Introduction to the Smith System

Driving defensively is a universally approved approach to operating any motor vehicle because it goes beyond simply obeying traffic laws and requires drivers to prioritize safe driving behaviors. Defensive driving[1] includes staying attentive to potential hazards and making smart decisions using foresight and caution. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) defines defensive driving concepts[2] as:

  • Detecting potential hazards as early as possible
  • Maintaining separation from surrounding vehicles and other objects
  • Communicating with others
  • Making your presence known

All of these concepts are also core to the Smith System of driving — a framework for all drivers to avoid causing or getting involved in vehicle accidents.

This blog explores the Smith System to give fleet managers a strong understanding of how the system works, why it’s vital for commercial drivers, and how to improve your overall fleet safety by using it. Read on to learn how the Smith System’s five keys can transform your fleet safety.

Understanding the Basics of Defensive Driving

Defensive driving is defined[3] as “the practice of using driving strategies that minimize risk and help avoid accidents, as by predicting hazards on the road.” In today’s era where distracted driving is commonplace behavior and a persistent hazard, defensive driving is ever more important as it requires drivers to stay alert and vigilant. 

In a revised report issued in 2023 on 2019 statistics, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found[4] that “crashes in which at least one driver was identified as being distracted resulted in 10,546 fatalities.” Defensive driving practices keep drivers from becoming one of these statistics. They must stay aware of not only their own behavior but of those around them on the road. It’s difficult for a driver to be both defensive and distracted.

Defensive driving is also central to the Smith System — a set of driving protocols that has reduced fleets’ accident rates by over 60%[5]. It incorporates defensive driving principles mentioned above in addition to five time-tested keys.

Who Is Harold Smith, and What Is the Smith System?

Harold Smith opened Detroit’s first driving school — The Safeway Driving School — in 1948, and began teaching The Smith5Keys®. In 1952, he changed the company name to Smith System and was recognized as the first advanced driving skills company in the country[6]. Smith garnered nationwide recognition for his system of driving and was featured on the cover of Car and Driver Magazine as “The Greatest Driver in the World” in 1969. Smith himself died in 1985, but the Smith System has expanded into global driving schools since then and remained a stalwart pillar of safe driving training.

The Smith System’s philosophy is, in a word, prevention[7]. Some collisions are inevitable, but most are preventable — and the Smith System aims to reduce as many as possible. According to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the main concept of the Smith System is “space cushion driving”[8] which “unlocks vision barriers and allow[s] you to open a whole new vista of comfortable, at ease, and smooth driving. Good vision buys time and space to help you avoid trouble and adjust to traffic conditions.”

Using The Smith5Keys®, a series of techniques designed to prevent crashes, drivers avoid as many of these preventable accidents as they can. The Smith5Keys®[9] are designed to empower drivers to do three important things while driving:

  1. Create space to get their vehicle out of conflict
  2. Maintain visibility to detect pending danger
  3. Have enough time to react

Drivers leverage the five keys to the Smith System to achieve those three goals.

The Truth About Accidents While in Reverse

According to the Smith System[10], 30-40% of all truck accidents take place when a vehicle is in reverse. Considering how little time trucks spend in reverse compared to moving forward, that percentage is significant. A third of accidents happen when drivers are doing tasks that amount to less than 1% of driving time. Additionally, 210 people are killed every year from backing accidents[11]. These statistics highlight the need for defensive driving, even in these moments that amount to slivers of a driver’s career.

The Smith System’s five principles for defensive driving also apply to backing up[12]. The first rule is to avoid reversing as much as possible. Use pull-through parking if available. If you have to back up, use the GOAL acronym: Get Out And Look. Walk around the truck, and use markers like cones or other objects if necessary to help you execute a successful backing maneuver. Applying the Five Keys while negotiating reverse can help save property damage to both the truck and trailer, as well as third party objects (other vehicles, dock doors, or bollards). Pedestrians are the most important to be aware of when backing. In a populated area, like a truck stop or customer location, always turn on four-way flashers and “sound-off” on your horn when beginning the backing maneuver. It is also important to remember that you can halt the vehicle at any time and perform another “GOAL” exercise to ensure your path is free of objects and people.

The Five Keys to the Smith System

These five keys make up the main lessons of the Smith System of driving:

Aim High in Steering

“Aiming high” means to keep your vision at least 15 seconds into your future[9]. 20-30 seconds is better[8]. “Into your future” means down the road, which translates into different distances for drivers depending on the vehicle you’re operating and how fast you’re going. If you’re driving 65 miles per hour (mph), 15 seconds is about a quarter of a mile[13].

The purpose of keeping your vision focused on what’s going on hundreds of feet ahead of you is to be able to anticipate a hazard before it’s upon you. A 15-second eye-lead time provides a margin of safety and allows you to act with enough room and time to avoid a conflict. When aiming high on the highway, make sure to look ahead to the center of the intended path/lane you’re traveling. In city driving, try to look ahead to objects at least one block away. Making the “aim high” rule a part of your daily driving enables you to make smarter decisions before your safety is compromised, but it’s important to also maintain awareness of your immediate surroundings.

Get the Big Picture

This rule is designed to keep drivers aware of what’s going on around their vehicle by encouraging drivers to scan the sides and rear constantly. You should check one of your mirrors every five to eight seconds and avoid focusing on insignificant objects[9] in order to keep your eyes moving (more about that below).

This rule also includes maintaining proper following distance in order to keep your visibility of other vehicles. The FMCSA states[14] that driving below 40 mph requires you to leave “at least one second for every 10 feet of vehicle length. For a typical tractor-trailer, this results in 4 seconds between you and the leading vehicle. For speeds over 40 mph, you should leave one additional second.” Leaving additional time allows drivers enough space to come to a complete stop should something unexpected happen such as a vehicle in front of you making a sudden move or stop.

Keep Your Eyes Moving

The purpose of keeping your eyes moving as a safety measure is to avoid focusing on any single object for too long. Doing so diminishes your peripheral vision. Keeping your eyes moving also prevents fatigue from setting in. 

The Smith System teaches that you should move your eyes every two seconds and to specifically scan all intersections before entering them. (Intersections account for nearly 40% of all vehicle collisions.[10]) As you scan your surroundings and other drivers, you’ll notice when others are distracted — enabling you to avoid them.

Leave Yourself an Out

This rule means to keep enough distance around your vehicle so you can maneuver it out of potentially dangerous situations. For example, leave plenty of space between you and the vehicle ahead of you in case of a sudden stop or incident beyond them. A truck weighing 80,000 pounds traveling 65 mph requires 525 feet[15] to come to a complete stop, so adequate spacing on all sides of the vehicle is imperative to maintain safety.

Since you cannot account for other drivers’ poor behavior, this rule also recommends certain tactics should you encounter potentially risky situations:[8] 

  • If someone is tailgating you, allow for extra following distance in front of your vehicle. 
  • Leave at least one side of your vehicle open for swerving room when possible.
  • Pass only when you have the space, visibility, and distance to do so safely.

Make Sure They See You

This final key requires drivers to make their presence known either through blinkers, horns, or eye contact (or all three). These tools are useful if you see danger others do not, if you want to alert a driver that they are causing danger, or if you suspect that a driver isn’t aware of your vehicle. The Smith System coaches to send these warning signals as soon as you think they will be recognized.[9]

Eye contact is the trickiest of these recommendations as it’s easy to assume someone sees you, you aren’t always in a position to make eye contact, and you also don’t want to take someone’s eyes off the road. Only try to obtain eye contact when conditions allow for it safely.[8]

Benefits of Adopting the Smith System

Implementing the Smith System helps fleets to reduce accident rates, boost driver safety overall, and reap the financial benefits of both.[5] Here are the top three benefits of using the Smith System:

Better Fleet Safety

The most obvious benefit is avoiding collisions and saving lives. The Smith System is predicated on the idea that most accidents are avoidable, and fleets that have implemented this philosophy have proven that to be true. Some fleets have reduced accident rates by 38%, 50%, and even 60%.[5] With demonstrable improvements in your fleet’s safety, you see better insurance rates and brand reputation as well.

Improved Driver Awareness

The Smith System requires that drivers maintain attentiveness on the road. When fleets couple the Smith System training with a fleet management software that rewards safe driving, drivers are more motivated to stay vigilant and demonstrate good driving habits. The more drivers stay aware and prove their ability to make smart driving decisions that prioritize safety, the more confident they’ll be in their skills as well.

Increased Fuel Efficiency

Defensive driving results in better fuel economy, too. The U.S. Department of Energy says[16], “Obeying the speed limit, accelerating and braking gently and gradually, and studying the road ahead can improve the fuel economy of your vehicle by 15%–30% at highway speeds and 10%–40% in stop-and-go traffic.”

Best Approaches to Train Drivers on the Smith System

You have a few options when it comes to training drivers on the Smith System:

  • Pay a third-party training provider to implement the system in your fleet and train your drivers directly.
  • Pay a third-party training provider to certify your own trainers in teaching the Smith System.

To make Smith System training the smoothest and most time-efficient process for your fleet, you can take advantage of e-learning opportunities[17] through online courses. Drivers can stream courses from anywhere.

No matter which option you choose, you’ll want to complement driver training with a modern, intelligent fleet management system[18] that helps drivers self-coach and enact the rules of the Smith System on a daily basis. The right fleet management software alerts drivers in real time when they are violating certain keys such as not leaving enough following distance. Netradyne’s fleet safety solution is founded on recognizing drivers for positive driving behaviors and identifies drowsy driving[19] — keeping drivers feeling rewarded and helping them stay true to the Smith System’s central rule of staying vigilant. 

The Smith System of Driving: The Smart Model for All Fleets

If you’re looking for a surefire way to improve your fleet’s safety, start with the Smith System of driving. The Smith System reinforces defensive driving practices that keep everyone safer on the road. Even though it’s a 70+ year-old system, its rules uphold the safest driving behavior today, and its longevity in the driver training world is a testament to its effectiveness as a safe driving program. 

Together with fleet management software, the Smith System is a proven way to ensure your fleet maintains safe driving habits on an ongoing basis to save lives and cut costs. Ready to enhance your fleet safety and reduce risks? Explore the Driver•i AI Fleet Camera System for fleets and book a demo today to experience its advanced features and benefits.


  • What are the three primary goals of the Smith System?
    1. Create space to get out of conflict when needed
    2. Maintain visibility to detect pending danger
    3. Have enough time to react
  • What is the safe following distance for the Smith System?
    Drivers in small- and mid-sized vehicles should allow for a minimum following distance of four seconds[20] while drivers of larger vehicles should allow for five to six seconds. These distances should extend when weather or road conditions compromise stopping time.
  • How does the Smith System help drivers when they are backing up?
    When reversing, the Smith System indicates[21] that drivers should use mirrors properly, check all sides of the vehicle for blind spots, and go slowly.
  • Is there a digital way to learn the Smith System?
    Yes, there are e-learning programs[22] available to learn the Smith System through online modules, courses, and videos.
  • What is the time investment needed for mastering the Smith System for defensive driving?
    The time it takes to learn the Smith System is completely dependent on the type of training program you undertake. The time commitment will vary if you are training in-person or online as well.
  • How effective is the Smith System for day-to-day drivers?
    The Smith System of driving is very effective for day-to-day drivers because it teaches defensive driving techniques that are applicable every time you operate a motor vehicle.




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