We all hate it when someone rides our bumper. And with good reason. Driving too closely behind another vehicle really is dangerous. That’s why the traffic laws of all states prohibit this conduct. Most define the violation as follows:
The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicle and the traffic upon, and the condition of, the roadway.
Here are the elements of this violation:
1. There was a vehicle in front of you, in the same lane, and
2. You followed more closely than reasonable, given the road, weather, and traffic conditions.
The key to winning a case for tailgating is to prove that your distance behind the other car was reasonable and prudent given the circumstances at the time. The big word here is “circumstances.” If you are 15 feet behind another vehicle traveling at 70 mph, your actions are not reasonable or prudent. But if traffic is creeping along at 10 mph, a distance of 15 feet behind the car in front of yours is reasonable. Now suppose traffic is proceeding at 25 mph. Is 15 feet still a reasonable and prudent distance to follow the car ahead? Probably not. The normal safety guideline is that a driver should leave one car length between his or her car and the car in front of it for every 10 mph. So, to be safe, a car traveling 60 mph should normally have at least six car lengths of empty space between it and the car in front of it.
I was traveling at 50 mph, according to my speedometer, with the rest of traffic. I allowed at least five car lengths of space between the front of my vehicle and the pickup truck in front of me. However, when that truck abruptly slowed to about 35 mph, for no apparent reason, the distance closed to about two car lengths. Before I could slow further, to lengthen the distance to three or four car lengths, the officer behind me pulled me over. I tried to explain to the officer that because there was no objective reason, such as heavy traffic, for the truck to slow down, I couldn’t have anticipated it, but he wouldn’t discuss what really happened.
Tailgating tickets are occasionally given when a driver rear-ends another vehicle. In this instance, the officer usually has not witnessed the accident and cannot testify that he or she saw you tailgating. Fortunately, there are ways to defend against this type of ticket. For example, the accident might have been caused by the other driver stopping too quickly or pulling into your lane too close to your car. In short, it’s your job to convince the judge in your direct testimony that there was a non-tailgating explanation. And when you cross-examine the officer, you’ll want to establish that because the officer didn’t see what happened, the officer can’t rule out the fact that the accident was not caused by your tailgating. Because the other driver won’t be present and the cop showed up later, this is often fairly easy to do.