Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Know your safe stopping distance

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My recent article about tailgating received a lot of reader response. Many sent along stories of their own experiences of being forced into dangerous situations when other drivers followed them too closely.

In racing cars, we do that as much to force competitors into a mistake as to catch the draft -- inappropriate behaviour on public roads. But, while some use their vehicles to intimidate, others simply fail to maintain a safety gap out of a lack of knowledge, not malevolence. These are the inadvertent tailgaters.

I was working my way south along British Columbia's highway 97, coming home after running an advanced-driving clinic in Quesnel. It was a holiday weekend with lots of traffic, and many deer also graze along that stretch. Not far out of town, the driver of a fairly new pickup and camper combo took up station behind. I could see that it was a man behind the wheel, with a woman in the passenger seat.

Their distance behind me was just under two seconds in travel time. Under the circumstances it was way too close. Glances in the mirror showed the front-seat occupants engaged in conversation, the driver turning his head to look at his passenger while he spoke. Another bad sign.

It was a holiday weekend with lots of traffic, and no safe place to let the camper by. Many deer graze the roadside along that stretch, and there are always a few Bambi variants that end up jumping into the roadway.

A three-second following distance is reasonable, as long as the vehicles in question have equal capabilities and conditions are good. When the rear bumper of the car in front passes a fixed object, it should take the trailing car's front bumper three seconds to reach that same spot.

With that camper unit, spacing should have been at least four seconds. Few drivers have the knowledge or discipline to maintain this gap, especially after a few other vehicles cut in front. The only answer is to take a couple of slow breaths, stay calm, and drop back out of the trap. One of these days it will pay off.

My car has the latest in brake rotors, pads and tires. The anti-lock brakes work well, and I know how to use them. From 100 kph, I should be able to stop, from point of brake application, in about 45 metres, maybe less. The pickup behind, without a camper and with a skilled, alert driver, might manage the same job in 60 metres. Most drivers of pickup trucks and other utility vehicles have little idea of this critical difference in stopping abilities.

The weight of a camper probably added 25 per cent to the combination's braking distance. That's huge, and meant the other driver had taken away my ability to brake in an emergency. If I had braked hard, there would have been a nasty wreck. The pickup might have climbed the back of my Volvo and rolled, or it could have punted me into oncoming traffic. Either way, not a good holiday event.

I finally managed to overtake a couple of vehicles and found a nice gap where there was room both ahead and behind my car. Often in these situations, I'll overtake or let someone by to get a good road position, not for travel speed. About a half-hour later, the burgundy pickup closed in again, fortunately where there was a passing lane. As it rumbled by, I saw there were kids in the back seat.

How would that driver have reacted if I had introduced myself, and commented on his dangerous following distance? Likely not well. The TV character Red Green once noted: "Of course everyone is a defensive driver. Say anything about their driving and watch how defensive they get."

The situation I found myself in was likely repeated tens of thousands of times that weekend in various parts of the country -- the first two steps of a fatal chain of events, just waiting for the right combination of surprise and poor tactics to spring the trap. Chances are that, somewhere, it ended badly.

We often read crash descriptions that say police are investigating whether speed or alcohol was involved. Plain ignorance of braking distances is not likely to make the report. We nod sagely and move on. Even the term "accident" cheats us of any knowledge that could have been gained.

This is a significant failing on the part of the Canadian safety establishment. Had I or that family been hurt, none of our safety gurus would have felt responsible. The pickup/camper operator may not have known any better because information on how to adjust tactics and spacing to what you're driving isn't part of the public discussion.

That, and many other driver skills, should be front and centre in any safety campaign.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2012 E3

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