Defensive driving classes: Improve your ability to avoid crashes

Defensive driving courses are available throughout the U.S. for drivers who want to brush up on their skills behind the wheel and learn strategies for avoiding crashes.

While people often take these courses to remove traffic violations from their driving records or to win price discounts from car insurance companies, the main benefit is increased driver safety. Everyone can learn better driving practices from such training, says James Solomon, director of program development and training for the National Safety Council's defensive driving courses.

defensive driving class"There is no such thing as a perfect driver," Solomon says. "Anyone can improve their driving."

These courses help people in a variety of ways, he adds. People who learned to drive in rural areas sometimes take them when they move to large metropolitan areas to prepare for the challenges of heavier traffic. Some students are senior citizens who want tips for driving more safely as they age.

People who have stopped driving for long periods often take defensive driving classes before returning to the highway. Others are new drivers who have completed traditional driver's education classes but still lack confidence in their driving ability, Solomon says.

What are the benefits of a defensive driving course?

Most defensive driving courses offer training for skills including:

• Following cars at a safe distance.
• Knowing when to yield the right of way.
• Passing vehicles safely.
• Driving at appropriate speeds during bad weather.
• Avoiding distractions while driving, such as talking on cellphones or eating.

"(These are) techniques drivers should practice to keep themselves safe," says Josh Dunning, the driver safety manager for AARP, an advocacy group for people age 50 and older.

Such classes increase driver awareness of other vehicles, says Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the California Insurance Information Network. To avoid crashes, "you need to pay attention to everyone else on the road," he says.

How to find a good driving school

Courses are available through a variety of organizations and private schools. They typically last between four and eight hours. Some include behind-the-wheel training. Others are offered online or in classroom settings. Whichever method you choose, Solomon says it's important to make sure your school is reputable.

"You will find good people and crooks selling all manner of defensive driving courses and guaranteeing you will be given insurance discounts," Solomon says.

He recommends checking with your insurance company first, or consulting state regulators.

Many states oversee the operation of such schools and post their approved lists online. Depending on where you live, the regulating agencies may be state departments of insurance, state departments of motor vehicles or state departments of transportation, he says.

The cost of defensive driving courses varies widely. "They run anywhere from $25 to over $100," Solomon says.

For example, the insurer AARP has classroom training for drivers lasts four, six, or eight hours, depending on your state's requirements. AARP classes are designed to sharpen the skills of drivers age 50 and older, but they are open to drivers of all ages. An online class costs up to $20, depending on whether or not you’re an AARP member.

At the other end of the price spectrum, Danny McKeever's Fast Lane, a private, behind-the-wheel driving school near Rosamond, Calif., charges $399 for a one-day course, says Paul Bolton, vice president of the Fast Lane school.

Getting practical training

Bolton says the practical driving experience his school offers can make a difference in what students take away from the course. Drivers are taught such things as making emergency lane changes, correcting oversteering and applying the brakes safely.

"What the program essentially does is elevate confidence," he says.

Many drivers take defensive driver courses specifically to earn car insurance discounts. Some states require auto insurers to grant discounts to people who have completed state-approved classes. Otherwise, you will need to check with your insurer to make sure it accepts your program.

While the discount amount varies among insurance carriers, they typically offer a price break of 10 percent for people who have completed defensive driving courses, says Michael Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute. To be certain of the amount, he says, contact your insurance agent.

Lehman says most auto insurance companies are happy to offer discounts, because the training helps drivers make choices that result in fewer insurance claims.

"The safer the driver you are, the less you will cost insurers," he says.

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