Rules of the Road

Think you’re innocent when you brake check a tailgater? Better check yourself

Even if a driver is tailgating you, it is against the law to brake check them to get them to stop. It’s better and safer to keep a calm head, pull over and let them pass.
Even if a driver is tailgating you, it is against the law to brake check them to get them to stop. It’s better and safer to keep a calm head, pull over and let them pass. Associated Press

Question: I am seeing more and more brake checking going on. People doing the brake checking feel they won’t be responsible if they get rear-ended. That’s usually the case, but when you brake check, aren’t you also an aggressive driver at that point?

Answer: For those who are not familiar with the term “brake check,” I’ll start by explaining it. In this scenario, it’s not the regular inspection of one of the critical safety systems in your car. Instead, we’re discussing a driver who tries to dissuade a tailgater by slamming on the brakes.

The Washington Department of Licensing includes the brake check as one of the behaviors symptomatic of aggressive driving and road rage. Their list also includes tailgating, the action that typically precedes the brake check. As you can imagine, combining an aggressive tailgater with an aggressive brake checker can result in disaster.

Usually, when a rear-end collision occurs, we presume that the car doing the rear-ending is at fault. That’s because the law expects drivers to follow at a distance that leaves room to react to what happens ahead.

You may be familiar with the two-second rule. It’s not the rule about picking up food off the floor (that’s the five-second rule). Two seconds is the minimum (and I mean minimum) following distance that leaves time and space to react and maneuver. Three or four seconds is better. Usually a rear-end crash is caused by violating the two-second rule.

However, there was a case in Washington where a driver was charged with vehicular homicide for a brake check. Actually, the brake check was the last of a series of dangerous maneuvers, likely influenced by alcohol.

The drivers of two cars had engaged in a variety of aggressive and reckless driving behaviors, including speeding, erratic driving, tailgating and brake checking. The scene ended tragically when the driver in the front car slammed on his brakes; the following car had no time to maneuver and crashed into the lead car, killing a passenger in the second car.

Tailgaters are dangerous and annoying. You won’t get any argument from me on that. But responding to tailgaters with an action that increases the likelihood of a crash is not a good solution. There are already enough jerks in cars – no reason to make yourself another one with the brake check.

In the past, investigating a read-end collision depended on the statements of the involved drivers, and the car doing the rear-ending usually ended up with the ticket. But when everyone who owns a smartphone automatically owns a video camera, there is always the possibility of getting your driving behavior captured on video.

For evidence of that, a quick YouTube search will bring up pages of crashes and near misses.

Brake checking a tailgater seems to me like a willful disregard for the safety of another person, which fits the description of reckless driving.

Drive like a camera is watching you, because it just might be. That video evidence could result in being charged with a crime along with becoming an internet sensation for all the wrong reasons.

But how about instead of a full-on brake check, just tapping the brakes to flash the brake lights at the tailgater?

Certainly it’s less dangerous than slamming on your brakes, and it might get the attention of the car behind you. But after a while it can also result in a “boy who cried wolf” scenario.

Have you ever driven behind a driver who rests a left foot on the brake pedal? When the car ahead has frequent, or sometimes steady, brake lights while not actually slowing down, brake lights become almost meaningless.

Instead, take the high road (which in this case is probably the right lane or maybe the shoulder). Report dangerous drivers with a vehicle description and license plate, if possible.

I know there isn’t always a cop when you need one, but if you’ve ever reported a dangerous driver and then been witness to that driver’s apprehension a few miles down the road, you know it’s a kind of satisfaction to which few things compare.

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 Ask a question.