to other road users and drivers around them. Acting that way will reduce exposure and vulnerability, so act defensively.

Additional Resources:

Defensive Driving: Steer Clear of Disaster
Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar is a middle-class worker from Brazil devoted to self-reliance, outdoor activities, and life in big cities. He’s been writing about Thirdworldization, or the slow-burning SHTF typical of less privileged places, since the 2008 financial crisis. His Street Survivalism e-book is a practical training guide for city dwellers looking to prepare for the harsh reality of the urban environment. It’s based on the lifestyle of real-life street survivors, the homeless. You can follow Fabian on Instagram at @stoicsurvivor.

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