Just about any Star Trek fan can remember the episode where Chief Engineer Scotty, challenged on the time it would take to restart the ship’s engines, proclaims “Captain, I cannot change the laws of physics!”
Scotty was right - the laws of physics can’t be changed. And yet hundreds of people around Saratoga Springs hope to do that every day when they drive.
Police call it “assured clear distance,” or “following too close.” But to most of us it’s called tailgating, and it happens regularly. We’re late for an appointment or late getting the kids off to school; we’re frustrated by the car in front of us going too slow, so we hope to move them along faster by riding their bumper.
But a body in motion, such as a car, cannot stop immediately – it needs time to slow down. And if your car is too close to the vehicle in front of you, you simply don’t have enough space to stop. That’s something any high school kid taking a basic physics class can tell you.
Tailgating is illegal, and it’s dangerous. Almost half of all accidents in the state involving tailgating resulted in personal injury in 2010 (the last year such statistics are available), and there were 17 people killed.
“Many violations of this law are the result of rear end collisions,” says Sergeant Andrew Prestigiacomo of the Saratoga Springs Police Department. He works in the department’s Traffic Safety Division, and responded by e-mail to our questions.
Prestigiacomo says there are three main reasons for tailgating – impatience, intimidation and distracted driving. “Intimidation refers to aggressive driving or road rage incidents,” says Prestigiacomo, while distraction “includes the use of portable electronic devices (cell phones, texting) and using features within the vehicle,” such as the car radio or a GPS unit.
Prestigiacomo says the Saratoga Springs Police Department has issued 120 citations so far this year for following too closely – that’s almost 15 a month. Statewide meanwhile, the numbers are increasing – in 2010, there were 40,666 accidents related to following too closely. That’s a 10% increase over 2001, when there were 36,830 such accidents.
New York State Trooper and Traffic Safety Officer Lenny Fornabia says he doesn’t personally see tailgating happening more often while patrolling, but “we do see it consistently.” And he says it remains “one of the top contributing factors” to accidents on the state’s roads.
The state law governing following too closely is actually quite vague, stating only that “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 vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.”
So motorists need to come up with their own definition of what it means to drive too close. Prestigiacomo says “the general rule of thumb” for drivers is to keep “one car length per 10 miles an hour” travelled between you and the car ahead of you. That means that while driving 60 miles an hour, there should be at least six car lengths between you and the driver in front of you. That’s a minimum distance regularly ignored on area roadways, as drivers continue to defy the laws of physics.
ON THE WIRE