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Are they jerks, or just oblivious? How to deal with tailgaters

If you can’t see all of the car behind you in your rear view mirror one of two things is happening – either they are tailgating or you just cut them off.
If you can’t see all of the car behind you in your rear view mirror one of two things is happening – either they are tailgating or you just cut them off. Associated Press

Question: What is the best way to deal with tailgaters without rewarding them for their dangerous behavior?

Answer: By “reward” I’m assuming you don’t mean a trophy or a ribbon. Does getting out of the way of a tailgater feel like rewarding them for their behavior? If so, let’s change the question a bit. How about this: What is the best way to deal with tailgaters so that I am more likely to have a safe outcome?

First though, let’s consider why people might tailgate. I can think of three reasons:

1. They’re oblivious – these drivers may not even know they’re tailgating, or they don’t realize the risks involved in following too close.

2. They’re jerks – these drivers want you to know that they own the road and you’re interfering with their use of it.

3. Someone is impeding traffic – for example, drivers who travel slow in the passing lane, drivers who begin to pass a vehicle on the freeway and then match speeds with that vehicle, drivers who on curvy roads, drive extra-slow in the curves but then speed up in the straight sections. That doesn’t justify the tailgating, but it increases the likelihood of it happening.

Number three is the easiest to solve; if you drive at a speed that collects cars behind you, be courteous (and law-abiding) and move out of the way for the faster-moving traffic. State law directs drivers to pull over at the first safe opportunity when there are five or more vehicles lined up behind the slower driver.

That doesn’t describe you? OK, good. We’ll move on.

Maybe she’s having a bad day; maybe that’s how he always drives. Either way, stay classy.

I don’t think slow drivers are the root cause of following too close. Sometimes it’s reason one; the oblivious drivers, but often it’s reason two; the aggressive drivers. The actions of an aggressive tailgater span from a simple riding your bumper to flashing headlights, honking horn and not-so-subtle hand gestures.

First of all, don’t take the actions of a tailgater personally. To paraphrase that classic break-up line, it’s not you, it’s him or her. Maybe she’s having a bad day; maybe that’s how he always drives. Either way, stay classy.

Maintain a safe and steady speed, and move out of the way when you can. The more aggressive the tailgating driver, the more important to remain calm and be clear with traffic intentions. Example – I’m traveling on the freeway, in the left lane, passing a car in the right lane. A vehicle comes up behind me at a high rate of speed and starts flashing its high beams. When I complete my pass I make sure to signal before changing lanes, because in my experience there is a high likelihood that the tailgating driver is going to try to squeeze between me and the car I’m passing at the first opportunity. I want to make it clear that I intend to move right as soon as I can see the car I passed in my rear view mirror. (Helpful tip – if you can’t see all of the car behind you in your rear view mirror one of two things is happening – either they are tailgating or you just cut them off.)

If you’re on a curvy road with only one lane in each direction, the tailgater may be hoping for a clear place to pass. Once you reach a straight section of road, stick with the same speed you were going through the curves instead of speeding up right away. That will give the tailgater an opportunity to get past you.

Here’s another piece of advice: avoid the brake check. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, the brake check is when a driver hits the brakes for no apparent reason. It can range from a quick flash of the brake lights to a rapid slow-down. You might think a brake check will get the attention of the driver behind you, but consider the kinds of tailgaters mentioned earlier. The oblivious driver might not even notice and end up crashing into you, and the aggressive driver may consider your brake check a personal insult and become even more aggressive. It can also work like the boy who cried wolf. Tap the brakes a few times for no reason and the tailgater might ignore it when it really counts. You might win in court, but that’s a hollow victory when the crash could have been avoided.

Maybe you still think getting out of the way rewards a tailgater, but the less I’m harassed by an aggressive driver the better, and that’s its own reward.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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