Tailgating poses a high degree of risk for rear-end collisions. A tailgating driver has little or no time to react if the leading vehicle stops, slows down, or makes another emergency maneuver. A car accident will often result.

Because tailgating is so prevalent, we’ve gathered information about the ways that tailgating can cause accidents, along with tips on how to maximize your safety.

Understanding the Physics of Tailgating

Tailgating happens when a driver follows another vehicle too closely given the speed of the vehicle. A vehicle requires time and distance to stop, regardless of a driver’s skill. By following too closely, a tailgating driver eliminates the cushion in which they can stop their vehicle without a collision.

Driver’s education courses teach drivers to trail another vehicle by at least three seconds. This generally works well to eliminate tailgating. As your speed increases, the distance covered in three seconds also increases.

The two factors determine this recommended following distance:

Reaction Time

The time it takes for you to react includes several actions:

  • See the brake lights of the car in front of you
  • Process the brake lights
  • Decide how to react
  • Move your body to apply the brakes and turn the wheel

A typical reaction in laboratory experiments takes about 0.6 to 0.7 seconds. But these experiments use test subjects that are focused on driving. Drivers in real-world situations contend with all kinds of distractions. Tailgating drivers usually tailgate because of distractions or aggressive driving habits.

But even using the laboratory results, a car traveling 55 miles per hour covers 48.4 feet in 0.6 seconds. This means that a vehicle must trail another by at least 48.4 feet at 55 miles per hour just to account for the necessary reaction time. A vehicle that is any closer than 48.4 feet will cause a rear-end collision at that speed.

Braking Capacity

Braking capacity defines the time that is required for the brakes to bring a vehicle to a complete stop. It does not depend on the skill of the driver. Instead, it depends on the physical characteristics of the vehicle. 

This takes into account features like:

  • Weight
  • Tire quality
  • Tire pressure
  • Brake quality
  • Safety features

It also depends on road conditions and the speed of the vehicle.

The typical braking capacity of a passenger car will bring it to a complete stop in seven to nine seconds after traveling at 55 miles per hour. To avoid a collision from tailgating, the trailing vehicle must have better braking capacity than the leading vehicle.

Tailgaters don’t decide to tailgate based on the leading vehicle, however. Drivers who tailgate tend to follow vehicles with lower braking capacity, like semi-trucks, RVs, and other slow vehicles. This increases the risk of a rear-end collision.

By building in a couple of seconds to your following distance, you can brake safely, even if the vehicle in front of you has a lower braking capacity.

Tips for Stopping Tailgaters

Tailgating happens for a few reasons:

Fortunately, you do not need to know the motivation of a tailgating driver to avoid a car crash.

Instead, look at all of your options for letting the tailgater pass. If you can change lanes, move aside. If you need to exit the highway, consider doing so.

If you have no options for moving away from the tailgater, leave more space between your car and the vehicle in front of you. This might drive the tailgater crazy, but it will give you extra time to stop if the vehicle in front of you stops.

Above all else, remain calm. Getting aggressive with a tailgater can set off a road rage incident. Even if you add a few seconds to your trip by pulling off the road to let the tailgater pass, you will have a greater chance to end your trip without risking a collision.