Tailgating: No Fun for Anyone

Before I attempt to give you advice on what or what not to do behind the wheel of an automobile I feel I ought to present my own driving credentials because my wish to aid and assist you and yours is utterly sincere and intended solely for your edification. I was a well-trained and professional driver. My words therefore, ought to carry more weight with you than the opinions of other people on the street. I consider the daily commuter to be a relative dilettante in that most people spend but minutes a day traversing the distance between work and home, whereas I on the other hand, have spent eight to twelve hours (or more) a day behind the wheel in weather both pleasant and foul. I am really quite familiar with traffic jams.

After 46 years I still have in my possession a certificate issued me in 1966 by Milwaukee Public Schools that states that I have:
“Completed a course in driver education consisting of 30 hours of classroom instruction, 10 hours of drivotrainer instruction, 5 hours of actual practice driving instruction, and 10 hours of observation.”

The classroom instruction was a nominal familiarization with the rules of the road. The drivotrainer was a video machine with an accelerator, brake and steering wheel that, while quaint by today’s standards, was cutting edge technology in its day. The 5 hours was behind-the-wheel practice.

This training course was given over a six-week period in Summer School. For whatever reason, I had missed two hours of instruction and had to attend a make-up session. There were 35-40 students who had missed class due to conflicts with their parents’ summer vacation schedules, etc. The make-up class consisted of movies and a slide presentation. One of the movies (the one whose name I recall because I had seen it earlier in High School and one that my older siblings had talked about) called “Signal 30”, a stiffly acted dramatization intercut with actual footage of the aftermath of highway accidents. The carnage was quite shockingly graphic, as intended. There were two other short films shown but the bulk of the two hours consisted of viewing color slides of crash victims. Decapitation, dismemberment and brutal death.

Morgue photos.
Some of the students started to get dizzy. Some of them just up and puked. The instructor said that if anyone felt faint they could go and sit behind the movie screen and just listen to the dialog. Unfortunately for those who did, the portable movie screen just happened to be translucent. Though dulled and reversed, the images were clearly visible and quite inescapable.

I’ll not argue the merits of such a program here. The images left an indelible impression on me. I acknowledge that I was traumatized by this program and deliberately so, but traumatized to good purpose and with caring intent. In the long view, after 46 years of driving, I would say that in my case and in my personal opinion, this deliberate traumatization served me well and made me a very careful and conscientious driver, and would like to take the opportunity to thank my (many) instructors for their sober professionalism and care.

But this was just the beginning of my training and experience as a professional driver. I obtained my license and bought a car before I was called up for military service. I was issued a license by the U.S. Army and learned to drive stick shift (standard transmission) on a ¾ ton truck assigned to my platoon. I also drove a jeep (¼ ton truck). On my return from Viet Nam I was stationed at Ft. Riley, Kansas, in a Signal Battalion. While essentially a telephone company, our primary stateside mission was to provide transport for R.O.T.C. Summer Camp, (basic training for Reserve Officers.)

For some eighteen months I drove trucks. In the Army you had to renew your drivers’ license annually by retaking a formal ‘Defensive Driving’ course. The Army Driving Course goes beyond its civilian counterparts in that it also includes 1st echelon maintenance, log books, driving in convoy, and driving in combat or tactical situations. I had to take the course twice. In my time there I drove a jeep (¼ ton), a 1-¼ ton truck, and 2 ½ ton (Deuce-and-a-half) trucks. I drove a VIP Taxi, which was an Army issue sedan, and shuttled Generals and sundry V.I.P.s about the 17-mile wide base. I also had a civilian vehicle.

In civilian life I worked for The City of Milwaukee. In working for the city I drove a jeep w/trailer, pick-up trucks, 3-yard and 5-yard dump trucks w/trailer or a compressor or even a tool shanty attached. I’ve driven City Snow Plow with a salt sensor/spreader and a garbage truck with heavy snowplow attached. The City of Milwaukee conducts its own Defensive Driving courses.

I’ve driven for United Parcel Service. UPS gives a Defensive Driving Course that is as professional as it gets. I drove their biggest step vans for them.

During rush hour. At Christmas time.

I’ve driven an 18-wheel tractor & semi-trailer from coast to coast.

I’ve driven taxicab in twelve-hour shifts in every corner of the city.

I’ve driven School Buses that carried from 12 to 72 passengers.

School Bus companies teach and preach safety.

I’ve driven buses that carried 11 wheelchairs and a dozen ambulatory passengers.

Defensive Driving in a nutshell:
ALL the people on the road are inexperienced idiots and they are out to get you.
Drive accordingly.

I was a well-trained, professional, and experienced driver. In over 45 years of driving I have received only one ticket for a moving violation (a speeding ticket), and I can still argue that one. (Speed trap)

So this is not about my driving habits and me. It’s about you and yours.

Some people simply don’t know what tailgating is.

Some trucks, used in hauling livestock, have an actual gate on the back that swings open and closed to load and unload cattle, pigs, sheep, etc. Its function is exactly that of a gate in a fence. It is a gate on the tail end of a truck. Hence the name: Tailgate.

The back of most pick-up trucks opens by folding down to the same level as the bed of the truck. This is also called a tailgate.

Some people think tailgating is having a party in the parking lot at Lambeau Field prior to a Packers game. That is a ‘Tailgate Party’. These folks show up early and often have coolers and grills and they eat and drink and quite often sit on the tailgate of their pick-up trucks while doing so. All well and good, but this is not the tailgating under discussion.

Tailgating while driving is ‘riding the tailgate’ of the vehicle in front of you. Tailgating is following too close to the car or truck ahead of you. But how close is too close? Some driving instructors proffer a ‘good rule of thumb’ of one car length for every 10-MPH (miles per hour) dependent on road conditions. In other words: if you are driving 60 MPH you should allow 6 car lengths of open space between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead of you. An allowance is to be made for road conditions. If the roadbed is slickened and made slippery by rain, sleet, snow or ice, the distance between vehicles is lengthened. This ‘rule of thumb’ addresses the issue of reaction time and stopping distance. Reaction Time is the time it takes for your eye to perceive the need to stop, your brain to register it and react by causing your foot to move from the accelerator to the brake pedal.  Stopping Distance is determined by a combination of factors including the condition of your brain (drunk or sober), the condition of your brakes, tires and the condition of the roadbed. But tailgating is more than this. In heavy traffic, if you put this rule of thumb into practice and leave a big gap it seems there is always someone else who is bound and determined to fill it. So? Let them. And make still more room. It seems counter-intuitive and perhaps it is but you’re not in a NASCAR race either.

In an automobile race the contestants all begin at the same place: The Starting Line. If their cars hold up they end the race by crossing The Finish Line. When driving on the highway each vehicle has a different starting point and each has a different destination. You are not in a race, so why drive as though you were? What you are doing is sharing the road. Highway driving is not a competition; it is a co-operation. If another person seems to be getting ahead of you, let them. You’re not in a race; remember?

In highway driving there is an observable phenomenon called The Inchworm Effect. Certain caterpillars have two sets of legs – fore and aft. If you imagine the forelegs to be the vehicle ahead of you and the after legs to be your vehicle; in a traffic jam the forelegs move ahead and stop; then you, (the hind legs) race to catch up and stop. (Because you must) The process is repeated dozens of times until you make it to your destination or the traffic jam dissipates, which ever comes first. Stop doing that! You do not need to close that gap.

Highways are dotted with Speed Limit signs. The Speed Limit is a prescribed upper or maximum limit for that stretch of the road. Some people take it as a minimum. It is not a command saying ‘you must drive 65’, nor is it a suggested speed. What a Speed Limit is is, ‘the fastest you can lawfully drive IF traffic and road conditions permit.’ You don’t need to drive the Speed Limit. (I am aware that some roads are marked with a ‘Minimum Speed’. But this is a debatably bad idea.)

The Speed Limit and the speedometer itself are counterproductive if they cause you to feel the need to drive the Speed Limit. This feeling compels you to close the gap you hope to establish and maintain. In your hectic commute I would suggest you cover your speedometer or just ignore it. (Where are you going?) In this way you will tend to pay more attention to the Spatial Relationships of the vehicles around you. Again, you don’t need to drive the Speed Limit.

Psychologists have discovered many gender differences in the human brain. In my experience, women tend to tailgate more than men. This is because women utilize landmarks, whereas men utilize distance. It is the difference between seeing two objects and seeing the distance between them. Another example would be the difference between pointing an arrow at a target and calculating the arrows’ trajectory.

Wonder Woman flies a glass airplane. (Don’t ask me, I just live here.) In our ruminations on tailgating, what we are talking about is the space between objects in motion – and how best to maintain that space. It helps to be able to visualize or imagine six or more (glass, transparent or) invisible cars between you and the vehicle ahead. It also helps to understand how our eyes measure distance. A line drawn from your right eye to your left eye forms the base of a triangle. The rear bumper of the vehicle ahead of you sits at the apex of the triangle. The rise is the distance between the apex and the mean of the base. (The bridge of your nose)  When you focus your eyes on the bumper ahead each eye forms an acute angle with the apex and base. Your brain subconsciously calculates this angle. If you move your eyes back and forth from the front of your vehicle to the rear of the vehicle ahead your brain registers the distance. (The rise) The more frequently you move your eyes back and forth from the front of your vehicle to the back of the vehicle ahead, the better your brain is able to detect even the most subtle changes in this angle and thus recalculate the distance. It is in this space you put your imaginary cars. In order to abstain from tailgating you must maintain this distance or interval. Not always an easy task. (In the Army when men are on patrol they are constantly reminded to “maintain your interval”. This is because when troops are bunched up a single bullet can fell several men and a burst from a machine-gun can kill a whole squad.)

In order to avoid tailgating you must maintain your interval.

Remember that highway driving is not a competition but a co-operation. Rather than watching your speed or counting cars it is best to remember that there are people inside the other vehicles. In the co-operative use of the road we all have certain civil obligations that ought to be observed. These obligations are forms of courtesy and fall under the heading of what lawyers call “the right of way.” These ’forms of courtesy’ can be as subtle and simple as keeping to the right while walking down a crowded sidewalk. The “Right of Way” is not the same as a Civil Right.

In this age of Civil Rights Struggle I have observed many who appear to be fighting for their ‘right of way’ using their vehicle as a weapon. Stop that! One does not fight for or insist upon the ‘right of way‘. Rather, the ‘right of way’ is something you give, not get. The one thing ‘the right of way’ and Civil Rights have in common is that neither exist without our observation and practice. You can insist ‘til you’re blue in the face’ that you have ‘the right of way’. But if I don’t give it, you don’t get it. Remember: There are other people in the other vehicles, and they have the same rights as you. Tailgating is more than ‘following too close’.

What tailgating really is is “violating the right of others to change lanes”. So share the road.

I’ve said that ‘the right of way’ consists of ‘forms of courtesy’. A courteous person modifies his behavior so as not to tread roughshod over the feelings, sensibilities and rights of others. A courteous driver limits his actions for the sake of the other drivers. Mind your speed, give way, make place. We do all this for the sake of the others. It is in this way – and only in this way, that ‘the right of way’ comes into existence. Courtesy is self-limiting. We hold our self back. We limit our own actions. All this runs contrary to self-interest and capitalist theory and practice. Competitive driving and courteous driving are miles apart.

Thus far we have touched upon the space a courteous driver leaves between his car and the vehicle ahead – but what of the people behind? They are also part of the traffic jam and play inchworm as well.

Are you not aware that each time you touch your foot to the brake pedal your own brake light lights up? Early morning, late evening and all through the night, long lines of tailgaters’ brake lights blink on and off sequentially. A brake light is a signal you send out to all the people behind you. You stop. They stop. You slow. They slow. A ‘limited access highway’ is so designed as to have no cross-traffic, no Stop Signs, no Stoplight. So, why are you stopping? Why are you using your brake? Why is your brake light on?

In driving on a Limited Access Highway the ideal is to drive in such a manner and at such a speed as to preclude any use of the brake and lighting of the brake light. That is how the system was designed. In avoiding tailgating we also avoid collisions and traffic jams. The idea is to leave room sufficient for other people to change lanes without recourse to braking. It is not so much about speed or car lengths as it is about leaving space enough so that the other drivers can comfortably change lanes.

A Safe Following Distance is simply not enough.

We communicate with other drivers with our brake lights and turn signals. The lawless change lanes with no warning at all but the rude give one blink of the turn signal and snap into the next lane. Remember that we are communicating with people and not just living by the letter of the law. Most cars have a dash light that indicates that your turn signal is on. Some give out an audible sound. Your turn signal blinks on and off about two times per second. One flash of your signal might meet the requirements of the law, but the other drivers might not see one, two or even three blinks. It is a form of communication between people and the idea is to insure that the other drivers get the message. We signal our intent (to change lanes) well in advance of our actions. We check for a response. The response might be that the other driver simply maintains his speed and position or even eases off his accelerator. Properly taught, we change lanes by maintaining speed or accelerating slightly. Tailgating, both on our part and on the part of others, often forces us to brake in order to change lanes and that is when our brake light lights up, a chain-reaction of brake lights come on and the inchworm effect kicks in. Rear end collisions occur at this point but most often it just causes a traffic jam – twice a day.

Tailgating causes gridlock. Not many people realize it. Picture a city street, bumper-to-bumper from one end to the other with no room to spare. One entire block filled to capacity with cars and trucks from one intersection to the next. Our tailgating friend, following too closely enters the intersection and stops. He/she stops because he/she must because there is no room to proceed. The Traffic Control Light changes from green to amber to red. Perpendicular and to the right of our tailgating friend, the light turns green. Green means Go but the line of vehicles perpendicular and to the right of our tailgating friend cannot go. This is because our tailgating friend is blocking the intersection. A block away, in the next intersection the light is green and the vehicles queue up in the intersection with the expectation that they will proceed through it – only to be thwarted. They in their turn have been tailgating and get caught in the middle of the intersection. Time passes. The light changes from green to amber to red. Thus, through a series of tailgating co-incidents and in an outward spiraling counter-clockwise motion, an entire city is caught in the grip of what is commonly referred to as Gridlock. Horns honk. Tempers flare. Sirens whine helplessly. Buildings burn. Firemen curse. And all this caused by a handful of people who were a little impatient but very, very selfish.

“In city driving, gridlock is caused by tailgating through a controlled intersection.”

In your commute there is a mechanical factor that must be allowed for in order to avoid tailgating. Transmission Creep militates against your maintenance of a safe and comfortable interval. Transmission Creep is an issue that would be best addressed by automotive engineers. But until such time as the automobile industry comes to grips with it, drivers must simply make an allowance and adjust their habits in order to avoid tailgating.

But what is Transmission Creep? In modern cars with their automatic transmissions, small engines and high idles; the car tends to drive by its self. Some cars will drive 25-30 MPH without touching the gas pedal. What is now the norm was once considered a problem. In older model cars with automatic transmissions (on level ground) you could start your engine, engage the automatic transmission, release the brake and the car would still not move. It would just sit there at idle. The engine would turn but the car would not move until you pressed down on the accelerator. If it did move your mechanic would tell you that you have transmission creep. (Or ‘your bands are too tight’ or ‘your idle is too high’ or whatever the cause was) The car wasn’t supposed to move of its self.

Consider the motorcycle. We’ve all seen (and heard) a biker sitting at a red light revving his engine. It’s not (just) because he likes the noise, but because he wants to prevent it from stalling. A motorcycle (usually) has only one or two cylinders. If the timing is off even a little, spark plug firing militates (fights against) the cycling of the engine. It stalls. Horns honk. He blushes. In an 8-cylinder engine, if three cylinders misfire the engine can continue to run, though roughly. In modern cars with small engines (6,4,3 cylinders) stalling became a problem. The automobile manufacturers solved the problem of stalling by increasing the engine’s RPM at idle. This in turn, precluded the automatic transmission from disengaging at idle. Hence: Transmission Creep.

In heavy traffic tailgating becomes almost automatic. In avoiding tailgating one must factor in and make an allowance for Transmission Creep.

There is an old saying:
“If you’re not a part of the solution-you’re part of the problem.”

It takes a conscious, deliberate and willful act to leave room for others to change lanes.

As a School Bus Driver I passed a very bad stretch of road on a daily basis:
(I-43 South to I-94 East, the I-94 West turn off and the 11th Street on-ramp)
This section of the Interstate Highway System (the so-called Expressway) was the convergence of a busy three-lane highway with a combination on-ramp/off-ramp. The right lane was the 11th Street on-ramp that turned into the I-94 West turn off. The people on the on-ramp either wanted to follow the curve (of their own lane) to I-94 West or change lanes to I-94 East. The people in the right lane of I-43 either wanted to go south to I-94 East or change lanes to I-94 West. If this lane changing weren’t bad enough, the people in the center lane of I-43 would cut in to go west on I-94. It was and, to a certain extent still is, the convergence of three lanes into one in a very short stretch of roadbed. I know several people who never drive on the expressway. They’re just too nervous. But I ran this snag every day on my bus route. It was often, or should I say usually, bumper to bumper. Some days it took several minutes to traverse the ramp. If I left too much room my lane would fill up with cars. If I left too little room I became ‘part of the problem’. (With a 72-passenger school bus, I had intimidation as an option) I would stop, pause and even wait for an opening to appear. I came to realize that I had command of one of the three lanes in dispute. If I were to stop dead I could effectively shut down one lane. This would leave only two contested. But that’s not the best way to do it. In my approach to this convergence I would slow well ahead to about 5 MPH and be a blocker for the others. The vehicles ahead of me then had wiggle room to change lanes without recourse to braking. I did not stop. I did not brake. I slowed enough to give up that much-needed room to allow others to make their move. I could see the snag dissipate before my eyes. I would then simply accelerate around the curve.

“If you’re not part of the solution-you’re part of the problem.”

When at the top of my game, I drive at such a distance that people are free to move around me. They can pass me or change lanes in front of me without a struggle.

Not tailgating is counter-intuitive. If it feels like you’re loosing the race; if it feels like you’re driving backward – then you’re doing it right.

You drive in such a manner and at such distance that the people around you (beside you or ahead of you) don’t feel the need to brake or light their brake lights in order to change lanes. Courtesy. They have the Right of Way.

Don’t even talk to me about Road Rage. Driving in this day and age can be stressful. Road Rage is, quite simply, a stress reaction. Much of this stress comes from tailgating. Having driven 12 hours a day – six days a week, I’m telling you this from experience. Tailgating forces you to concentrate on the brake lights of the vehicle ahead. And they may or may not be working. Keep back. By not tailgating I have time to read road signs, see billboards, notice deer, enjoy autumn colors, clouds, sunsets and even that blonde in the red Mazda. (Which one? That one.) Even in heavy traffic. How can you expect to stay relaxed if you are but a split second from being decapitated by the flatbed semi-trailer twenty feet ahead of you?

Some time ago I read a newspaper article about some young engineers who modeled highway congestion on a computer. Shockingly, they actually recommended tailgating. It seems that, if all the vehicles bunched up (tailgated) they would be compelled to drive at the same speed. Once this harmonic balance was achieved, the pace would pick up and the average speed would increase. Rubbish! These computer whiz kids failed to factor in, among other things: vehicle size, engine performance, merging, differing destinations and the all important lane changes. Sorry kids. If by chance you have heard this nonsensical bit of advice and put it into practice – Stop That! Stop that immediately! Back off!

Tailgating is the Eighth Deadly Sin. In rear-end collisions, by Law and logic it is always the following drivers fault. I can stop at any time and anywhere for no reason. I might be having a heart attack or maybe I spilled some McDonald’s coffee on the family jewels. I don’t need a reason. I don’t need an explanation. But you, on the other hand, must explain why you struck an immobile object. There is no legal defense in a rear-end collision.

I am mindful of a time when I was negotiating a downward curving off-ramp at 5 MPH on inch-thick glare ice and had to drag my front tire on the curb to regain control and stop before sliding into the vehicle in front of me. There are times when even one (1) Mile Per Hour is too fast for conditions. Slow down!

Oddly, strangely and wonderfully, by slowing down, not tailgating and allowing your fellow travelers room to change lanes without braking, your average speed actually increases and your commute is abbreviated. You are less stressed and can (almost)
“Enjoy the ride.”

Properly taught, we are to avoid driving side-by-side with other vehicles. There are two good reasons for this. The first reason being that if you come upon an obstacle in your lane and you’re cheek by jowl with other vehicles, it leaves you no room to swerve in order to avoid the object ahead. It might just be a cardboard box you can run over or, it could be a cardboard box with an anvil in it. Brake or swerve? If you’re driving side-by-side you must gamble or brake because you have given yourself no room to swerve. This is the selfish reason you shouldn’t drive side-by-side.

The second reason, and the more selfless one, is the reason Air Force pilots fly in staggered formation. In tight formation aircraft are never flown side-by-side. If two aircraft flew side-by-side each would loose one maneuver: the plane on the left can’t turn right and the plane on the right can’t turn left. Instead, there is a designated wing-man that flies beside and behind (and often below) the lead aircraft. Flying staggered in this manner frees both to go left or right at will. It also allows the wing-man to keep a close eye on the leader.

Tailgating is a violation of the right of others to change lanes.

Tailgating is a violation of the right of others to change lanes.

Tailgating is a violation of the right of others to change lanes.

Please. Give the other drivers a comfortable cushion of space to change lanes.

Some people must get caught in their own zipper a lot because they seem to be unclear on the concept of merging. In a zipper one tooth engages another alternately. In merging with traffic however, what you are doing is attempting to keep pace with a space. But sometimes that space just doesn’t seem to be there. When driving in the Right Lane we have an especial duty to keep our interval in order to allow others to enter our lane. We give them the space to pace. In ranking the lanes in which one should leave the greatest interval it would be: Right – Center – Left. In driving the Right Lane we must allow for: Stopping Distance + Merging + Crossover from the Center Lane. But do we? I try. But there have been times when as many as five cars have come charging down the on-ramp bumper-to-bumper-to-bumper-to-bumper-to-bumper with the expectation that I would either brake or swerve to make room. You usually don’t plan on leaving room for five cars at a time. But in driving the Right Lane perhaps you should.

It’s all counter-intuitive:

You don’t fight for the Right of Way – You give it.

You don’t fill a space – You create one.

You don’t compete – You co-operate.

You make a space and let them fill it. You make a space and let them fill it.

If it feels like you’re loosing the race; if it feels like everyone is getting ahead of you, if people are moving freely around you and crisscrossing in front of you without using their brakes; if it feels like you’re driving backwards – then you’re doing it right.

If you think traffic is getting progressively worse, you’re right. The people who came of age in the ‘70’s are sometimes called “The Me Generation”. Everyone is hyper conscious of and downright touchy about their own Civil Rights. The highway is not the proper forum for practicing your Assertiveness Training or Affirmative Action.

Courtesy is key.

Politicians propose to widen the highways in order to alleviate congestion. If they widened a three-lane highway to eight lanes in each direction, do you know what you’d have? You would have eight lanes of Tailgating Traffic Jam.

More often than not, there is no discernible reason for a daily traffic tie-up. There are no jack-knifed trucks or burning cars blocking the road. We all just sit there and wonder: “Just what is the hold-up?” The hold-up is simply Selfishness.

“If you’re not a part of the solution – you’re part of the problem.”

While sitting still on the Expressway (Ah! An oxymoron!); While inhaling exhaust fumes and wishing you’d thought of installing a Port-O-Potty in the back seat and while listening to the automobile horn sound the Death Knell of Civilization; While being unable to find any wrecked vehicles or broken-down cars to blame for the hold-up; Remember these words you once heard from a professional driver:

“You are in a traffic jam because you are selfish.”

“You are in a traffic jam because you are selfish and for no other reason at all.

An unknown neighbor's dog 'tailgating' Bitsy, Marvin's family dog.

A neighbor’s dog tailgating Bitsy


About The Twentieth Man

Age 66
This entry was posted in Expository Writing, Observations, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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