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Via Tailgating

I don't recommend tailgating as a practice, but for a proper appreciation of what you see around you on the highways, you ought to understand tailgating as a means of communication.

In fact, tailgating is one of the most common and effective means of communication between cars. It has a single clear meaning: “get out of the way”. It's not too subtle: the tailgating car fills the rear-view mirror of the car in front, and is hard to miss. Many drivers use it, and most drivers understand it when it's applied.

The only real problem with tailgating is that it's not safe. When you're that close to another car, you don't have time to react if it suddenly slows down—you just run right into it. I think tailgating is illegal, too, but that's only because it's not safe.

The most frightening driving situation, for me, is when the traffic is dense but still fast-moving, so that everyone is effectively tailgating one another. When that happens, I can practically feel death in the air. Twice, now, I've been in that situation and had the traffic stop, and had to swerve onto the shoulder to avoid hitting the car in front of me.

Nowadays, in cases where tailgating would convey the right message, what I like to do is change lanes, fall back, and let one of the cars behind me do all the work—there's invariably one whose driver is more than happy to do so. This works especially well if the car behind is a SUV: I get all the message-conveying benefit of a large vehicle without actually having to own one of the damn things myself.

Another advantage of changing lanes and falling back is that you don't get trapped in the resulting cluster of cars if the other driver is stubborn and won't get out of the way.

You may wonder what I'd do if all the other drivers knew not to tailgate. Well, the way I figure it, if all the other drivers knew that, they'd also know to maintain relative speed and not get in the way in the first place.

Having said all that about not tailgating, let me now give two words of advice about how to minimize risk while tailgating. First, you have to stay alert … I find the adrenaline rush of realizing I could die at any moment works admirably for this. Second, since you still can't react quickly enough to the car in front of you, you have to look further ahead, so you can predict how the car in front of you is going to react. These same principles also apply in dense, fast-moving traffic.


  See Also

  Bubbles and Barriers
  Cruise Control
  Looking Ahead
  Via Change in Speed
  Via Distance

@ May (2000)