Keeping a safe following distance is by far one of the easiest, yet most commonly broken rules of defensive driving. Even if you follow all of the other defensive driving techniques, you can’t possibly be a safe driver unless you follow this rule each and every time you drive.
If you keep a proper distance from other drivers, you will almost always have an escape route or will be able to take some sort of evasive action in time.
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 3 seconds of space between you and the vehicle in front of you.
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 3 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.
VIDEO: How To Maintain A Safe Following Distance While Driving
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.
Safe 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 5 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 pileup accidents occur.
Safe Following Distances By Vehicle Type
While the 2-second rule (3 is becoming the standard) is a well-established minimum, there are some changes you should make to this rule based on the type of vehicle you are following. Here are some general guidelines you should follow:
Farm Equipment & Construction Vehicles – When following farm equipment or specialized construction vehicles, you should give more space. These vehicles are more difficult to control on roadways and can sometimes come to sudden stops. In general, you should add an extra second to your normal following distance.
Snowplows – Following a snowplow comes with some extra challenges. Sure, it’s nice that the snowplow is clearing the road ahead of you, but they can also kick up debris or large chunks of snow and ice, potentially causing damage to your vehicle. Give snowplows at least 4 seconds of following distance. Check out the video below to see some of the challenges snowplow drivers deal with, along with tips for driving behind a snowplow direction from snowplow drivers.
Large Trucks – Large trucks, such as semi-trucks, have lots of blind spots, including right behind them. You are also less able to see the road ahead since a large truck will obscure your view. Give large trucks more room. Here are where the biggest blindspots are in big rigs.
DID YOU KNOW? Large trucks take longer to stop when empty. That’s right! A fully loaded tractor-trailer stops in a shorter distance when it is fully loaded at 80,000lbs. This might not make sense, but truck brakes are designed to be the most efficient when they are heavy. Empty trucks do not have enough friction to slow down quickly. Here’s a bit more info on why it works this way.
Emergency Vehicles – Emergency vehicles, while necessary, can cause havoc on our roadways. Drivers panic, pull over, pull back onto the road once the emergency vehicle has passed, etc. Sometimes it can be tempting to follow closely behind an emergency vehicle as they clear the road of traffic ahead, but this is illegal in most places. Give emergency vehicles lots of room. Do not follow an emergency vehicle closer than 5 to 6 seconds behind them.
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 let’s 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 let’s 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 Vehicle
While 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.
Learn More Safe Driving Habits By Taking An Online Driver’s Ed Course
If you are a new driver who doesn’t have a driver’s license yet, you will need to take a driver’s ed class. Did you know you can take driver’s ed online now? Here are the highest-rated courses that are approved in most states for official driver’s education requirements.