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On your bumper and accelerating
July 23, 2008 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Why to people tailgate on the interstate?

Specifically, why do people drive at unsafe distances from other people's cars? It's not uncommon for me to see a line of more than a dozen automobiles all driving within a car length of one another at 65+ miles per hour. What's even more odd to me, is that I will frequently see cars race up to a line of people doing this, and take their spot at the back of the pack for no apparent reason.

My first thought was that it was an aggression: "I'm on your bumper so move over" thing, but when confronted with a dozen or so cars (and sometimes semis) in front of you, that doesn't make sense. I also thought it might be an effort to draft to improve gas efficiency, but considering how many of them are driving otherwise, that seems unlikely as well.

What's worse is that if one person hits their brakes, the entire line is forced to rapidly slow down, which inevitably leads to traffic congestion as people jump into a different lane, making everyone behind them slow down as well, and when traffic resumes, these cars inevitably go right back to driving with very little space in front of them.

Is it just that people are inattentive and don't realize how close they are, or is there some kind of other mechanism at work here that I am not understanding.
posted by quin to Travel & Transportation (50 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm hoping the person up front has a radar detector.
posted by danOstuporStar at 9:42 AM on July 23, 2008


My first thought was that it was an aggression: "I'm on your bumper so move over" thing, but when confronted with a dozen or so cars (and sometimes semis) in front of you, that doesn't make sense.

I think it's exactly that, plus a bit of "Seriously, you're driving way too slow" and "If I don't drive this close, someone else will cut in on me."

I don't think drafting plays much part in it (aside from those "hyper-milers" people have been writing about lately).
posted by inigo2 at 9:44 AM on July 23, 2008


It's because the idiot up front won't get out of the fast lane.
posted by sanka at 9:45 AM on July 23, 2008 [19 favorites]


Poor driving education system in this country, coupled with easy license exams, which has way too many people on the streets with a license that probably shouldn't have them.

First guy in the line is probably in the left lane thinking "I am in the fast lane, because I want to go above the speed limit."* The second guy is thinking, "I want to pass this guy, maybe if I am close enough behind him for him to see me, he will eventually pull back over into the proper lane of travel." And the guys behind him are probably thinking similar things. At which point guy number one is probably thinking "What's with all these maniac drivers tailgating me, don't they know how to drive?" When in fact, they are all driving poorly, especially the guy in the front of the pack.

*it's a passing lane, not a "fast lane"!
posted by Grither at 9:47 AM on July 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


Here are some generalizations that I believe ring true:

The majority of people are bad drivers.

The majority of those bad drivers think they are good drivers and that everyone else on the road is a bad driver.

I think most people who tailgate greatly underestimate their car's required braking distance, and greatly overestimate their own reaction time.

Usually, tailgaters believe the person in front of them is not going fast enough and that if they follow closely enough then the culprit will either speed up or get the hell out of the way. They will rationalize their rotten behaviour by saying "Well they have no business driving at XX speed in the fast lane anyway. What are they giving out licenses in Cracker Jack boxes now?"

The fundamental causes of tailgating then are self-delusion and self absorption.
posted by wabbittwax at 9:48 AM on July 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


People do not understand the idea of stopping distance, even though it's really emphasized here in Minnesota, especially during the onset of winter.

Furthermore, you'll find that people view the gap created by others driving correctly as an invitation to weave in and out of lanes. This often results in me being part of an unsafe convoy as my SD gap is constantly filled by bad drivers.
posted by unixrat at 9:58 AM on July 23, 2008


[a few comments removed - this is a question about tailgating, not a chance to reiterate what you hate about other drivers, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 10:02 AM on July 23, 2008


On any multiple lane highway (two lanes or more) the left lane is NOT THE FAST LANE. It is the PASSING lane.

Absolutely right. I used the term "fast lane" in error in my previous post.
posted by wabbittwax at 10:03 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


May contain one or more of the following: inattentive, bad drivers, jerks, in a hurry, rude, daydreaming, trying to get you to move out of their way, late for something, trying to enforce some personal notion of which lane is for what, not even thinking about it, passive-aggressive, active-aggressive, unaware of what a safe distance is, preventing somebody else from cutting in front of them, imitating others' behavior, processed in a facility which contains nuts.
posted by ook at 10:08 AM on July 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


It's actually a defensive driving technique that works well as long as you're paying close attention to your driving. If you leave a comfortable gap, people will be constantly and unexpectedly pulling into that gap, which leaves you in the same position of being too close. Better you control the closeness than some lane-hopper.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:08 AM on July 23, 2008


My Chicago-native fiancé explains it as a safety measure to prevent others from cutting in front of him. Of course, you know how FIBs are. Then again, having lived down here for over a year now, I'm becoming inclined to agree with him. People are f---king insane on the Chicago freeways.
posted by desjardins at 10:12 AM on July 23, 2008


There is alot of truth in alot of the above however...its alot of bias.

As a guilty party here I want to just make 4 points:

1. This type of behavior cannot be broad brushed as "aggesssion". I do ride close to 18-wheelers because it DOES save a TON of gas. You can google this or maybe if your lucky you can catch the MythBusters episode with this. And I agree with danOstuporStar as bad as that sounds. Who wants a ticket?

2. I dont know where a few of you guys went to "driving school" at but the left lane IS in fact the "fast" lane unless it is marked as a HOV lane and then you are correct. Where I live, there is without a doubt some of the WORSE drivers in the nation and in keeping with that on our highway there a numerous signs that read:
"Slower vehicles keep right"...hmmm....wonder why? The MIDDLE lane is the passing lane and then yes, from there you would want to merge BACK into the far right lane if you planning to keep it 65 or whatever. This is common sense and I would urge you haters to pick up a local DMV Instruction on this matter.

3. I lived over seas for quite sometime (Doha, Qatar) and trust me with every cent I own, that if you have a tough time with drivers here, driving over there will induce panic attacks. Tailgating!? If a Qatari gets behind you going 80-90 mph and your going to slow...YOU WILL GET BUMPED! The nice ones will flash their lights and honk their horn until you move. So, you do have it lucky here...gosh I miss driving over there.

Finally, if you get a chance go to YouTube and check out a video (cannot remember the exact title) about a group of people who went down the highway ALL going 65 and in each of the 5 or 6 lanes. The utter confusion and traffic issues were hilarious! These guys had miles long of cars behind them honking and screaming...it proves that 65 is not a perfect number when it comes to highway driving infastructure...if we all went 65 on the highway, our highways would be backed up almost constantly.

My advise is, you can't change them, and they can't change you...so...you gunna have to move over, to the far right lane.

Be safe!
posted by TeachTheDead at 10:13 AM on July 23, 2008


In some places people close the gap so that others don't slide in and get in front of them. I usually assume it's a "me first" thing. Sometimes you'll notice people specifically speeding up to close the distance and block others out (particularly when a neighbor puts on their blinker).

Other times it is because there is no place else to go. The guy at the front of the line is too slow, and the surrounding traffic is too slow or heavy to weave in and out of (and I would imagine some people, even though they are fine with unsafely tailgating, don't want to weave).

And still other times it's the pack mentality. I used to do this when I was young and stupid. If eight of us are going too fast, and I'm somewhere in the pack, I figure my chances of getting caught are less since technically I am keeping up with the speed of traffic, and not passing everyone around me.

Along similar lines, I read once about Traffic Waves and started adhering to the principles therein. I arrived within the same amount of time as usual, was much less stressed, had zero "near-misses" and overall felt much safer throughout my journey. Even if someone cuts into your gap and decreases your braking distance, you slow just slightly to regain the distance with the new car. Basically, you maintain a constant speed instead of the accelerating and braking, so it all evens out in the end.
posted by ml98tu at 10:14 AM on July 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


I like to keep a constant "safety space" in front of my car because I do have an idea about breaking distance. Tailgating seems to be the logical signal to the guy in front of you that he's going too slow.
posted by CrazyJoel at 10:14 AM on July 23, 2008


I don't mean to pick on weapons-grade pandemonium, but I'm afraid s/he might be exemplifying wabbitwax 2nd and 3rd point by assuming s/he is a good enough driver that s/he can tailgate safely, while others cannot.
posted by JMOZ at 10:15 AM on July 23, 2008


I know many habitual tailgaters. I assumed that they did so out of aggression and a desire to go fast, but when I asked them why they tailgate, their answer was often "I don't know."

Which leads me to believe it's mindless driving, rather than a desire to drive a particular speed. They have trained themselves to drive on automatic - when they see clear road ahead, they speed up. When there is a car in front of them, they match the speed of that car. That explains why some drivers will tailgate in the left-most lane, or why they pass on the right in a three-lane highway even though the passing lane is open. It's pure mindless driving.
posted by muddgirl at 10:15 AM on July 23, 2008


The fundamental causes of tailgating then are self-delusion and self absorption.
I would call the fundamental cause people traveling in the passing lane while not actively passing anyone and refusing to pull over, but that doesn't really excuse driving unsafely as a consequence.
I think most people who tailgate greatly underestimate their car's required braking distance, and greatly overestimate their own reaction time.
Although people may have little or no real idea of the stopping power of their car, it isn't much of a factor in this case. So long as your car doesn't require a longer stopping distance than the car in front of you, your stopping distance is not a factor. Your reaction time is the problem. It rarely comes into play because so long as the person in front of you doesn't slam on the brakes, you can adjust for your reaction time by stopping harder than the guy in front of you until you get far enough back in the line that someone can not stop fast enough to make up the combined reaction times of the people in front of him. On the highway, essentially no one follows far enough to safely accommodate a panic stop by a line of cars. At 65mph, the three second rule would require leaving 288 feet between you and the car in front of you. That would be more than four tractor-trailer lengths. You would have to move backwards to maintain that kind of spacing because cars will fill the spots faster than you can slow down.

Even a more realistic following distance (not those advocated by safety folks) of one second would still be nearly 100 feet, enough room for so many cars that people would fill the gap at a regular interval. A realistic real world distance of about three car lengths (call it 50 feet) would still result in spectacular pile-ups in a panic stop because nobody has a half second reaction time. So, everyone is taking risks on the highway and it is just a matter of what you consider safe. If there are just two cars in the left lane, I'm not worried about a very small gap between me and the slower car because my car stops faster than his and there are very few real-world scenarios where he would panic stop. In a line of three or four or more cars, I'm much more concerned about it and I think driving within one car length as the fourth or fifth guy in line is very foolish.

I think people are just not very thoughtful about their driving. The person in front should have pulled over and the fourth person in line is going to panic stop when they see brakelights because they are on the phone and didn't realize they were so close and then someone will hit them.
posted by Lame_username at 10:18 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


There have always been tailgaters, but it's gotten way, way worse since the advent of nationally televised NASCAR, where it's done in races for obvious strategic reasons. Besides aggressiveness and stupidity, I think a lot of tailgaters have fantasies of driving the NASCAR circuit.

weapons-grade pandemonium: It's actually a defensive driving technique that works well as long as you're paying close attention to your driving. If you leave a comfortable gap, people will be constantly and unexpectedly pulling into that gap, which leaves you in the same position of being too close. Better you control the closeness than some lane-hopper.

I rest my case. Perhaps it's "defensive driving technique" in a NASCAR race, but not on an interstate highway. Preventing people from scooting in front of you is not "defensive driving", it's aggressive driving, leadfooting and racing. If you find yourself "too close", you should slow down and drop back.
posted by beagle at 10:19 AM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


ook: trying to enforce some personal notion of which lane is for what,

This Wikipedia page might be of service. In particular the Misuse and Common Practice section that contains the following passage:

"It is also illegal in many states in the U.S. to use the "far left" or passing lane on a major highway as a travelling lane (as opposed to passing), or to fail to yield to faster moving traffic that is attempting to overtake in that lane."

The reason there are so many tailgaters is due in large part to the fact that not many drivers in the US abide by this law, which leads to many of the things pointed out above. People who are not passing and are still in the left lane leads to people behind them trying to get by them, but not wanting to break another law by passing on the right. And those who do leave enough braking distance in front of them tend to get cut off by people who don't care that they are breaking the law by passing someone on the right. But even the weaving problem which leads people to defensively drive closer to the vehicle in front of them than is safe would be taken care of if instead that person was in the right lane where they belong instead of tailgating someone else who may be illegally "hanging out" in the left lane.
posted by Grither at 10:23 AM on July 23, 2008


I dont know where a few of you guys went to "driving school" at but the left lane IS in fact the "fast" lane unless it is marked as a HOV lane and then you are correct. Where I live, there is without a doubt some of the WORSE drivers in the nation and in keeping with that on our highway there a numerous signs that read:
"Slower vehicles keep right"...hmmm....wonder why? The MIDDLE lane is the passing lane and then yes, from there you would want to merge BACK into the far right lane if you planning to keep it 65 or whatever. This is common sense and I would urge you haters to pick up a local DMV Instruction on this matter.
Actually many states have laws similar to Colorado's "Left Lane Law" reading "A person shall not drive a motor vehicle in the passing lane of a highway if the speed-limit is sixty-five miles per hour or more unless such person is passing other motor-vehicles that are in a non-passing lane."
posted by Lame_username at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2008


Tailgating seems to be the logical signal to the guy in front of you that he's going too slow.

Sure, but what if you are the fourth car back? The car in front of you can't possibly go any faster because he is directly behind someone else, so where does the motivation to ride his bumper come from?

And as a point of clarification, I've seen this happen when it would have been possible to pass by switching lanes, yet it seems preferential for them to remain in close proximity to the car in front of them.
posted by quin at 10:27 AM on July 23, 2008


I was in New Mexico for a few days last week (I live in California, and commute on a freeway every day to work) and was astonished at the number of people who used the left lane as a passing lane. Like, they drove in it until they passed the slower driver, and then they moved out of the passing lane.

I drive on a eight-lane freeway every day (four northbound lanes, four southbound). I'm usually in the #3 lane - that is, one lane left of the farthest-right lane - and even there, I get tailgated. I get tailgated when there are cars in front of me and to the left and the right - there's nowhere for me to go - and the tailgater is practically driving over my car.

I'm putting it down to entitlement, distraction, and general assholery.
posted by rtha at 10:30 AM on July 23, 2008


I do it for danOstuporStar's reasoning. I figure if I'm in a line of 6 cars going 80 mph, my chances of getting nabbed are much less than if I were flying past every car on my own. Safety in numbers. As long we're still passing cars in the "fast lane," I'm happy.
posted by jmd82 at 10:36 AM on July 23, 2008


Rarely do I see people tailgating casually, as if they only feel safe when another car is nearby, but it does happen. Typically I find tailgating to mean that the tailgater needs (or wants) to travel faster than traffic ahead of them will allow. The "problem" of tailgating is caused by people who refuse to move over, or who don't pay attention to their rearview mirrors.

In a word: the clueless. One thing I've learned through my own experience is that sometimes people need to get someplace quickly for perfectly legitimate reasons. Since there is no universal hand gesture or highbeam flicker pattern for "I just found out my Dad is suddenly dying," or, "the server you depend on for your job has just crashed," we are all unable to know why exactly the person in back of us is tailgating. My philosophy is to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's because they need to get someplace more urgently than I do.

As for the train of cars, it's both a cumulative effect of the above and a hopeful plea toward the common laws that you should pull to the side when there are x number of cars behind you.
posted by rhizome at 10:40 AM on July 23, 2008


I think muddgirl has it. Yesterday I got a ride from a co-worker who drives in an exceptionally clueless manner. I had to bite my tongue repeatedly to avoid mentioning that his default following distance of approximately 15 feet is probably not the safest tactic. He's not trying to be a jerk, but I'm sure that's the way it comes across to the car in front.
posted by harkin banks at 10:43 AM on July 23, 2008


rtha, it was my experience in LA that you'd get tailgated in a parking lot or car wash. It wasn't anything personal, either. Once you get to the flyover states people behave a lot better. My favorite drivers are Montanans, who maintain plenty of space - but if they're waiting for a red light and it takes too long, they give up and figure it's broken.

On rural stretches of I-5, people drive in the left (fast) lane independent of speed because the right lane is extremely bumpy. That leads to short tempers and right-lane passing. I have no idea why Caltrans doesn't make every effort to keep the right lane smooth, to assist people in choosing it. Unlike in LA, I notice that there's a general compact among Bay Area drivers to leave the leftmost lane relatively clear - of course there are exceptions but you don't find Mr. Oblivious ahead of you all the time.
posted by jet_silver at 10:46 AM on July 23, 2008


Cluelessness, mainly. Sure, I can see tailgating a guy 4 cars from the front in an effort to get him to try to get the guy in front of him to move, but I can't count the number of times I've been tailgated in the right lane, while going well over the speed limit, with plenty of room to get around me. There is plenty of aggression to go around, sure, but most folks aren't really trying to be jerks.

It's like folks who walk on escalators right up until they get behind someone, someone who could easily be passed, then stop walking. They're not trying to be rude, or trying to accomplish anything, really. It's my firm belief that most people are on autopilot most of the time, and they simply don't even realize they're tailgating. They cruise along, encounter an obstacle, and adjust in the manner that involves the least personal action.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:49 AM on July 23, 2008


If I'm in the correct (middle or "slow") lane and people tailgate, I slow down to compensate so there's 2 seconds between me and them. 90% of them realize they need to be in the passing lane and go there, the other 10%, well, not my problem as long as they are now driving safely.
posted by shepd at 11:03 AM on July 23, 2008


I (used to) tailgate. For a couple of reasons

1) The car in front of me was going slower than I wanted to go so I slowed down and was following it and was not paying any attention to how close I was to the other car. We weren't touching, that's all I knew. Until they pulled over and got out of the car to yell at me for following to close.

2) No one has ever told me how close to other car I have to be to be tailgating. Seriously. If you can just see the other car's bumper (okay that's probably too close), the tires, the street? *shrugs*
posted by nooneyouknow at 11:05 AM on July 23, 2008


"I dont know where a few of you guys went to "driving school" at but the left lane IS in fact the "fast" lane unless it is marked as a HOV lane and then you are correct."

In Washington State it is in fact the Passing Lane. Technically, unless you are passing, you're not supposed to drive in the far left lane at all. (Apparently this holds true in many but not all states.)

My informed-only-by-personal-experience opinion is that people aren't generally thinking a whole lot when they're driving. And then it snowballs from every little thing: the person going slow in the passing lane; people trying to not get cut off; the occasional state patrol car on the side of the road, etc. I'm sure there's a really cool physics and/or psychology study in the making about that sort of thing...and probably a few that have been done already.
posted by epersonae at 11:10 AM on July 23, 2008


Tailgating seems to be the logical signal to the guy in front of you that he's going too slow.

You would think, but Ive been tailgated in the right lane of a four lane highway when all other lanes are totally open and I'm going 10 over the speed limit. I think people are clueless drivers, probably zoning out or talking on their phone. I also think it varies regionally. My sister has been living in Colorado for a long time now and will no longer drive on Chicago highways because they're too crazy. If she drove like that in Colorado she'd get a ticket in no time.
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:20 AM on July 23, 2008


Most likely because there are few consequences for doing it - if there were explosives in the road that would be triggered by tailgating cars, nobody would do it anymore.
posted by Calloused_Foot at 11:33 AM on July 23, 2008


Overtly aggressive drivers aside, I think some people simply do not understand the risk of tailgating, or even that they are tailgating. Some people even appear to feel more comfortable tailgating--i.e. if you move over, they do too, but exhibit no other aggressive behavior.

If I remember correctly, the rule was two seconds between cars to allow for adequate stopping distance in normal conditions; three or more in rain, snow, etc.

On the flip-side, Traffic wave theory works and it would be great if more people were aware of it. Explains why traffic jams persist long after the original catalyst, and how to use your driving behavior to loosen them up. Basically, you leave long distances between you and the next car, and stay off the brake pedal. No brake lights to perpetuate long-resolved traffic jams. What's more, it improves your gas mileage and lowers the stress of driving (on you and your car), and gets you there in about the same time.
posted by mumeishi at 11:38 AM on July 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


To piggyback on what MrMoonPie says (especially the escalator analogy), it may also be an idea of "if I get as close to the front of the line as possible, I'll get there faster," even if getting closer doesn't advance you in the line order.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 11:42 AM on July 23, 2008


@nooneyouknow: My high school driving instructor taught me that you should see the back tires touching the ground from the person in front of you, and that's on residential streets. But I'm not sure how official his policy was. I consider that I'm being tailgated when I can't see the headlights of the person behind me. It's at that point that I pull over into the left lane (if it's vacant) and slow down to let the tailgater pass me.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 11:45 AM on July 23, 2008


In my state, we have one major interstate that runs the length of the state. It is two lanes for the vast majority of its existence.
During the daylight hours, there are generally far too many vehicles that want to transit the state than the road can handle. A lot of the vehicles are 18-wheelers who, for various reasons, prefer the right lane. This is generally a good thing, however, it makes "keep right except to pass" rule unworkable in practice, as the trucks and other slow moving vehicles tend to form a long solid block.
This leaves the left lane for those of us who don't mind driving a bit faster, but it also leaves the left lane for those who want to pass the 55-mph rig at 57 mph.
Because of the nature of the traffic, this person may not find a gap in the right lane for quite sometime, and the gap may be quite small. So, what we end up with is essentially a whole line of cars in the "overtake" mentality.
That is, when the slower driver pulls right, you need to be ready to go, as you can't be sure how long the left lane will be open and you have limited time to work past the slower vehicle.
So, yes, you may see cars rush up to the line of cars in front of them for what seems like no particular reason, but it does serve a purpose, at least in parts of my state.

On a more personal note, I drive a small car. I'm surrounded by SUVs, min-vans, and sedans with tinted rear windows. Often, I can't tell if I'm the 15th person in line or if it's just the one soccer-mom in the Suburban. So, if I am trying to pass said person, and am in the "passing position", I sometimes can't tell it's a futile gesture until there is a gap, and I pull out and see the other 14 cars.
To an outside observer, it may appear as "Look as this idiot, where does he think he's going?", but from my perspective, it's rational behaviour.
posted by madajb at 12:10 PM on July 23, 2008


"I'm hoping the person up front has a radar detector."

That was my first thought. Other driver might just be trying to hide behind the first driver, so probability of you getting caught speeding is less.
posted by WizKid at 12:10 PM on July 23, 2008


It's because American's like the compact look of trains, so attempt to recreate them on the street.

The "I don't want anyone cutting in front of me" is interesting though, as personal, if someone takes my space cushion, I'll just back off of them.

As far as the use of the left lane, it really differs by state and then within the section of the state. Near where I live, there are two sections of road where being in the left-most of three lanes is the only way to merge onto some other section of road. When I need to take that turn, I'll enter the left lane as much as a mile or more away so I don't have to dangerously cut over at the last moment, which seems to confound anyone intent on only using the left lane as a dragstrip (and then cut over back to right as the lane ends).
posted by drezdn at 12:12 PM on July 23, 2008


After a few minutes of acclimatizing , traveling at 65mph feels like traveling at 35mph, so naturally you would drive to keep the same distance from the car in front as you do when on congested surface streets - it's how you habitually drive. Except at 65mph, to anyone with a clue that distance is now tailgating.
So I cast my vote for general cluelessness as filler for those cases not explained by aggression or frustration.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:23 PM on July 23, 2008


That Traffic Wave site is interesting. I thought I was all clever because independently, I created a virtually identical model in my head based on dealing with traffic on my way to work; I had no idea that someone put this together ten years ago.
posted by quin at 12:29 PM on July 23, 2008


"I'm hoping the person up front has a radar detector."

You can match speeds with someone in front, without tailgating. So this thinking can explain convoys, but convoys of tailgaters still have some explaining to do.
posted by -harlequin- at 12:35 PM on July 23, 2008


Why to people tailgate on the interstate?

Because they failed high school physics.

I do seem to notice somewhat less tailgating in Minnesota, and I'm also assuming (like the person above) that icy conditions thin out the ranks of tailgaters each cold season, not that people here are better drivers than anywhere else.
posted by gimonca at 12:43 PM on July 23, 2008


Part of the aggression might be due to peer interaction. People see aggressive drivers and instinctively they "join the hunt." I only see tailgating in cities; between cities, drivers seem a lot more careful and courteous.
posted by SPrintF at 12:46 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


No one has ever told me how close to other car I have to be to be tailgating. Seriously. If you can just see the other car's bumper (okay that's probably too close), the tires, the street? *shrugs*

A practical definition of tailgating: If they had to hit the brakes without warning, is it possible that you could end up driving into the back of them? (Taking into account that you may be distracted, zoned out, or chatting on a phone).
posted by -harlequin- at 12:50 PM on July 23, 2008


I do it for one reason, which has been mentioned above but not fully fleshed out. Consider the situation: I'm traveling in the left lane at X miles an hour, 3 car lengths behind the person in front of me who is also driving X miles an hour, and the lane to my right contains two cars: one driver, A, in front, is traveling X-10 miles an hour, and is five car lengths ahead of the other driver, B, who is driving X-5 miles per hour. Since B is overtaking A, he is likely to merge into the left lane to pass A. However, since B is a mouth-breathing, inconsiderate, borderline-incompetent Masshole, he will most likely pull in front of me with approximately half a car length separating us, traveling 5 miles per hour slower than I am. This causes me to have to slam on the brakes, creating needless traffic waves behind me, and most likely endangering both of us.

By following the car in front of me at an unsafe distance of one and a half car lengths rather than three car lengths, I am paradoxically reducing the risk of an accident.

Disclaimer: I am also an inconsiderate Masshole, who is not above passive-aggressively tailgating if someone is in the left lane and moving slower than I am. However, the above is not just an attempt at avoiding cognitive dissonance.
posted by Mayor West at 1:03 PM on July 23, 2008


I don't think there's that much thought going into it. People get in the habit of following way to close and just do it all the time without thinking about it.
posted by winston at 1:04 PM on July 23, 2008


nooneyouknow: In Driver's Ed I was taught that you should be 4 seconds behind the car in front of you, with the caveat that 4 seconds is excessive and in the Real World it would be more like 2 seconds. Since it's a time measurement, the distance grows as your speed grows.

Not being able to see his tires touching the ground is insanity to me, even at non highway speeds. FWIW, I'm in Canada.
posted by utsutsu at 1:14 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I like to use the guy in front of me as a speedometer. It's a lot easier than actually driving.
posted by disclaimer at 2:19 PM on July 23, 2008


I have long suspected that tailgating is a symptom of the competitive attitude some infantile drivers have while driving, drivers who seem to think, "I am not moving unless I am passing people." That is, if they are moving with the flow of traffic, and not passing others, these idiots think they are stationary. They appear to be incapable realizing that although their car is keeping pace with the other vehicles, they are all traveling at 75 miles an hour, so will get to their destination in good time.

Seriously, tailgaters, if your server is down, or your father is dying, it is still not necessary to go faster than 75 miles an hour. You will get there. The four seconds that will be shaved off by traveling 80 does not justify riding someone's bumper in an infantile insistence that you must be passing people.
posted by jayder at 3:33 PM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


This thread illustrates pretty well that some people don't realize how long a car takes to stop. I think a lot of tailgaters are simply unaware that they're driving poorly and dangerously, and as a result they don't bother making sure to keep a distance greater than "I'm not actually touching your bumper."
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:56 PM on July 23, 2008


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