Rules of the Road

Why is that @$*&#! riding my bumper? If you’re not paying attention, you could be, too

Statistics show that the number of collisions involving a car that was following too closely in Washington state continue to grow.
Statistics show that the number of collisions involving a car that was following too closely in Washington state continue to grow. Associated Press

Question: It seems like tailgating is becoming more of a problem. Do the police ever enforce it?

Answer: Allow me to validate your perception. Last year in northwest Washington (Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan Counties), following too closely was a factor in 880 crashes. We had a total of 6,492 reported collisions in the region, putting tailgating (the most common slang term for following too closely) as a contributing action in nearly one in every seven crashes. I’d agree with you that it’s a problem.

Is it becoming more of a problem? Towards the end of 2013 the Washington State Patrol launched their online Collision Analysis Tool, which allows anyone to search through crash records in our state. The numbers show each year we’ve seen an increase in crashes caused by tailgating. Not only is following too closely a problem, it’s a problem that’s getting worse.

So far I’ve just applied some data to confirm a problem most everybody already knows exists. What we really need to know is, “What is being done about it?”

First we should evaluate our own driving behavior.

Here’s why: Many tailgaters are not aggressive drivers, they’re unaware drivers. When we drive the same routes day after day they become a subconscious routine, and we get lulled into a false sense of safety. It’s easy to pay less attention to following distances and become an accidental (pun intended) tailgater.

So review your driving habits and make sure you’re not part of the problem.

There are a lot of people asking for more enforcement of drivers who follow too closely. Think of the irony if some of those same people were the ones who got tickets from increased enforcement.

What does tailgating enforcement look like? One method of enforcing tailgating involves a stopwatch and a fixed object. Here’s a step-by-step description of how it’s done:

▪ Step 1: Park in a position that affords a clear view of the roadway.

▪ Step 2: Choose a fixed object, like a signpost or telephone pole, as a measuring point.

▪ Step 3: Watch for cars that are tailgating.

▪ Step 4: When the first car passes the measuring point, begin timing with a stop watch.

▪ Step 5: When the second car passes the measuring point, stop timing.

By measuring the time between vehicles, the officer can determine if the second car is following too closely to the first one. Remember back in driver’s ed when the instructor told us about the two-second rule? That’s what the officer is measuring.

Also, the two-second rule is a bare minimum. The Washington Driver’s Guide suggests that two to three seconds may be enough at speeds less than 30 mph, but recommends four seconds.

A lot has to happen to be able to stop in that two- to four-second window. Car magazines often address stopping distance in reviews. That’s the distance it takes from the time the brakes are applied until the car comes to a complete stop. In the real world those numbers can easily be doubled. Ordinary driving situations involve human perception, human reaction and vehicle stopping capability.

Human perception is the time it takes to recognize a hazard and convince your brain to do something about it. Perception time is around one-quarter to one-half of a second, if you’re paying attention. Impairment, lack of sleep and distraction can extend perception time.

Side note: Texting drivers typically take their eyes off the road for three to five seconds at a time. For those drivers, the officer will probably be issuing a following too closely infraction at the scene of a crash.

Human reaction time is from the moment your brain tells your foot to step on the brake until your foot follows through and starts applying pressure. This takes between a quarter and three-quarters of a second.

Vehicle stopping capability depends on the type of brakes in the car and how well they work, the condition of the tires, the weight of the vehicle, the road surface and many other factors. Even in ideal conditions, this varies between vehicles. Some modern sports cars can come to a stop from 60 mph in less than 100 feet, while a new full-size pickup may take more than 150 feet to stop from the same speed.

Without getting into the physics too much, speed and stopping distance are not linear. Doubling the initial speed before braking will result in a three- to fourfold increase in stopping distance.

Enforcement alert: Now would be a good time to practice safer following distances. This week, Law enforcement agencies in Northwest Washington are focusing on drivers who follow too closely, tailgate, ride your bumper, crawl up your backside or whatever term you use when the car behind you is so close you can’t see its headlights.

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.