Why Following Distance is Not Judged By Car Lengths

Maintaining control of your vehicle is the goal of every driver. It doesn’t just happen. As a driver, regardless of your experience level, it can sometimes take a lot of effort. This is especially the case when it comes to following distance in traffic. If you’re not careful, you could end up tailgating – following much too closely – without realizing it. It’s time to put the myths to bed and learn to follow the facts about a proper following distance.

Following Distance

Many drivers have the belief that car lengths measure the following distance in traffic. Sorry to tell you, but that’s not the case. And it never was. If you think about it, the faster you drive your vehicle, the longer it will take to stop your vehicle once you apply your brakes. The slower you drive your vehicle, the less time it takes to stop your vehicle.

If you use car lengths as a measurement tool, you will be reducing your chance of stopping quickly and in time when the need arises. What it also means is that you may not be looking far enough ahead to read the traffic pattern ahead of you, especially in your lane. The main reason for that problem is that you’re too busy checking to see if you have 2 car lengths of space between your vehicle and the vehicle directly in front of you. Using car lengths to measure the following distance will often mean you’re tailgating someone.


Following a Larger Vehicle

Following a larger vehicle too closely can block your view from ahead of you to help you properly read the traffic pattern and know if the traffic ahead is slowing down. If you keep the proper following distance from the vehicle ahead of you, you will be able to see traffic slowdowns much earlier to allow you to slow down in plenty of time. It may even allow you to switch lanes to help you reach your destination sooner.


Safely Stop Your Vehicle

To safely stop your vehicle when the driver ahead of you applies their brakes hard, there are a few steps that have to take place. The first thing that happens is when your brain receives a message from your eyes saying the brake lights of the vehicle directly in front of you are on. Your brain then must decide if the driver ahead was braking gradually or firmly. This doesn’t normally take much time, but it does take some time.

From that point, your brain will message your foot to ease off from the accelerator and reach for the brake pedal. At this time, you have yet to apply the brake pedal. How would having two car lengths give you time to do that, especially at higher speeds, such as on the highway or freeway? It doesn’t. Drivers of any experience level will need time to stop quickly in traffic. They will also need a certain amount of time to see brake lights and a certain amount of time to respond to those brake lights by moving their foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal, and finally, they will need a certain amount of time to stop their vehicle. If we need that much time to stop your vehicle safely, it would be wise to measure the following distance in time, not car lengths.


Driving in the City

If we’re driving at city speeds of 50 km/h on a dry road, the minimum safe following distance would be 2 seconds. One thousand one, one thousand two. That’s all it could take to avoid being involved in one of the leading types of crashes in North America. To measure your 2 seconds, when the back of the vehicle ahead of you passes a fixed object at the side of the road, you should begin counting. The front of your vehicle should not reach that same point before you finish counting to 2 seconds. Some drivers may say if they left that amount of space between vehicles, other drivers would cut them off and take away that space. Drivers who tend to want to cut you off will do that regardless of how much space you have between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead of you. Leaving any additional space can give you more time to stop if they cut in front of you and immediately apply their brake. However, it is important to remember that 2 seconds is the minimum distance for a passenger vehicle under ideal road conditions.


Traveling at a Higher Speed

Increasing your following distance is an important adjustment when your stopping distance increases. Traveling faster happens to be one of those times. Driving on the freeway or highway can triple your stopping distance in an emergency. For this reason, you should leave at least 3 or 4 seconds between your vehicle and the vehicle directly in front of you. Considering that you never know the reasons why certain drivers slam on their brakes, you do need to provide a good chance to stop your vehicle in time.

Traveling at 50, 60, or even 80 km/h means your following distance should be increased. You should also increase your following distance if the road conditions are not smooth and dry. Rain, snow, and ice can greatly increase your stopping distance. If you think you can stop normally in less-than-ideal conditions, even with good tires, think again.


You’re Being Tailgated

There would be another time you would need to increase your typical following distance. This is if you’re being tailgated. If you maintain the proper following distance in traffic and the driver directly ahead of you applies their brakes hard, you will have time to stop safely. However, the problem is that the tailgater behind you would not react in time to stop without hitting your vehicle.

If you’re being tailgated, increase your following distance to another second or 2. By doing so, when the driver ahead of you brakes hard, you will not have to brake as hard as they do. This will mean the driver behind you would not have to brake as hard either and would have more time to stop without hitting your vehicle.

There you go—everything you need to know about a safe following distance.