Following Distance And Why It’s So Important

Small following distances are accidents waiting to happen

Small following distances are accidents waiting to happen

One of the biggest components covered by the Road Strategy umbrella is “following distance”. Simply put, this is the distance at which you are “following” the vehicle directly in front of you. They talk about this in various highway codes as the “2-Second-Rule” which means the suggested minimum gap between you and the car in front should be two seconds of time. Or as long as it takes you to actually say “only a fool breaks the two second rule”. The rule is more a guide to reaction times and safe stopping distances. When applied to motorcyclists however, the 2-second rule is somewhat inadequate, largely due to a motorcycle’s small size and greater reliance on rider visibility and positioning. Let’s look at why such a premium is placed on following distance for us bikers.

A large following distance gives you two valuable things as a motorcyclist:

  1. Time
  2. Visibility

If you are super close, or tailgating, the vehicle in front of you, you have no virtually no time or distance to react to that vehicle doing something unexpected. And the propensity for them doing something unexpected is greatly increased because you are riding so closely that virtually your entire peripheral vision is filled with that vehicle, instead of the road ahead and the surrounding conditions. Had you dropped back, allowing your vision to open up, you may (for example) have spotted the dog that darted into the road, causing the car ahead of you to slam on its brakes. As it was, you were so close to that car in front, you neither saw the dog, nor gave yourself any time or distance to react to the extreme braking ahead of you…

The above is just an example, but you can see that just the simple act of increasing your following distance can often save a world of hurt. I had a guy on a Ducati SuperSport recently. We took Mulholland, on the 5 mile stretch to Stunt Road, where all my courses begin. This rider quickly came up behind a guy in a new Jaguar road car that was travelling quite a bit slower than we were. It’s double yellows all the way along there so no passing. Having made the decision to not pass, this rider also made the decision to sit right on the Jaguar’s gearbox for four miles. The Jag was a convertible and the hood was down so the driver immediately noticed a very aggressive biker sitting right on his tail. The rider had been doing a fairly decent job of observation and positioning up until that point, but once he was sitting on the Jag’s gearbox, all that went to pot. He was so close to the car in front, his vision couldn’t have included much else. There was no way he could see all of the many potential hazards along that stretch of road, nor position himself for optimal visibility and upcoming turns, Instead of opening up the road strategy using following distance, being seen and be in a position to see, he now became focussed on riding as close to the car as possible, which included impatiently revving his engine. The driver of the Jag was becomingly increasingly agitated at this aggressive riding, turning around a couple of times and waving at the rider to back off, which he did not. When this failed to have any impact, the Jag driver proceeded to start brake testing the rider (pressing the brake pedal to the point where the brake lights come on) several times. Fortunately the brake testing wasn’t very hard or I’d have been calling an ambulance instead of running a course.

What could this rider have done differently? Once the decision not to pass had been made, he could have simply backed off and let his following distance increase. That would have opened up his vision, allowing much greater view of the road and conditions ahead, would greatly increased reaction time and available stopping distance and would have been a far safer, more relaxing ride that wouldn’t have antagonized any fellow road users.

The two biggest enemies of following distance are aggression and impatience. If you ride aggressively, as our friend on the Ducati did/does, then rolling off and letting your following distance open up isn’t going to happen, but your riding career almost certainly isn’t going to last long enough for it to matter. Similarly with impatience, which can be caused by being late or in a rush, the natural tendency is to drive closer / faster, not roll off and back off. If you recognize these tendencies in your own riding, ask yourself why? Sure it’s frustrating to be late to work or an important meeting, but isn’t it better to arrive late than to not arrive at all? Use increased following distances to buy you time and space. Opportunities will then open up for you to safely move through traffic or around potential hazards. If you are ever in a situation where your distance to the vehicle in front is impeding your vision of the road ahead, that should be a red flag. Take corrective action to correct this and increase your ability to see. In this sense, it’s not hard to figure out why a blanket “2-second rule” isn’t really adequate for motorcycles. This focuses on reaction time and the resulting stopping distances. Following distance is more proactive than that, encouraging you to increase the distance at which you follow the vehicle in front so that good road strategy can be employed. This will mean avoiding accidents before they ever happen, reducing your need to rely on reaction time or the braking system on your machine.

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