Insurance and safety organizations report that following too closely is the leading cause of vehicle-to-vehicle accidents. That’s no surprise. As I drive locally at or near the 25-35 mph speed limits, I’m regularly accompanied by a close follower filling my inside rear view mirror entirely with their car’s windshield — they are too close for me to see the grill, bumper or headlights.
I wonder what’s on the minds of these tailgaters. Do they think that their close proximity will speed me up? On the contrary — if this occurs while I’m going 36, I’m likely going to reduce my speed to the more proper 35 mph limit. I’ll admit that if I follow someone going 20 in a 30 mph zone, I will get close, with the hope that they will speed up or move over — but a safe following distance for 20 mph IS close. I would never do that, however, if they were traveling near the speed limit.
I can only infer that these tailgaters are actually trying to coerce me into speeding. And again I stress that if they are, it won’t work. To quell my irritation, I pull over for persistent tailgaters and let them pass. But for many drivers, being tailgated might be an impetus for road rage.
The applicable law for the State of Washington is RCW 46.61.145: The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.
What is reasonable and prudent? For starters, it is a distance that allows you to avoid colliding with the vehicle ahead of you when that vehicle stops. I’m often followed closely, but have fortunately been rear-ended only once. It may be a rising peril, though, if the experiences of my friends are harbingers of a trend. Over the last couple of years, three of them were smacked in the rear when stopping. These are good drivers, but sadly there is usually no escape from a marauding driver with a shortage of good sense, too much speed and too little distance behind you.
The old school formula for safe following distance was one car length for each 10 miles per hour of speed. This mantra was once touted by driving manuals and instructors — it equated to about 20 feet for each 10 mph (cars were bigger in the ‘60s and ‘70s). That distance was adequate, but was hard to quantify and determine at higher speeds.
Our Washington State Driver Guide gives suggestions for maintaining proper space ahead of your vehicle. At a speed of 30 mph or less, a following time of two to three seconds is recommended. At higher speeds, a four second distance is safest. Driver reaction time is considered in these procedures.
Here is how the Guide explains maintaining a timed distance:
• Watch when the rear of the vehicle ahead passes a sign, pole, or any other stationary point.
• Count the seconds it takes you to reach the same spot (one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three, one- thousand-four).
• You are following too closely if you pass the mark before you finish counting.
• If so, drop back and then count again at another spot to check the new following distance. Repeat until you are following no closer than two, three or four seconds depending on speed.
Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.