The Most Common Driving Error

Posted on March 1, 2003 by LCT Staff - Also by this author

It’s a fact of modern driving that most limousine drivers – indeed, most drivers period – follow too closely. In working with limousine fleets, there is one poor driving habit we see again and again: inadequate following distance.

This comes as no surprise to the team at Smith System Driver Improvement because this is also what we have found while working with more than 100,000 fleet drivers from other industries.

Our studies show that most motorists, professional as well as the general public, maintain between one and two seconds space behind the vehicle in front of them. That’s about all that keeps them from potential disaster. It isn’t enough. Why do most drivers follow too closely? Here are drivers’ most common reasons for carrying a small distance between their vehicle and the one ahead, plus some thoughts to consider:

Two Seconds Is Not Enough
“I was taught the two-second following distance when I first learned to drive. It’s more than enough.”

Many seasoned drivers were first taught to maintain about one car length of space for every 10 miles per hour of speed. This hard-to-practice formula evolved to the easier-to-calculate “two second rule” in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

This following distance recommendation has now been abandoned by most states as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation but many drivers still consider it the rule.

The problem is that the two-second recommendation was derived from testing the stopping distance and reaction time of drivers under ideal road, vehicle and driver conditions and was intended only as a minimum. As any driver knows, these ideal conditions rarely exist.

Even more crucial is the fact that this formula never takes into account how this limited following distance restricted our freedom to survey the complete traffic picture. With two seconds or less of space, drivers can ill afford to take their eyes off the vehicle directly in front to identify risks further ahead, to the sides or behind. They must monitor the vehicle directly ahead all the time because their margin for error is so small. This doesn’t leave drivers any room to escape a fast-changing situation and it drastically restricts a driver’s ability to aim high in steering and to keep the eyes moving.

The resulting information, which is often quite limited, often leads to late, hasty reactions which expose drivers to unnecessary risk, creates a rough transport experience for their passengers, and causes greater wear and tear on the vehicle.

‘Type A’ Drivers
“If I maintain a larger following distance, other drivers will constantly cut in and force me to drop back. This will happen again and again and soon I’ll be behind schedule.”

This is a very common perception among drivers but the root of this concern is more emotional than logical. The truth is that when this does happen, someone else is usually leaving your lane farther up ahead. It all balances out and the net difference rarely has any significant impact on our schedule.

Let’s assume that a driver who cuts in front of you maintains a following distance of two seconds. Let’s be liberal and add another half second to account for that vehicle’s length. That means this infringement added 2.5 seconds to your schedule. Even if this occurred as much as 40 times in a day’s driving, an unrealistically high assumption, it would only add 100 seconds during the total day. And, that’s assuming that none of these invading vehicles ever leave our lane.

The truth is that most drivers who cut in are doing so for a reason. Perhaps they intend to turn up ahead, in which case they will soon be exiting your path. Or, maybe they changed lanes in a belief that your lane is moving faster.

This type of driver is usually the “Type A” personality who will end up shifting back out of your lane as he or she grows ever-more impatient with their progress. It’s just human nature – most drivers notice when someone cuts in and they rarely take note when the same drive later exits their lane.

The Four-Second Rule
So what is the proper following distance? Smith System Driver recommends at least four seconds.

Here’s how you measure it: When the vehicle in front of you passes a fixed object such as a telephone pole or an overpass, count one thousand one, one thousand two, etc. You should get to at least the count of one thousand four before passing that same fixed point. This distance should be increased in poor road or weather conditions or when driving heavier equipment, such as a limousine.

This distance will provide you with the buffer necessary to protect you against erratic actions of the driver ahead. You can “aim high” and make smooth, early adjustments now that you aren’t forced to concentrate only on the driver in front of you. Furthermore, your eyes will have the freedom to continually scan the entire traffic area.

The biggest barrier to maintaining the recommended following distance isn’t the existence of other drivers, it is each driver’s pre-existing tendencies. For most drivers, it is instinctive to actively fill space, not create it. And, as a shorter following distance is the habit for almost every driver, it feels awkward to carry a greater distance.

Try the four-second rule the next time you are behind the wheel. You’ll be amazed by your increased visibility and reduced risk. Your passengers will appreciate the safer drive and smoother ride that is possible with this added spacing.

Del Lisk is president of Smith System Driver Improvement Inc., based in Arlington, TX. It has been providing driver training solutions to fleet operators for more than 50 years. The company can be reached at (800) 777-7648; its website is at www.smith-system.com.

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