Between 2014 and 2015, more than 4 500 people were killed on South African roads. Arrive Alive estimates that 85% to 90% of these accidents were caused by driver error. Who causes these accidents? Is it the drunken guy on his way back home at midnight? Is it the distracted woman applying her make-up before work? Is it the guy in a brand-new Ford Focus RS, eager to show off his 235kW of power while keeping his friends updated on Twitter? Or the frazzled mother reaching back to calm her toddler while on the way to crèche?

The speed queen: Onke Dumeko (29) says, “I admit that I drive like a taxi driver. I don’t even indicate most of the time. Well, yes, I do drive fast – I need to arrive where I am going now! I tend to multi-task while behind the wheel. For example, I paint my nails while driving. I do it when at a robot, or when there is a traffic jam, but this can be a problem. I’ve been driving for five years now and in that time I have been involved in three accidents, but none of them were my fault. I’m not the worst driver on the road – the slow ones who insist on being in the fast lane are the real problem. I may not drive a fancy car, but I really enjoy driving.”

The common misconception is that accidents are caused solely by lack of focus when driving and, of course, alcohol abuse, particularly in SA. However, according to Derek Kirby, a defensive driving trainer from Master Driver, most accidents are completely avoidable simply by “driving your own car and the next” and anticipating the actions of the next driver.

“Accidents cannot be avoided, while collisions can with proper training and awareness,” he says. “This can be done by implementing defensive driving techniques, which would see the number of collisions and carnage on the roads decrease significantly.”

He adds that the most important aspect is being aware. “Studies show that driving requires more mental awareness and concentration than mere steering and braking,” he says. “Your physical attributes while driving take 15% of your concentration, while 85% goes towards your mental ability to drive. Changing gears and using the brake and clutch can all be taught and become routine. However, the mental aspect includes vision and awareness of your surroundings and complex decisions, which can’t be learnt easily.”

The nervous driver: Zukiswa Zimela (28) says, “I’m a very cautious driver, because I’m afraid of causing a 10-car pile-up. Being involved in an accident in 2013, although it wasn’t a bad one, shook me. I hit someone’s car and quit driving altogether after the accident, giving my car to my parents. I dreaded taking a new job in 2015 that required me to drive. I decided to buy an automatic car, thinking it would be easier on me, but I’m still very nervous behind the wheel. I also drive very slowly, maxing out at 100km/h. I also avoid driving at night and only overtake when I have no choice. Let’s not even talk about how terrified I am of trucks!”

We presented Kirby with two drivers: Marketing Director Onke Dumeko and Multimedia Producer Zukiswa Zimela. Both are young, black and female, but they are completely different drivers.

Zimela suffers from anxiety and when combined with the trauma of surviving an accident, this has made her very nervous behind the wheel. Dumeko, on the other hand, admits to having a heavy foot and taking driving lessons from taxi drivers.

Kirby says that Zimela may drive slowly, but it doesn’t make her safer on the roads. Her nervousness behind the wheel means that more often than not, she will hesitate on the roads, for example, wavering on whether to enter an intersection, which can lead to confusion for other drivers and ultimately, cause a crash.

Dumeko’s brash confidence on the road isn’t any better, Kirby warns. Her love for speed is just plain reckless, because she won’t be able to make a split-second decision to avoid a collision.

“There is nothing wrong with driving fast,” says Kirby. “But only when there are no possible obstructions around you. Driving at 140km/h on a long, straight road can only put you in danger of getting a ticket. Slowing down at the sight of obstructions shows your awareness and application of defensive driving skills.”

He stresses that speedy Dumeko should always keep safe following distances to give herself time to react and honour a two-second waiting rule before taking off at a robot in case another driver decides to jump a red light. “A good driver is able to observe their surroundings and react accordingly, ensuring their safety and that of other motorists. Defensive driving training will definitely get you out of a few bumpy situations, saving you money, time and possibly your life.”

The golden rules of defensive driving

Reduce distractions. Keep your cellphone in the boot and always use your car’s Bluetooth device for calls. When travelling with children, ensure they have everything they will need for the journey so that you focus solely on the road.

Keep a safe following distance. Measure this by counting a three-second gap between you and the other car, giving yourself enough time to react in an emergency situation.

Always adjust your sideview and rear-view mirrors before driving off. When the mirrors are in an optimal position, your blind spots are greatly reduced.

Anticipate traffic and plan your route. This will allow you to drive at a relaxed pace and not whizz through traffic to make that appointment.

Have an escape plan. You can’t predict what other drivers will do, so ensure that you always have space to manoeuvre in case of an emergency. This includes keeping a good following distance and leaving ample space between your car and the one in front of you when stopping at robots.