WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 18 – The Art of Tailgating


There’s an Accura sedan waiting at the curb as I walk up to the carpool line this morning. I take the front seat and another lady gets in back. She immediately and self-righteously offers her $1.25 to the driver, even before sitting down. She must have been clutching it in her hand as she walked up to the car. That sets the tone of what SHE thinks is the right thing to do. I dig out a dollar after I get my seat belt on.

There is an overwhelming, and not really pleasant, shaving lotion/men’s cologne fragrance saturating this car. The driver is a 30’s something swarthy looking sort of fellow, dressed all in black. He drives too fast and has taken the art of tailgating to a level I have not experienced before, thank God. He is consistently about 3/4 of a car length from the car ahead and keeping the speedometer between 70 and 80 mph. It would be quite nasty if we had to stop suddenly and I check to be sure there are air bags in this car. Small comfort. Just before Berkeley he picks up his cell phone and struggles to punch in a number. Looks like he got it wrong the first time and he tries again. I decide that if he continues with the cell phone I will say something. Fortunately we hit the ‘Berkeley Crawl’ area of the freeway and traffic slows to about 25 mph. He ends a short phone call to someone who he tells he will arrive at 8 a.m. It is 7:30.

I did some research on tailgating and tailgaters and learned that there are no definitive answers on why some drivers do it and why some don’t. But there are some interesting observations.

First of all, tailgating, or following too closely means different things to different drivers, depending on their perception. Safety experts used to use the car length rule – for every 10 mph of speed the following distance should be one car length (2 car lengths for 20 mph, 6 car lengths for 60 mph, etc.) But in more recent years the 2-second rule has been adopted. This says you should never be more than 2 seconds behind the car ahead of you, regardless of the speed. Two seconds in slow traffic might be a car length or two, but at high speeds it would be much more. This rule is based on perception and reaction time. If the driver ahead of you slams on his brakes it will take a certain amount of time to be aware of it and then more time to react. Allowing two seconds for all of that doesn’t seem like a very generous margin. Plus, it sounds confusing to me. I think the car length rule is easier to visualize.

Knowing that, which seems like useless information since I have only seen, perhaps one driver observing that rule, as well as the speed limit, in the last 14 years I’ve been driving on the 80 freeway, what makes people tailgate? It is very obviously dangerous to do, especially at high speeds.

Defense of territory is one theory, and this goes hand in hand with overly aggressive drivers. There is another silly ‘slipstreaming’ argument (following closely enough saves you fuel because you are using the energy of the car in front of you to move forward). Ridiculous. Then there are undoubtedly drivers who do it simply for the thrill and to test their own proficiency in being able to follow as closely as possible without colliding with the car ahead of them. Combine this attitude with the fact that many of these drivers have never had a collision and they become complacent about driving this way. And some drivers are just lazy and drive that way out of force of habit. You have to be alert and pay attention to be a good driver.

If tailgaters are driving in this reckless manner because they are in a hurry, they are actually defeating their own purpose. Tailgating requires a limited vision of the road. If you’re tailgating you HAVE to watch just what’s right in front of you; you cannot look ahead or to the side. You cannot calculate a better route in perhaps another lane or do any sort of long-range traffic planning when you tailgate. And because of this you may be stuck behind that car you are following so closely and miss some great opportunities to move ahead through traffic. And you are probably unaware that you are terrorizing the carpoolers who are clutching the edges of their seats and gasping.

At least the car is warm. I can see the Golden Gate Bridge and the SF skyline for the first time in many mornings, but its only because the fog cover is up higher today. It’s still another gray cool day. In the distance on the other side of the bay the sun has pierced the fog and is shining on the Marin County hills. It looks like a painting. Lovely.

We survive and arrive in the city at 7:50. Looks like the driver will make his 8 o’clock appointment.

2 Responses

  1. I once had to tell a driver to put his phone and stop texting telling him it was both dangerous and illegal! I have no reservations about telling stupid and dangerous drivers to stop endangering my life. The driver did not like it, but he put his phone down.

    • Good for you, Victoria! I have told drivers to slow down or to stop driving recklessly only a couple of times, but have not spoken out about cell phones. Because of the laws, I don’t see it happening too often; most drivers respect the law and safety issue. You’re right. Next time I will holler – everyone should. CG

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