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How to Drive Defensively at Intersections

Carol is a defensive driver who loves to teach others about driving safely!

Defensive driving at intersections

Defensive driving at intersections

Defensive Driving

Intersections are one of the most common locations for traffic accidents. Besides having vehicles moving in up to four directions, there might also be stopped, slowing, or speeding vehicles, red-light runners, drivers changing lanes, pedestrians, and drivers attempting to enter moving traffic. Because intersections present so many unpredictable situations you, as a good defensive driver, will always anticipate what might happen before you arrive at one.

Don't trust a green light

Don't trust a green light

Signals Lie

Never enter an intersection at the top of the posted speed, even if you have a solid green light. A green light at an intersection is an indicator that you have the right-of-way. But a green light cannot think or see and will not stop another oncoming vehicle. Don’t trust them.

Slow Down

Slow down slightly before entering an intersection and see for yourself that it is safe to enter. The immediate danger is the traffic coming from your LEFT on the cross-street. Look left first to make sure all traffic is stopped or stopping before you enter the intersection. Then look right. If it is safe, enter the intersection, roll through with your foot off the accelerator, and cover your brake.

Red Light Runners

The majority of collisions at controlled intersections happen within four seconds of a light change. If you are stopped at a red traffic light, do not jackrabbit into the intersection as soon as the light turns green, and never roll through a light that changes from red to green just as you approach the intersection. A red light runner is going to arrive, on average, within four seconds of the light change. You don't want to be there if he does. Hesitate, look left first, then right, then left again before you roll into the intersection from a stop.


Watch ahead for drivers in the right cross street who are stopped and appear to be planning a right turn into oncoming traffic. Many times they don’t want to get caught behind a truck and will pull out into the lane in an attempt to “beat” you. Also, watch for drivers who may be attempting an unprotected left turn across oncoming traffic. They may also attempt to “beat” approaching traffic by pulling out when it is not safe. Anticipate their actions and slow down. And show special consideration for those drivers attempting left turns who get caught out in the intersection after their light turns red. Allow them to complete their turns before you begin to enter the intersection.

Pay Attention

While attempting to turn into an intersection from a stop, remember that traffic moving with the green light always has the right of way. If you cannot make the turn without causing traffic to slow for you, then wait until you get the green light. If you do have plenty of space to enter, watch for vehicles around you and pay particular attention to pedestrians and bicyclists. While you are looking left for oncoming traffic, pedestrians may be attempting to cross the street from your right. Never start a right turn until you have looked left, then right, then left again.

This motorcycle didn't turn

This motorcycle didn't turn

Turn Signals Lie

Don't turn into an intersection just because an approaching vehicle has a turn signal on. The driver may plan to turn just beyond you, or the signal may have been left on from an earlier turn. This is particularly true of motorcycles. Their signal lights don't always turn off by themselves. Wait until the other driver actually starts to turn before you continue.

Don't Block the Road

Whenever you enter an intersection, even if you have a green light, make sure there is enough room to get completely across it. You are a nuisance and a danger if some portion of your vehicle is blocking a traffic lane or a crosswalk.

Learn to turn

Learn to turn

Mind Your Wheels

If you are attempting a left turn while in an intersection, don't turn your wheels in the direction you are turning until it is clear to go. If you are rear-ended while you are waiting, your already-turned wheels will steer your vehicle into the oncoming traffic. And, since you will be crossing lanes, make sure there are no vehicles or pedestrians blocking the path ahead or the crosswalk before you start your turn. You don't want to be caught in an intersection with cross-traffic coming at you.

Don't Change Lanes

Don’t make any unexpected moves in an intersection. Although it is not illegal in many states to change lanes in an intersection, it is just bad practice. At multi-lane intersections, a driver wanting to turn right into traffic might see the lane nearest to him is open and pull in. Pedestrians also have a tendency to step into the crosswalk if the nearest lane is open. If you suddenly change lanes, you might find yourself occupying the same space with them.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2009 Carol Rossi