Keeping A Safe Following Distance While Driving
Keeping a safe following distance is by far one of the easiest, yet most commonly broken rules of defensive driving. Even if you follow every other defensive driving technique, you can't possibly be a safe driver unless you follow this rule each and every time you drive. If you keep your distance from other drivers, you will almost always have an escape route, or will be able to take some sort of evasive action with ease. Even during very high speeds, if you maintain a large enough following distance, your chance of a collision with the vehicle in front of you is very small.
Determining Your Safe Following Distance
At a MINIMUM, during dry weather conditions, you should have at least 2 seconds of space between you and the vehicle in front of you (3 seconds is better). Do this by using a fixed object such as a bridge, tree, or even a crack or shadow in the roadway. Once the rear bumper of the vehicle in front of you crosses that object, begin to count... one-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three, etc. If you don't make it to 2 by the time your front bumper crosses that same fixed object, you need to increase the following distance. Of course, being further away than 3 seconds isn't only acceptable, it's recommended.
Safe Following Distance In Poor Weather Conditions
When visibility is low such as light fog, light rain, or nighttime driving, you should double the following distance to a minimum of 4 seconds. This will seem like a large gap between you and the vehicle in front of you. That's ok. I promise, it won't make your drive much longer, if any longer, than if you were tailgating. Adding a few seconds following distance is a very minor inconvenience for a huge benefit should something occur. Everyone "thinks" they are driving far enough behind the vehicle in front of them, yet rear-end collisions are one of the most common forms of traffic accidents. Use the counting technique for following distances, and you can be much more confident that you're driving at a safe distance.
Following Distance During Extreme Weather Conditions
When driving during major inclement weather such as snow, ice, heavy rain, etc., you should increase your safe following distance to a minimum of 6 seconds (during extreme icing events, as much as 10 seconds is recommended). Yes, this will seem like an eternity. But if you are in a hurry during major poor weather conditions, you are an extreme hazard to yourself and everyone around you. Relax, back off, and keep your distance. While driving in hazardous conditions, you shouldn't be concerned with what time you arrive at your destination. You should be concerned with simply arriving there. Some people like to stay close to the vehicle in front of them because they believe it helps increase their visibility. Yet that kind of thinking is exactly how multi-car pile up accidents occur.
Maintaining A Safe Following Distance Can Be Challenging
Keeping these following distances will be very tough at times, especially during heavy traffic. Other vehicles will continuously cut you off and close the gap. In a sense, they are taking advantage of your safe driving habits to try and get slightly further ahead. That's ok. Remember, they aren't a great defensive driver like you are. And someday, it'll probably catch up to them. Don't get angry with them. Simply adjust. You have made the choice to be a safe driver, so it's up to you to adjust your driving skills around the actions of less educated and less talented drivers. Most people don't even realize they are being poor drivers. So don't take it personally when somebody performs an unsafe driving maneuver around you. Just adjust, keep your distance, and adjust again. In heavy traffic, the cycle seems never ending.
Keeping A Safe Following Distance Doesn't Cost You Time
Many people think an increased following distance will cost them too much time, especially when driving in traffic. No doubt, you'll be cut off and will need to further open the space between you and the vehicle in front of you. It'll be a constant challenge and you'll have to constantly adjust. But just how much time will it cost you?
Well, let's say for every car that cuts you off, you lose 5 seconds from your day (a pretty liberal number). And lets say you're cut off 50 times during your commute (that's a lot! But it makes the math easy). That means, you'll arrive at your destination a whopping 4 minutes later than if you reduced the following distance. And lets face it, does each car that cuts you off really cost you 5 seconds? And do you really get cut off 50 times during your commute? You really aren't losing much time. An accident would be much more costly.
Don't Forget The Space Next To Your VehicleWhile maintaining a safe following distance, it's also important to keep a driving buffer zone on the sides of your vehicle as well. Remember the driving tip about always having an escape plan and leaving an out? That applies here. While it's not always possible, try your best to keep as many escape routes open as you can. Sometimes this is out of your control, but whenever possible keep the lanes next to you clear.
As for the rear of your vehicle, there isn't much you can do here. The front of your vehicle is almost always within your control. The sides are sometimes in your control. The back is very difficult to control.
How To Handle Tailgaters
If you are being tailgated, try changing lanes. Let off the gas pedal and very gradually slow down to entice the tailgater to pass. The last thing you want to do is be caught off guard to a potential hazard.
Never be intimidated. If you're worried you'll get rear ended, increase your following distance and continue to coast to a slower speed. You can't control how others drive. All you can do is adjust to their crappy driving. As someone who studies traffic safety, I've learned something about tailgaters. You can never please them. If you go 5mph over the limit, they will still tailgate you. If you go 10mph over the limit, they will still tailgate you. So don't ever speed up on account of being tailgated. It's not going to work.
For a more thorough explanation, see my how to deal with tailgaters page.
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Written By: Mike Rogers