Driving in a combat zone, you're constantly on the alert for hazards — seen and unseen. You develop aggressive driving skills designed to keep you safe in hostile surroundings. These skills may become so ingrained that they're almost automatic.
After you come home, you may find yourself driving as though you are still in a war zone. But the driving habits that kept you safe under threat can be dangerous to you and others under normal conditions. It's important to reduce the risk of injury to yourself and others by re-training yourself to drive defensively.
Offensive vs. defensive driving
Drivers rely on each other to behave in predictable ways. These ways, or rules of the road, include laws you learned in driver's education — observe the speed limit, obey traffic lights — as well as acts of common courtesy like letting others merge into your lane.
The driving strategies that you used in combat were meant to be unpredictable, to keep others off guard. Here at home, this offensive driving can have serious consequences, from traffic tickets to deaths.
Offensive driving habits you need to avoid include:
- driving down the middle of the road
- driving off-road in areas or in vehicles that aren't suitable
- driving unpredictably — speeding up and slowing down, changing lanes suddenly
- speeding through intersections by running red lights or stop signs
- tailgating or matching another driver's actions such as lane changes or speed
- swerving unexpectedly to avoid common road objects such as trash or road kill, or to avoid road repairs
Good drivers drive defensively. This means that they are aware of their surroundings and are prepared to adjust to adverse conditions or the mistakes of other drivers.
To be a defensive driver, you must:
- Know the driving laws in your state. If you need to refresh your memory, download or get a print copy of your state's driver's handbook from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
- Be courteous to other drivers. Remember you're sharing the road with other vehicles and pedestrians, too.
- Avoid road rage. Never drive when you're angry or upset.
- Keep a safe distance from the car in front of you. Use at least the two-second rule, and preferably more. (Watch as the vehicle in front of you passes an object, like a mark on the road surface, and count "one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two." If you pass the same spot before you get to "two," you're too close.)
- Maintain the speed limit, always keeping road conditions in mind. Driving faster or slower than prevailing traffic puts you and traffic around you at increased risk.
- Avoid using the cell phone while driving.
- Always use seatbelts. Make sure passengers buckle up, too.
- If you drink alcohol, do so responsibly. Never drink and drive — use a designated driver.
Other issues that raise driving risk
As a returning service member or veteran, distraction or physical impairment can put you at risk of other issues that can affect your driving. If you or someone you know is having problems such as those listed below, seek professional help:
- excessive risk-taking, such as driving at high speeds — it's common for returning service members to try to seek substitutes for the adrenaline rush experienced in combat
- emotional reactions related to returning home, such as depression or relationship problems
- alcohol or drug abuse