Understanding The True Following Distance

Being able to control your vehicle at all times is the goal of all drivers, or at least should be. Sometimes however, drivers tend to make things difficult for themselves. Taking advice from non-professionals can lead to misunderstandings or bad advice which could lead into serious issues, including accidents. This is especially true with understanding what the correct following distance is and how to determine it.

Minimum Distance

In order to safely stop your vehicle, if the vehicle ahead of you brakes firmly, you would need a minimum of 2 seconds of space between your vehicle and their vehicle. Some may be asking why it’s 2 seconds and not 2 car lengths. The difference is the speed you’re traveling, your perception and your reaction time. In order to stop safely if the driver ahead of you brakes hard, you would first have to see their brake lights come on. From there, you would have to move your foot from the accelerator to the brake and finally, you would have to brake hard. All of this takes time, not car lengths.

We should also realize the 2 seconds following distance is during optimal driving conditions, such as the road is smooth and dry, the vehicle’s tires are well maintained and the vehicle is not overloaded with extra weight, including multiple passengers. What does this mean? It means that 2 seconds may have to be increased when conditions are not ideal. This also includes when driving at highway speeds. But let’s go a bit deeper just so you are aware of the safe following distance and why you need to follow these guidelines.

following distance

Seeing The Brake Lights

When you’re following another vehicle, and they brake hard, perhaps because another driver cut them off, you too would most likely have to brake hard. The first step to do this safely is seeing the brake lights come on from the vehicle ahead of you. Your eyes send a message to your brain to say, “brake lights”. From there, your brain tells your foot to get off the accelerator and hit the brake pedal – hard. All of that takes time and you have not even started braking yet. The last part is being able to stop your vehicle. At 50 km/h, you can typically stop your vehicle fairly quickly, so the part that really takes the most time is seeing the brake lights ahead of you and moving your foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal. Why would you limit your space to 2 car lengths when you need time to make decisions?

So, let’s talk about when you should increase your following distance. The first step to consider is if you’re going faster than city speeds, such as on the highway. The time that it takes you to see the brake lights and to get your foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal is about the same as city speeds timewise, but the time for you to physically stop your vehicle can be doubled or tripled that of city speeds. This is why increasing your following distance to a minimum of 3 seconds on smooth, dry roads is the way to go.

Observe Road Conditions

If the road conditions are not ideal, increase your following distance by another 2 seconds. Considering that not all vehicles stop at the same rate, those additional 2 seconds can make a big difference to help you stop your vehicle in time, especially if the driver ahead is stopping very quickly. These conditions would include, rain, snow and even standing water on the road. If you have a heavier vehicle, such as loaded full of passengers, increase your following distance as well.

Deal With Tailgaters

Another time to increase your following distance from the minimum of 2 seconds is if another vehicle is following behind you very closely, such as tailgating. So consider this, if you have the minimum safe following distance and the roads are smooth and dry, but the driver behind is very close, you would be able to stop in time if the driver ahead brakes hard and quick. But the driver behind would most likely crash into the rear of your vehicle. That’s because they could not react your sudden braking quickly enough. If you increase your following distance by an additional 2 seconds, you will not have to brake as hard if the driver ahead of you brakes hard. This is because you have a greater amount of time between your vehicle and the vehicle directly in front of you. If you don’t have to brake as hard, the driver behind you doesn’t have to brake as hard either. This helps to prevent them from rear-ending your vehicle.

Following Another Vehicle

The next thing to help you stop safely while following another vehicle is to ensure the vehicle is properly maintained. If you’re driving and notice something just doesn’t sound or feel right, let the vehicle owner know, especially if it is not your vehicle. Some basic things any driver can do is to ensure the tires are properly inflated. Checking the tires when they are cold gives you the best reading. This means to check the tires when the vehicle has not been driven for a few hours. A properly inflated tire has more tread touching the road surface, which can help you grip the road better, including while breaking. You can determine the proper inflation for the tires by checking the inside door jam on the driver’s door. The sidewall is more of a maximum, not always the recommended pressure.

Pay Attention

The final step in following another vehicle safely is to pay attention to the driving environment. Looking ahead of the vehicle directly in front of you will help you to determine if you are gaining on them. It allows you to use your peripheral to see if the space in front is being reduced. Looking well ahead of the traffic can also help you to read the traffic flow. Why wait until the driver directly in front of you brakes before you do? Slowing down a little earlier means you won’t have to brake hard if the driver directly in front of you brakes late.