Following too closely, better known as tailgating, is a widespread practice across the country. In its most extreme forms, it can escalate into aggressive driving or even road rage when the following driver is frustrated with the speed of the lead driver. Tailgating is especially dangerous in poor weather or road conditions, as well as during rush hour, when drivers may need to suddenly apply the brakes. Following another car closely at night also can be dangerous, since each driver may be less alert to applying the brakes in response to hazards, and the distance between the cars is harder to judge.
As a result, every state has made tailgating a traffic violation. It is generally defined as following another vehicle in the same lane more closely than would be reasonable in view of traffic, road, and weather conditions. The subjective nature of this standard can give a driver plenty of room to argue that they were acting reasonably in the situation. The proper distance between the front car and the rear car will depend on the speed of the cars. As a guideline, the rear driver should allow one car length between their car and the front car for every 10 mph of speed, or a greater distance if weather conditions are not optimal.
Common Defenses to Tailgating
This violation often arises in the aftermath of a rear-end collision. State laws may presume that the rear driver was at fault in these cases because they were following too closely, but this is not always true. Sometimes the front driver suddenly applies the brakes for no legitimate reason, causing the distance from the driver in the rear to shorten. This can give the false impression that the driver in the rear was tailgating, but an investigation may prove otherwise. If the front driver is driving too slowly, they may be ticketed for this violation, but this is not a defense to tailgating because the rear driver still is expected to act safely under the circumstances.
In other situations, a car from another lane may cut between two cars that had left sufficient space between them. This maneuver means that the rear driver may be close behind the new car. Furthermore, the new car may have reduced speed while changing lanes, so the rear driver may need to slam on the brakes to avoid a crash. When this happens, the driver who changed lanes may be at fault for making an unsafe lane change. (Read more here about unsafe lane changes and improper passing.)
An officer who has issued a ticket based on a rear-end collision often did not witness the accident. They may have been called to the scene later and taken statements from witnesses. Even if you are concerned that you may have been at fault, or if you feel sorry for anyone involved in the accident, you should not discuss fault or apologize to the officer or anyone else at the scene. These statements could come back to haunt you in a traffic ticket trial or personal injury case, since admissions by a party will be admissible even if they are technically hearsay.