We’ve all been there. You’re driving down the road, maintaining a comfortable, safe speed, at or slightly above the speed limit (come on, admit it, you know you probably push the envelope of speed, just a tad) when you glance in your rearview mirror and see the car behind you driving a foot and a half away from your bumper.
This is the classic tailgater. You speed up, he speeds up. You slow down, he slows down. He won’t pass. You, as a typical stubborn driver, refuse to pull over and force him to get in front of you.
Your first thought is, “This guy is a jerk.” “He’s a menace on the road.” “He’s a bad driver.” All of this may be true. No one with an ounce of common courtesy tailgates. Statistics from CarInsuranceList.com indicate that 95 percent of accidents are caused, at least in part, by poor driver performance with tail-gating being among the top bad driver behaviors. Driving guidebooks that are used to train new drivers dictate a safe distance speed between vehicles as being one car length for every 10 miles per hour of speed. There’s no question that tailgating is unsafe, unfriendly, illegal and just plain mean.
But, there’s something else involved in the process of tailgating; something deeper, a little more insidious and just as dangerous. When a driver deliberately and consistently tailgates the car in front of him, it’s not because he’s aggressive, in a hurry or rude (although he may be one or all of the above). Drivers tailgate the car in front of them because they can’t drive. Or, more exactly, they can’t position themselves on the road without lining themselves up with another vehicle.
Learning to drive involves learning to make spatial judgments on the road. How close am I to the curb? Where is the center line? Everyone chooses elements from their environment to make these connections to the road in front of them and to determine their proper place on the road.
Tailgaters choose the car in front of them to align themselves in time and space. According to Drivers.com, tailgaters maintain the same speed as the car in front of them to give themselves a false illusion of safety. They don’t have to rely on their own judgment to determine the proper speed.
While tailgating is stressful to the driver being followed, there is also an inordinate amount of stress being placed on the offending driver. In the process of defending their limited space between themselves and the car in front of them, a tailgater must keep a close eye on the car in front, thereby making it difficult to adequately look around to the sides, further up front or behind for possible traffic risks on the road. The tailgater is too busy maintaining his own moving traffic hazard to notice what else might be going on.
In spite of the fact that tailgating is the cause of most rear end collisions, tailgating is also one of the most common driving offenses. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, an alert driver needs at least two seconds (other sources recommend 3-4 seconds) to see a roadway hazard and react to it. And, the larger the vehicle, the longer that stopping distance needed in an emergency situation. A tailgating driver does not have the advantage of this reaction time.
So, the next time a deer jumps out in front of you and you have to swerve or slam on your brakes, or you slow down to maneuver over any icy patch on the road, you can count on the fact that the tailgater behind you will compound the accident when he rear-ends you. He was just too busy trying to adjust his position on the road by driving closely behind you. What he lacked in spatial referencing ability he will likely make up for in aggressive tailgating.