“Rear-end crashes result in more than 2,200 fatalities and approximately one-half million injuries each year.”
— University of Rhode Island
“The operator of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent.”
— Ohio Revised Code 4511.34
Here in Buckeye Country we’re likely, each fall, to end up taking part in the kind of tailgating that involves burgers, hot dogs and chips. That tailgating is fun and usually precedes a Buckeye victory. But the tailgating of the motor vehicle kind is highly dangerous and has become far, far too commonplace.
Simply put, tailgating is the act of following another vehicle too closely — so closely that if the vehicle in front had to stop quickly, the following vehicle would not have time to stop and would run into the lead car from behind. Under Ohio law, tailgating is called “following too closely” and is a traffic offense whether or not an accident occurs.
I had a frightening experience with tailgating just this past week. Between Christmas and New Year’s, we took a few days and ventured on a 13-hour road trip to visit family. On our way home, I was driving on Interstate 77 in South Carolina. Traffic was fairly heavy, but was moving between 65 mph and the posted speed limit of 70 mph. It was the kind of traffic where cars bunch up in the left lane next to tractor trailers and other slower-moving vehicles. In those situations, cars tend to follow one another with just one or two car lengths, if not less.
Tailgating is one of those things that bothers me more than it bothers most people, because of what I do for a living. I see between 700 and 1,000 juvenile traffic offenders every year and about 90 percent of those offenders come before the court for speeding or for a traffic accident. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly a quarter of all accidents are caused by following too closely. A study by professors at the University of Rhode Island concluded that more than 2,000 people are killed, and more than half a million hurt, in those accidents every year.
The reason is simple. At 60 mph, you’re traveling 88 feet every second. That means if you’re only two car lengths back from the vehicle in front of you, you’re going to cover that distance in a quarter to a half a second. That’s why NHTSA suggests that you base your distance on travel time, not car lengths. They suggest that you always have a cushion of two seconds and, in bad weather or heavy traffic, double that to four seconds. At 60 mph, that means you’d be more than 350 feet behind the vehicle in front of you.
When was the last time you were in moderate traffic on the highway at 60-plus mph and drove the length of a football field (or even half a football field) behind the nearest vehicle? The answer is probably never — and that’s because tailgating is not reserved for overly aggressive drivers, or even for moderately aggressive ones. Tailgating has become the norm — the expectation among modern motorists.
Which takes us back to me, sitting behind the wheel of my mini-van, on I-77 in South Carolina. In fairly heavy traffic, I was leaving the recommended two to three seconds between me and the line of cars in front of me when that line of cars went from 70 mph to a dead stop in what seemed like an instant. I had no idea what had caused the snake of vehicles to stop, but I knew that I had time to hit my brakes and slow the van. What I was worried about was whether the car behind me could stop before rear-ending me.
Fortunately, that car managed to stop as well and we were able to make the rest of the drive home in one piece (though my heart rate didn’t return to normal for some time). If you want to be as fortunate, please consider giving yourself just a few more seconds to make the move from gas pedal to brake pedal and bring your car to a stop.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Common Pleas Court.