Proper Following Distance

As a driver, one can’t help but notice how many people tend to tailgate on our roads. (if you’re not familiar with the term, that means that they follow the car ahead of them too closely). I always knew this was happening, but I never really knew why. Now as a teen driving instructor, I know the answer. It is simply what parents are TEACHING their kids!

Many of us were taught in driver’s ed 20-30 or more years ago the old method that involved car lengths. Most of us, including myself, don’t remember that rule correctly, and there were several variants of it. It was something like one car length for every 5 mph over 30 or something like that. The problem with that rule (aside from the fact that nobody remembers it correctly) is that it requires you to know that rule, know how fast you’re going, be able to do some math in your head, AND be able to estimate that number of car lengths. All on-the-fly. In practice, it simply Does Not Work!


Now, one of the first questions I ask each of my students the first time we get out in traffic is “What distance should we keep between us and the car ahead?” I never tell them the answer first, I want to see what they already know. I get an answer that is correct or close to correct about 10% of the time. The rest of the time, the answer is either expressed in car lengths or feet or simply “I don’t know”. The most common answer is “2 car lengths”, and is stated very matter-of-factly. The most ridiculous answer so far was “10 feet?”

So, let’s start by getting this right — The Province of New Brunswick states this in the current driver’s handbook:

Do not follow too closely behind other cars. Keep a minimum following distance of three to four seconds with an additional second for any unusual weather or traffic conditions.

That’s it. That’s the rule. 3-4 seconds of space. The beauty of this rule is that it is self-adjusting for any speed. 3-4 seconds of space works no matter what speed you are traveling. If you’re going 100 kph, you’ll cover more distance in that time than you would at 70, so it still works.

How do we apply this rule? Simple. Establish a reasonable distance between you and the car ahead. Watch the car ahead as they pass an identifiable object. It can be a sign, a pole, bump, a shadow, a road stripe, a reflector, anything you can identify. As they pass that object, start counting “one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three…” and if you don’t make it to 3, you’re too close! Ideally, you should be able to count off 3-4 seconds. If it’s night, if it’s raining, if it’s foggy, if you’re behind a truck you can’t see around… any condition that isn’t “perfect”, add more space!

So, if you’re a new driver, follow 3-4 Seconds rules!

If anything, when you are being tailgated, you want MORE space ahead of you, not less. You want MORE space to react and be sure your braking is progressive and predictable to prevent that car that is too close behind you from hitting you! Think about what happens when a line of tailgaters, all one car-length off of each other, is driving along and the car in front decides to quickly slow down and make a turn. Somewhere down the line, one of those cars is going to at least get a scare. Don’t let yourself be a part of that situation!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a lot of students, especially those who are parent-taught… they tend to drive exactly like their parents. As a probably 35-50-year-old adult, you’ve got a good 20-30 years more experience than your kid, and perhaps you use that experience to get away with driving with your BAD HABITS. (or maybe you’re just lucky… or maybe you aren’t lucky and have had your share of crashes due to your habits?) Your kid doesn’t have your level of experience, and won’t have it for at least 10 years! Learning your bad habits will get them into trouble.

The bottom line is: teach your kids good habits by example. They ARE watching. Even before they reach driving age… they are watching. So, think about this.

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