As a driver, one can’t help but notice how many people tend to tailgate on our roads. (if you’re not familiar with the term, that means that they follow the car ahead of them too closely) I always knew this was happening, but I never really knew why. Now as a teen driving instructor, I know the answer. It is simply what parents are TEACHING their kids!
Many of us were taught in driver’s ed 20-30 or more years ago the old method that involved car lengths. Most of us, including myself, don’t remember that rule correctly, and there were several variants of it. It was something like one car length for every 5 mph over 30 or something like that. The problem with that rule (aside from the fact that nobody remembers it correctly) is that it requires you to know that rule, know how fast you’re going, be able to do some math in your head, AND be able to estimate that number of car lengths. All on-the-fly. In practice, it simply Does Not Work! STOP TRYING TO TEACH YOUR KIDS TO DO IT!!!
Now, one of the first questions I ask each of my students the first time we get out in traffic is “What distance should we keep between us and the car ahead?” I never tell them the answer first, I want to see what they already know. I get an answer that is correct or close to correct about 10% of the time. The rest of the time, the answer is either expressed in car lengths or feet, or simply “I don’t know”. The most common answer is “2 car lengths”, and is stated very matter-of-factly. The most ridiculous answer so far was “10 feet?”
So, let’s start by getting this right — The state of Florida states this in the current driver’s handbook:
Do not follow too closely behind other cars. Keep a minimum following distance of three to four seconds with an additional second for any unusual weather or traffic conditions.
That’s it. That’s the rule. 3-4 seconds of space. The beauty of this rule is that it is self-adjusting for any speed. 3-4 seconds of space works no matter what speed you are traveling. If you’re going 70 mph, you’ll cover more distance in that time than you would at 40, so it still works.
How do we apply this rule? Simple. Establish a reasonable distance between you and the car ahead. Watch the car ahead as they pass an identifiable object. It can be a sign, a pole, bump, a shadow, a road stripe, a reflector, anything you can identify. As they pass that object, start counting “one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three…” and if you don’t make it to 3, you’re too close! Ideally, you should be able to count off 3-4 seconds. If it’s night, if it’s raining, if it’s foggy, if you’re behind a truck you can’t see around… any condition that isn’t “perfect”, add more space!
As late as 2010, we used to teach this as the 2-second rule. I’ve decided to follow the state’s lead and teach it as the 3-4 second rule. Why? Because I’ve found that a LOT of kids (and probably adults) tend to count REALLY fast! The 2-second rule worked brilliantly for me when I made myself do it, but I was deliberately counting off my seconds without rushing them. What many of my students count off as 4-5 seconds is pretty close to what I would have counted as perhaps a “slightly generous” 2 seconds. So, if you’re teaching a new driver, teach them 3-4 Seconds!
Be sure to also teach them to not let a tailgater behind them incite them to drive faster than they should, or to give up their space. If anything, when you are being tailgated, you want MORE space ahead of you, not less. You want MORE space to react and be sure your braking is progressive and predictable to prevent that car that is too close behind you from hitting you! Think about what happens when a line of tailgaters, all one car-length off of each other, is driving along and the car in front decides to quickly slow down and make a turn. Somewhere down the line, one of those cars is going to at least get a scare. Don’t let yourself be a part of that situation!
Don’t be ambiguous about this when teaching a new driver. Don’t just casually mention it. Make it clear. Explain it well. Be sure they understand it. Check them on it. Make them check themselves frequently as they are learning, and teach them to recheck themselves anytime their speed environment changes. And here’s the kicker… if YOU aren’t following this rule when YOU drive, they will know. It’s pretty freakin’ obvious. “Mom and Dad don’t do this, I don’t have to do it, either.”
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a lot of students, especially those who are parent-taught… they tend to drive exactly like their parents. As a probably 35-50-year-old adult, you’ve got a good 20-30 years more experience than your kid, and perhaps you use that experience to get away with driving with your BAD HABITS. (or maybe you’re just lucky… or maybe you aren’t lucky and have had your share of crashes due to your habits?) Your kid doesn’t have your level of experience, and won’t have it for at least 10 years! Learning your bad habits will get them into trouble. Bottom line is: teach your kids good habits by example. They ARE watching. Even before they reach driving age… they are watching. So, think about this.
I know it sounds like a lot of space. I know you’re probably not used to having that much space. And, believe me, I know that keeping that much space ahead of you makes some of the people behind you absolutely crazy! But, that’s their problem, not yours. I know all of this because I used to tailgate just like everyone else. I forced myself to stop when I first started as a driving instructor. I figured that if I was going to teach the 2-second rule, I should start following it. And as soon as I did, I started realizing how much more relaxed driving is when you’re NOT too close to the car ahead. You don’t have to focus your attention on them, watching their bumper, waiting for their brake lights to come on! You have enough space to not have to worry about the car ahead of you much at all. You can look PAST them, see what traffic is doing, what lanes are doing, read important signs… all things that you would easily miss if 90% of your attention is on the car ahead of you. Once you stop tailgating, you realize that you will often react to a situation ahead (even just a red light) before the driver ahead of you does. It smooths out your driving experience, keeps you from having to brake hard as often (if ever), which greatly reduces your chances of getting rear-ended. It makes your whole driving experience not just safer, but more pleasant!
Not convinced? Maybe you’re thinking to yourself “I don’t need 3-4 seconds, I have cat-like reflexes and a car that will stop on a dime and give change!” Okay, consider that my observation is that a lot (and I mean A LOT) of people tend to travel at 0.5 to 1.0 seconds behind the car ahead of them. Have you ever considered how long it takes you to recognize and react to something? Well, scientific studies have been done. If (big, gigantic if) you are paying 100% attention, your perception time may be better than 0.75 seconds. But, how many of us really devote all of our attention to driving? Even if we’re tailgating, we’re still focusing on a lot of things other than the car ahead of us (trying to look around them, checking your mirrors, looking at the speedo, fiddling with the radio, looking at the GPS or phone, talking with passengers, thinking about the meeting you’re late for, etc). So, 0.75 seconds is probably optimistic, but we’ll go with it. Add to that another 0.75 seconds of reaction time. The time it takes your brain to get your foot to move from the accelerator to the brake and depress it far enough to actually get the car to begin decelerating. Did you notice that those optimistic estimates add up to 1.5 seconds? And you’re following at a distance of less than a second? Trust me on this, as the driver in front of you, I KNOW without question that I can absolutely brake hard without warning and make a tailgater hit me. I won’t do it on purpose. But, if something happens ahead and I have to, I will… anyone would. Think about it!
Still not convinced? Okay, let’s say you’re paying 100% attention, you have superhuman perception and reaction time. Cool. You’ve managed to avoid hitting the car ahead of you that had to brake for some reason. You missed them by mere inches. But, you missed them. Go, you! Did you ever think about the CAR BEHIND YOU? Are they tailgating you? Are they even watching the road? Or are they so engrossed in their phone conversation that their reaction time is more like 5 seconds? Or are they texting or fidgeting with their complicated in-car infotainment system or GPS to the degree that they don’t even SEE that you’re stopped ahead of them?
The safest thing you can do in traffic is avoid hard braking. That begins with keeping proper space ahead of you, and looking farther ahead… both of which allow you to make more progressive stops to protect you from the idiot behind you who might not be paying attention. You can’t do anything about THEIR habits or THEIR behavior. But, you have full control over your own. Think about it.
Footnote: This was originally written several years ago. Here’s something new to add to the mix. Have you heard of the new “brake assist” safety feature that a lot of cars have? It seems that studies have shown that the average driver simply doesn’t brake hard enough to avoid a crash in an emergency situation. So, they came up with “brake assist”. When it detects a “severe braking action” (you’ve depressed the brake pedal very suddenly), it assumes that you mean it, and HELPS you by going into full braking using the anti-lock brake system. You might not even be in a true panic situation, perhaps you were just about to miss a turn and intended to just jab the brakes a little… doesn’t matter, if you brake hard enough to exceed the threshold and engage “brake assist”, you’re gonna slow down REAL quick! How does that fit into this discussion? What if the car in front of YOU that you’re following too closely has this feature? Hmmm? They might not need to brake that hard, or even intend to… but it could happen, anyway. Let’s just not play that game, okay???