An advanced driving topic from Safe Speed

We offer this common sense advice without any guarantee. As a licenced driver you are entirely responsible for your own actions on the road. We expect you to understand and obey the rules of the road and to use these recommendations as ideas that might improve your understanding of driving. We recommend formal advanced driver training. Drive for safety above all else.  Do not do anything that you do not fully understand and do not do anything that you are not completely sure about.

Tailgating is a commonplace dangerous practice on our roads. In my experience the police do little or nothing to prosecute tailgaters. If tailgating were reduced by a combination of education and enforcement our roads would clearly become safer.

Don't be a victim. Read our common sense guide to low stress solutions that work.

What is tailgating?

Tailgating is the dangerous practice of following very close to the vehicle in front. In most circumstances a proper gap is 2 seconds long or one yard for every mph (these are two different ways of expressing the same distance). Close following or the advanced driver's "overtaking position" are about 1 second behind the vehicle in front. Anything closer than about 1 second can reasonably be described as tailgating, although some people only use the term when the following distance is very small, perhaps under one car's length.

Do not be a tailgater! Leave a proper 2 second "time to react" gap under all normal circumstances, and more in bad weather.

On motorways you might be delayed by a slower vehicle that fails to move into a clear space to its left. In this case I recommend following at the usual two seconds and occasionally flashing your headlights to remind the slower vehicle ahead that you are there. Some drivers might interpret the headlight flash as aggressive driving, but this is made less likely if you maintain a proper gap and only flash occasionally, perhaps once every 30 seconds. In some countries using the offside indicator even though you are already in the offside lane is a commonplace signal to cars ahead that you want to pass. Although rare in the UK it does work on occasion.

All of the following discussion points relate to vehicles following at less than one second behind you.

Causes of tailgating:

Victim types Some drivers almost ask to be tailgated. The unnecessarily slow car holding up a queue on an A road. The outside lane hog on a motorway who fails to move over despite faster traffic behind and clear lanes to his left. These behaviours do not excuse the tailgater. They are poor driving and tend to impede others, tensions rise and tailgating results. If you frequently suffer from tailgaters it might be wise to carefully consider if any of your own practices are tending to create frustration and delay for other drivers. The advanced driver always keeps out of the way of other vehicles whenever practical.
Ignorant The ignorant tailgater is unaware of the danger he is causing and fails to properly understand the need for safe gaps between vehicles. He might be driving on "auto pilot" and follow you through lane changes and speed variations. He is sometimes difficult to dislodge because he isn't thinking about what's going on around him. 
Aggressive The aggressive tailgater is using his vehicle to intimidate. He is always dangerous but if he is specifically directing his aggression at you personally he might be a very serious danger indeed. You might even become a "road rage" statistic.
Impatient The impatient tailgater simply wants to get ahead of you. If you move out of the way he'll be gone. It is possible that he has a genuine emergency need. If you fail to allow the impatient tailgater to make progress he may become aggressive. This is obviously best avoided. 
Momentary The momentary tailgater is usually a heavy goods vehicle (HGV) trying to preserve hard won speed. As traffic ahead slows the HGV behind maintains speed as long as possible in the hope that the reduction is speed is short lived. I sympathize with the idea of preserving speed and especially not passing back needless short term speed variations to traffic behind. However the HGV might be allowing his safe gap to be eroded at the time when he needs it most. When traffic speeds are restored the momentary tailgater will return to a safe following position.
Deliberate The deliberate tailgater may be an advanced driver occupying the so-called "overtaking position". Most advanced driving tuition, including the Police driver's manual "Roadcraft" recommends a transient close following position in preparation for overtaking. Roadcraft neglects to define the "overtaking position" (I suspect because the instructors frequently recommend a position closer than can properly be justified in print). Police drivers with a life and death need to overtake might properly on occasion accept slightly elevated risks on the road in order to reduce the risk to the victim of a crime they are attending.

It is possible for some advanced drivers under some circumstances to close follow with proper awareness of the road ahead of both vehicles. I think this tends to be the exception, and I recommend conservative "overtaking positions" generally around one second behind the vehicle to be overtaken. Any closer and you should already have moved out to the right.

Tailgating basics:

But what if you're the victim of a tailgater? What not to do
Banish all thoughts of right and wrong. So what if he's wrong? So what if he's putting you at risk? Do you think you can trust him to do the right thing? Do not get angry. Concentrate instead on the safety of you, your passengers and your vehicle. You're going to do whatever you can to:

a) get rid of the tailgater as soon as possible and 

b) minimize the risk of him running into you until he's gone. 

You're going to do your best to make a difficult situation safe. Remember it does not matter at all if he gets in front of you. In fact you're better off if he does, because he's dangerous and if he's in front you can keep your eye on him and leave safe gaps.

Teaching him a lesson - any lesson - is absolutely not in your best interests. Being tailgated is stressful. Stressed drivers take risks and make mistakes. Use any realistic strategy to reduce stress and risk.

But there are many safe and effective strategies that actually work without increasing stress. Read on:

  • Do not try to teach him a lesson.
  • Do not increase the stress of the situation.
  • Do not flash your brake lights.
  • Do not brake.
  • Do not use the tactic of gradually slowing and accelerating to annoy him into leaving a larger gap.
  • Do not try to slow him down.
  • Do not make it difficult for him to overtake.
  • Do not drive erratically in the belief that doing so might persuade him to leave a larger gap.

How to deal with tailgating:

Choose your own rearguard The first important idea is that you choose the guy behind to follow you. Advanced driving teaches us that we are in control of all aspects of the traffic and the spaces around us. Sometimes we might be driving along and our problem tailgater simply catches up. In other situations we have chosen to take a position in front of the tailgater without noticing he's not leaving good gaps. The first trick is to only take a position in front of vehicles leaving good gaps. Never overtake or change lane into a small gap. If you overtake or change lane into proper sized gaps you've already noticed that the new vehicle behind is leaving proper gaps and will probably leave a good gap behind you. This simple strategy will ensure that the tailgaters are behind other vehicles most of the time.

On a long journey you might find that a particular car is following you at a constant and safe distance. Call him your rearguard. Do what you can to ensure that the trusted car remains behind you. For example once you have a good rearguard you might decide not to overtake, or you might decide to stop at an amber light although you could have reasonably driven on. Look after your rearguard, and he'll look after you!

Change lane to the left to let him past If you are being tailgated on a motorway, change lane to the left to let him past as soon as possible. You might add a couple of seconds to your journey, but who cares? You might even be able to join the original lane behind the tailgater, and allow his aggressive tactics to clear a path that you can use to get there more quickly. If you do this bear in mind that you'll need to leave an extra gap to compensate for the gap he isn't leaving. But see how quickly and easily we got rid of him?
Slow down to encourage the tailgater to overtake You do not need the twerp on your back bumper. You need a nice safe space all round your vehicle. On an A road if there's a straight with no oncoming traffic simply slow and indicate left. Consider a hand signal. He'll get the message and overtake. If he doesn't and it's still clear continue to slow gently until he does get the message. Keep an eye on the traffic behind him. If it's night in these circumstances be sure to use your main beam headlights so he can see the road ahead of you for his passing manoeuvre.
Overtake to get away On an A road, if a tailgater catches you up in a stream of traffic you might choose to overtake to get away. I frequently do. Tailgaters don't usually find it very easy to overtake and he might well get stuck behind the vehicle you overtook. If he does overtake you might overtake again, but beware of allowing this to become a pattern. The objective is to ensure a safe space all round your car. If a strategy isn't working, then abandon it and do something else.
Accelerate to get away On a motorway (especially) you might find someone tailgates you while you are overtaking a stream in lane 1 or lane 2. The cars on the left (all driving too close as usual) prevent you from moving left so you accelerate to increase the gap behind. This works brilliantly if your vehicle is more powerful than the tailgater's vehicle. Do not get carried away and accelerate to a speed which isn't safe! Accelerating to get away tends to be a temporary solution, because he will probably catch up again. Be ready to pull left and allow him to pass easily if he does.
Leave a double gap in front and drive for him Traffic is dense. You can't stop, pull left or turn off for a while (no lay-bys, junctions etc.). In this case double the gap in front and "drive for him". You were originally leaving a safe two second gap. While the tailgater is stuck behind you leave a four second gap. Now, if something goes wrong in front you can brake very gently for two seconds to warn the twerp behind of the danger. You "pass back" your spare two seconds to the tailgater. Two vehicles with a four second gap in front is almost as good as two vehicles who both have two second gaps.
Stop, turn off or go around a roundabout If all the above has failed to dislodge a persistent tailgater you must stop or turn off at the next opportunity. Another option is to go around a roundabout a whole extra turn. It might cost you a few seconds. It might save a big repair bill if the tailgater wasn't insured or didn't stop after running into the back of you. It might even save your neck.

To summarize.

Forget pride. Forget saving a few seconds. Drive sensibly and dump the tailgater as soon as possible, congratulate yourself when you have done so, because once again you have used an advanced driving practice to make a potentially dangerous situation safe. These strategies are easy, they work and they don't increase anyone's stress. Drive safely!