Know your safe stop­ping dis­tance

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - AUTOS -

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 www.

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