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Driving safety courses (or “defensive driving” or “traffic school,” whatever your state calls it) are common today.

But that wasn’t always the case.

There was a time when driving safety as an idea actually didn’t exist. There were few laws, no safety equipment, and no safe driving techniques. But there were a lot of crashes, a lot of injuries, and a lot of deaths.

Driving today is actually safer than it used to be
Much of the credit for that goes to  Harold Smith
and his ground-breaking Smith System.


The Years Before Driving Safety

In the early part of the 20th century, automobiles were rare things. Drivers had only the barest kind of training.

Their biggest safety concerns were usually dealing with pedestrians and the horse-drawn vehicles that outnumbered them.

Traffic laws for the most part didn’t exist, and they were only written after something had happened to make them necessary.

Over the decades, automobiles became more common and horses on the streets began to disappear. But still drivers were just taught the basics of getting from here to there. There was little attention paid to what made driving safer and no efforts to teach those safer practices to new drivers.

By the time WWII began, there were many cars and more paved roads every year. But the standards of what it took to get a driver license were minimal. Parents taught their teenage children to drive, and often husbands taught wives. And very often one driver’s bad habits would be passed on to other drivers this way.


Harold Smith and his School

Harold Smith served in the Navy in World War II. He was passionate about driving even then and most of his service involved operating troop landing vehicles. It was during his service that he saw billboards warning servicemen about the dangers of unsafe driving. Surprisingly, the statistics showed that the number of fatalities from motor vehicle crashes exceeded those from combat. That was a fact that had a big impact on Harold Smith.

After the war settled in Detroit, the heart of the auto industry in the USA, and in 1948, Harold Smith opened The Safeway Driving School, the first driving school in Detroit.

His school began training novice drivers in a more systematic way than had been done in the past. And in training these new drivers, Smith often saw them making the same kinds of mistakes. He came to realize that many crashes can be prevented if drivers learn the right habits and apply them consistently. So he began to alter his teaching to correct these common mistakes and teach these better habits.

Smith’s safe driving concepts were sometimes difficult to communicate. But like many good teachers, he distilled the ideas down to a few basic and easy to remember principles. These principles ultimately became Smith’s 5 Keys of Driving, the core of what came to be known as The Smith System. And the foundation for driving safety today.

First Commercial Success

Smith had created a useful approach to training new drivers.

But he realized that people who were already driving could benefit from these principles as well.

He started spreading this idea by contacting Detroit business whose employees had to drive as part of their job, such as delivery people and bus drivers. He got his first commercial account in 1951, but word of his new approach to driving safety began to spread. Soon businesses started to come looking for him.

Smith’s first really large client was the Ford Motor Company. The company was interested in launching a nation-wide campaign of driver training in the hopes of turning many non-drivers into drivers and thus creating new customers for their cars. It was a Ford executive who first called Harold Smith’s new approach to driver training “The Smith System.”

Harold Smith was quick to seize upon the exposure Ford’s campaign was giving him. In 1952 The Safeway Driving School was renamed The Smith System Driver Improvement Institute. Smith’s four-year-old school in Detroit became the first in the country to teach advanced driving skills.

In the years that followed, many prominent companies such as Chevron and UPS hired Harold Smith to train their company drivers. Safer driving began to benefit their company’s bottom line by preventing collisions and reducing the cost of operation and insurance.

The Smith System is still in use today. The core concepts remain the same, but now they are enhanced by risk analysis and driver scoring metrics. And many more drivers now have access to this driver safety training thanks to online communication and the availability of the program in multiple languages.

Millions of drivers around the world
have benefited from The Smith System.

The 5 Keys of Driving Safety

At the heart of Harold Smith’s approach is the idea of preventing crashes. By having the right habits and skills, and by using them consistently, drivers can prevent most auto collisions.

Consistent use
of these five techniques
can reduce a driver’s risk
of a crash by as much as 60%

The Smith System is a set of techniques he called 5 Keys of Driving, which work together to prevent crashes. These techniques teach drivers how to see and how to deal with various driving situations. They are applicable to various road conditions and driving challenges.

Wherever you are driving and whatever you encounter on the road, the five basic principles of The Smith System will make you safer.

1) Aim High

The human eye was developed to work best at walking speed, not at the speed of a moving vehicle. To counter this, you need to raise your eyes and look farther down the road, to the spot where you’ll be in 15 to 30 seconds. This will let you see situations earlier and have more time to prepare for them.

I’ve even heard of one driving school that puts a strip of masking tape horizontally across the center of the car’s windshield, to remind students to keep their eyes looking above that strip practically all the time while driving.

2) The Big Picture

Drivers need to be aware of what’s going on around them. In addition to looking farther ahead, you need to constantly scan behind and beside your vehicle. Check each mirror every 5 to 8 seconds.

By maintaining a constant check on your “big picture,” you won’t be taken by surprise and you’ll be able to make better decisions about your driving.

3) Keep Your Eyes Moving

Drivers need to be alert, and one of the best ways to stay alert is to make consistent eye movements. Looking at any one thing for two long can induce a slight kind of mental trance, which leaves you open to danger from something you “just didn’t see.”

To prevent this, keep your eyes moving. Train yourself to glance at something different every two seconds.

And scan every intersection before you drive into it. Intersections make up a small percentage of the roadway system but have a large percentage of the crashes.

4) Leave Yourself an Out

When driving, position your vehicle so that you have a “safety space” around it. Keep an open space between you and the car ahead of you by not following too closely. As much as possible, drive in the center lanes, so you have multiple options to move to the side if needed. And try to keep an open space beside you on at least one side.

By maintaining this safety space, you’ll have an out to drive out of a dangerous situation if you encounter one.

The defensive driving students in our classes often talk about how hard this is to do, especially in heavy traffic. There is a useful technique that will help.

You may have noticed how highway traffic very often travels in “clumps,” meaning there will be a mass of cars crowding together, followed by an open space of lighter traffic, then another mass of cars. In these situations, the secret to keeping an open space is to travel in the space between the clumps. Slow down and let people pass you until the crowd is ahead of you and your vehicle has more room to stay safe.

5) Make Sure They See You

  • If you’re driving as you should, you’ll be aware of what’s going on around you. But to be really safe, you need other drivers to be aware of you. This means that you need to make sure that other drivers see you.
  • Sometimes this is as simple as making eye contact with another driver. Other times you’ll need to use your turn signal or your horn.
  • Make yourself more visible by turning on your lights whenever visibility is at all reduced
    As much as possible, stay out of other driver’s blind spots.
  • Use your signal well before turning or changing lanes. A good habit to get into is
    1) turn on the signal,
    2) slowly count to 4 (to give other drivers time to see your signal),
    3) look around carefully
    4) and then change lanes if it looks safe.

Turning on the signal and changing lanes at the same time is almost useless, because no one could see your warning in advance.

In the early years of driving, there was no AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety or NHTSA or National Safety Council. Until Harold Smith came along, practically no one was studying what techniques and habits made driving safer.

But now there have been years of study on this subject. And for a long time, this research has shown repeatedly that consistent use of these five techniques, Smith’s 5 Keys of Driving Safety, can reduce a driver’s risk of a crash by as much as 60%.

Like any serious driving school, our Comedy Guys curriculum is based on The Smith System and its 5 Keys of Safe Driving. They serve as the foundation to our approach to defensive driving.

Whether you take one of our live defensive driving classes or our online driving safety course, you will cover Smith’s five basic safe driving techniques, and other useful information as well. Plus we’ll add some comedy into the mix to make it more fun. And that’s because people learn more if they’re awake.