Adult driver over 25

How to keep a safe following distance

Rear end collisions are the most common car accident type in Australia, resulting in a large number of insurance claims and injuries every year.

These accidents are the result of a lack of awareness of why maintaining a safe following distance is important, as well as what an appropriate following distance is. The following guide provides information on how to determine and maintain a safe following distance.

Why maintaining the correct following distance is important

Maintaining the correct following distance provides you with enough time and space to react and avoid a collision in the event the vehicle directly in front of you comes to a sudden stop. The more distance you maintain between your car and the vehicle in front of you, the more time and space you will have to respond appropriately if its driver slams on the brakes.

While most people recognize the importance of maintaining some distance from a vehicle in front of them, it isn’t always easy to know exactly what the correct distance is at a given speed, or how to calculate it accurately.

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How to calculate following distance

Trying to determine and maintain a safe following distance by using physical distance as a cue is nearly impossible. That’s because the distance you’ll cover while reacting and hard braking is dependent on the speed that you are travelling at when you are forced to respond to a road hazard.

Furthermore, gauging distance between two vehicles accurately while driving one of them is very difficult. You’ll be able to tell a large distance from a small one, but will be unable to pinpoint the exact distance you should be keeping from the car in front of you.

That’s why time is used as the primary means of determining and adhering to the correct following distance. This is accurate, simple and effective, and here’s how to do it:

  • note a fixed object ahead of the vehicle in front of you, like a streetlight
  • wait for the vehicle in front of you to pass the fixed object
  • start counting the seconds it takes your vehicle to reach the same point.

The number of seconds it takes to reach the fixed object will give you your following distance. From here it’s easy to figure out whether or not you are too close to the other vehicle.

If it took you less than three seconds to reach the fixed point, you are too close to the vehicle in front of you and should slow down slightly to extend the following distance. If it took more than three seconds to reach the fixed point, you are maintaining a satisfactory following distance.

The beauty of this method is its simplicity, as it will allow you to determine a suitable following distance at any speed within the maximum national speed limit. However, there are some circumstances where you should observe a following distance greater than three seconds.

These include:

  • If you suspect your tyres have insufficient grip or your brake pads are unlikely to deliver optimal performance when you emergency brake
  • If you are driving a heavy vehicle like a minivan, bus or truck, are towing a trailer or caravan or are carrying a heavy load in your vehicle.

While a three second following distance will technically allow you to avoid a collision if the road is wet you should still increase following distance and reduce speed in wet weather due to the higher risk of losing control of your vehicle while emergency braking in these conditions. You can read more about how stopping and following distances work here.

How to handle tailgaters

Maintaining the correct following distance is only half the battle won, as you can still become a victim of another driver’s tailgating behaviour if you are forced to emergency brake.

You can calculate the following distance between your car and one behind you using the same method describer earlier. Simply time how long it takes for the car behind you to reach a fixed point once you have passed that fixed point.

If you find that a car behind you is observing a following distance of less than three seconds:

  • remain calm and non-confrontational
  • refrain from sudden braking to ‘teach a lesson’ to the tailgating driver as this radically increases accident risk
  • do not accelerate your vehicle in the hope of creating more distance between yourself and the tailing driver
  • pull into a slower lane or briefly into the emergency lane if conditions permit you to do so, allowing the vehicle in the rear to pass
  • slow down slightly to allow the rear vehicle to pass you easily
  • if the other driver overtakes you on a lane divider on a bend, maintain your slow speed and ensure there is enough space for the driver to slot into your lane in the event they encounter oncoming traffic and are forced to suddenly merge with your lane again.

Other tailgaters may also disrupt following distances by using your following distance to merge lanes in front of you, effectively forcing you into an inappropriate following distance.

Where this occurs, decelerate slightly to allow the following distance to correct, and do this as many times as necessary during a trip. It will have minimal impact on how long your trip takes while significantly decreasing your accident risk.

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