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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Tailgating is for sporting events

There are two common forms of tailgating.  One is a celebratory gathering occurring on game day at a sporting event — that’s usually a good thing.  The other is a practice of following the vehicle ahead at a distance too close to insure accident-avoidance during an emergency stop — that’s always a bad thing.

If you wish to tailgate, by all means engage in the former.  Please, however, avoid the latter; you’ll very likely induce trouble and it will be your fault.

I suppose revelers may sometimes over-indulge in food and drink at a tailgate party, but unlike the other form of tailgating, it’s not a major cause of vehicle accidents.  And assuredly, it does not often lead to road rage like the following-too-closely version.

I’ve recently been twice-reminded that the tailgating habit on the roadway is much too common.  First, as a reluctant tailgating participant (both follower and followee) in California, I had to work hard at maintaining proper following distance ahead; there was seldom any to my rear.  Second, during an all-day downpour of rain here, I watched freeway vehicles with following distances unsafe for even bone-dry roads.

Southern California’s traffic density has somehow created a freeway culture of high speed coupled with virtually no following distance.  It is not uncommon there for the average speed of traffic to be 85 mph with a typical following distance of less than one car length — tailgating to the max!  As a result, my task was to continually try to create an acceptable following distance.  Whenever I created a safe gap though, it was quickly filled.  Still, my obligation was to back off and create yet another gap (over and over).

But with that traffic density, I was still behind others at distances and speeds that don’t add up to successful emergency stops.  In those cases, I would simply stay extra-vigilant, ready to brake or take evasive median-maneuvers in the event of sudden brake lights.

If one intently watches for brake lights and is ready on the brake pedal, crash-avoiding stops can be accomplished since one vehicle can’t stop appreciably faster than another.  Danger looms, however, if an accident ahead causes vehicles to stop faster than with brakes by hitting one another or other objects.  That’s when you need a margin of safety to avoid disaster.

Even though we don’t have the density of traffic here, tailgating persists.  On one very rainy day here, I watched several cars in the left-hand lane “pushing” vehicles that they apparently felt were holding them up by not passing others quickly enough.  These “pushers” all had following distances of about one car length and were travelling at least 10 mph above the limit.  By the way, that’s also known to law enforcement as aggressive driving.

Many drivers tailgate unconsciously, lulled into complacency by the perceived safety present when everything is flowing smoothly.  But one hiccup in that smooth flow due to an accident or emergency braking ahead can cause mass mayhem.  Every year, massive freeway pileups bear this out. 

In the past, experts have recommended one car length (15-20 feet) for each 10 mph of speed as a safe following distance.  Nowadays, that suggested distance has been converted to time.  Common education now specifies a timed following “distance” of two to three seconds at speeds up to about 50 mph, and three to four seconds at higher speeds.

To determine your timed distance, notice when the rear of the vehicle ahead passes a sign, pole, road marking or any other stationary point.  Then count the seconds it takes you to reach the same spot: one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three. You are following too closely if you pass the mark before you finish counting.

Driving instructors even recommend a proper following distance while sitting still.  Reader B.M. is aware of that too, and wrote, “When stopping behind someone at a stop sign/signal, stop so that you can see the bottom of the [rear] tires on the vehicle in front of you. This gives a little space in case the vehicle behind you hits you.”

When sports tailgating, party down!  When roadway tailgating, please back off.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at