The Smith System of Driving

The Smith System


A long time ago I took Driver's Ed. in High School.  The program was based, in part, on the Smith System with its Five Keys to Safe Driving, and Five Characteristics of Defensive Driving.  It seems to me that these principles apply to bicycle drivers as well.  Dale Ritzel calls this "The positive approach to protect yourself from the inconsistent and unsafe action of other [drivers]."


Here are the Five Keys and the Five Characteristics:


The Five Keys to Safe Driving


Aim High in Steering


Look well ahead; not where you are, but where you want to be.  As a guide, look where you will be in about 30 seconds.  This will give you a chance to plan for conditions ahead.  Choosing a central lane position will help you see ahead.


Get the Big Picture


As you move down the road, conditions change.  Look for and evaluate possible conflicts.  See other vehicles, pedestrians, roadway obstructions.  Look, not just within your lane, but at all the conditions and traffic on the road.  When you're following others, give yourself 4-8 seconds following distance as you must see more than just what's directly in front of you.  With the Big Picture you can avoid being surprised by dropped lanes or vehicles blocking lanes ahead, and will be less likely to need emergency avoidance maneuvers.


Keep Your Eyes Moving


Look ahead, to the left, to the right, etc.  Look behind before changing lanes.  Move your eyes about every two seconds.  Traffic constantly moves and to keep track of it all your eyes must move too.


Leave Yourself an Out


Give yourself a big cushion of space in the front, the back, and the sides of your bike.  Riding in the middle of the lane or line of traffic gives you the maximum space.  Having this space helps you prepare for the unexpected.  Choose the lane that results in the fewest conflicts.  Often that'll be the right lane, but not always.  Chose the left lane when you are preparing for a left turn or if there's a lot of traffic in the right lane that is preparing to turn right or is moving slowly.


Make Sure They See You


Wear light-colored clothes during the day and retroreflective material at night.  Signal lane changes and turns.  Communicate with other drivers.  Use lights when visibility is low.  Avoid blind spots, especially those of large commercial vehicles.  In confused situations, such as 4-way stops, hand gestures can help.




The five characteristics of defensive driving




A defensive driver will know the traffic rules and will know how to operate their bicycle.




A defensive drivers is alert to their surroundings, is rested, and is free of intoxicants that could affect their concentration when riding.




A defensive driver anticipates what may happen, and takes action to avoid problems. They anticipate potential hazards from other drivers, pedestrians, weather and equipment and take steps to minimize the risk.




A defensive drivers does not make risky maneuvers like trying to beat red lights.  They don’t try to pass unless it’s clearly safe and they look for alternatives to any traffic situation.




A defensive driver has the technical skills to operate their bicycle safely through traffic without endangering anyone else on the road. They can handle their bicycle even in hazardous conditions.




I'm not aware of any bicycle training program that teaches the Smith System, but two programs are worth considering to improve your bicycle driving skills; Traffic Skills 101 with registrations accepted by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, and Cycling Savvy, with registrations at


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