Tailgating—When It Comes To Driving, How Close Is Too Close?

Close-up of cars driving close together

Chances are you’ve had a personal experience—or two—with tailgating. Even if you haven’t been tailgated yourself, you’ve probably witnessed it: vehicles driving nose to bumper with the person in front. It’s much more than an annoying road habit, though, and can cause road rage as well as avoidable collisions.

It can be difficult to assess the right gap to leave when driving, so it’s understandable that some tailgating takes place. But is it ever excusable? We’ll explain what tailgating is, what the law says, and what you should do if you find somebody invading your personal road space.

What is tailgating?

Tailgating is driving too closely to the vehicle in front—and making it likely that you’d crash into the back of them if the driver was to suddenly stop.

The actual distance depends on factors like weather conditions and speed, but the Highway Code recommends keeping at least 2 seconds behind the vehicle in front; 4 in wet weather. This is to account for thinking and braking time—though even at this distance, you may not be able to avoid a collision in an emergency.

You can measure your distance from the vehicle in front by calculating how long it takes you to pass the same fixed point. Sometimes, particularly when driving on motorways, you may see road signs advising you to keep 2 chevrons apart. Otherwise, repeat the mantra ‘only a fool breaks the 2 second rule’ as a guide to the minimum space you should be leaving between you and the driver in front.

Why is tailgating so dangerous?

Two cars damaged when one collides with the other

Driving is about risk-management, and you should constantly evaluate the safety of yourself and others. When there’s a motorist in front of you, it limits your visibility of anything further along the road—and the closer you are to them, the less you can see. If the first sign of any hazard is when their brake lights illuminate, you want to be in a position where you can react safely. Tailgating increases the risk of preventable accidents, and the possible physical, emotional and financial implications they can bring.

It can also cause the tailgated driver to drive in a way that puts other road users at risk. It’s common to feel threatened, intimidated and annoyed by a driver who’s too close for comfort, and this can distract you from the hazards of the road ahead. Alternatively, a tailgated driver may try to warn off their pursuer by braking sharply, repeatedly, or deliberately driving much slower. Where either party is provoked to road rage, the consequences can be fatal.

What does the law say about tailgating?

Tailgating is not only irresponsible, but also illegal under UK law. It’s classed as careless driving—an offence that also covers middle-lane hogging. Since 2013, police have been allowed to issue offenders with an on-the-spot fine of £100 and 3 points on their licence.

However, it’s a difficult offence to prosecute and it’s likely that many tailgaters get away with their actions. One study shows that a mere 260 drivers had been caught in the first 4 years of the new law coming into force, despite 85% of motorists witnessing tailgating on a monthly basis.

Why do people tailgate?

If it’s both hazardous and illegal, why does anyone tailgate?

① Unintentionally

Like most annoying road habits, tailgating can happen accidentally. It’s hard to imagine when you first start your driving lessons, but when you’ve built up experience on the roads, driving becomes largely subconscious. Actions aren’t always taken with the level of care they should be—and, occasionally, you may find yourself following the vehicle in front too closely.

Out of frustration

Whether a driver is in a genuine hurry, is trying to stop others cutting into a queue of traffic, or simply wants to drive faster than you, frustration is a key reason behind tailgating. But what they probably are failing to recognise is that it takes a long time at a higher speed to shave even a minute off their journey time. When frustration gives way to aggression, the situation can become even more dangerous.

Within convoys

Travelling with another car—or group of cars—can lead to you taking risks to keep up with the leader of the convoy, and sometimes driving too closely to avoid separation. Where possible, use a sat nav instead of relying on following another vehicle for directions, and agree on meet-up points in advance.

What to do if someone is tailgating you

An 4x4 overtaking a bus

We’ve already seen that there are a couple of common responses to being tailgated. It may be tempting to teach the perpetrator a lesson—but this can make the situation even more dangerous. Never get intimidated into breaking the speed limit, or becoming distracted to the point where your own driving is a risk to yourself and others. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting fined and receiving points on your licence—unless you’re invited to attend a speed awareness course.

Tailgating is never excusable, but do make sure you’re not doing anything that could provoke the behaviour. Good driving relies on the decisions you make in different scenarios—including where other drivers are at fault.

If you’re tailgated, compensate by leaving more space between you and the car in front; this extra time may prove crucial. You may also be able find a suitable place to indicate, pull over and let the offending motorist pass. On the motorway, change to a slower lane as soon as it’s safe to do so. It’s not a matter of succumbing to bullying, but rather of removing yourself from a dangerous situation. For more tips, why not take a look at defensive driving?

Get updated on UK driving law and top driving tips for keeping safe while on the road on the PassMeFast Blog. We make knowing the rules simple—learn exactly how to deal with box junctions and whether you’re ever allowed to overtake on the left.

By Katie Scott

Katie grew up in the middle of nowhere, so knows the true value of getting behind the wheel. From the rules of the road to handy hints and tips, she'll give you the lowdown on all things driving. Always on the move, when she's not in the car, you'll probably find Katie darting around the squash courts or out running in the rainy British countryside.

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