What does “following too close” mean?

Jan 5, 2022 | Road Safety

We’ve all been there – feeling late, a little rushed, pressured by heavy traffic, and then suddenly noticing that we’re a little too close to the car in front of us. But maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles shouldn’t be an afterthought on the road. When it comes to safety – and to legal consequences – following too close should always be top of mind.

Distance guidelines

There’s no fixed distance or time that should be left between cars on the road, according to Ontario law. Section 158 of the Ontario Highway Act simply states that drivers should follow other cars at a distance that is “reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of the vehicle and the traffic on and the conditions of the highway.”

What does this really mean? The key is to make sure you always have enough stopping distance – meaning the time it will take you to stop your car including factors such as your reaction time, the weight of your vehicle, and road conditions like surface, grade, and moisture.

Safety experts recommend a minimum of two seconds between cars. Watch for the car in front of you to pass a signpost or other marker, then count two seconds off slowly. If you pass the marker before you’re done counting, slow down and leave more space.

Always take weather and road conditions into account, too. If visibility is low, your reaction time may be longer; if rain or snow is on the road, your ability to stop quickly may be compromised. Three, four, or even five seconds between you and the car in front of you might make for a good following distance in these cases.

Safety concerns

Why should you worry about following too closely? Tailgating increases your risk of a road accident in several ways.

  • Reduced visibility. Following closely behind another car, or a larger transport vehicle means you can’t see the road ahead and respond to upcoming changes in traffic.
  • Reduced reaction time. If the vehicle in front of you brakes suddenly, your total stopping time may be too low, causing an accident.
  • Stress and tension for the driver ahead of you. When you’re following too closely, the driver in front of you may become distracted and even emotional – leading to erratic behaviour and poor driving choices that increase the road dangers for all.

Legal consequences

Safety aside, there are real legal consequences to following too closely. Although there are no fixed legal guidelines, law enforcement generally uses the rule of one car length of distance for every 10 km/h – meaning that on a 50 km/h residential road, there should be at least 5 car lengths between you and the car in front of you.

If you are pulled over for tailgating, you can expect to face:

  • A fine of between $110 and $500;
  • A loss of up to four demerit points;
  • A possible thirty-day licence suspension;
  • And a note on your driving record for three years that can affect your insurance rates.

Sharing the road

What’s the best way to share the road safely? Keep the two-second rule in mind, and also be sure to follow these guidelines.

Maintain a speed of a few kilometres per hour below the flow of traffic, to accommodate for merging cars

Let any tailgaters pass you by moving to the right. It’s important to maintain a safe distance on all sides of your vehicle whenever possible.

Leave lots of time for travel to avoid time pressure. Remember to leave extra time to accommodate any construction along the way, rush hour traffic, or weather issues.

Signal well in advance of changing lanes and don’t cut off other vehicles; they need to maintain a safe stopping distance, too!

Earn your Road SMARTS

Learn more road safety tips by taking the #RoadSMARTS pledge. By taking the Road SMARTS Pledge, you Support Making All Road Travel Safe, which can help improve road safety for everyone. When road behaviours change, accidents are reduced. For more information and to take the pledge for free, visit https://www.ottawasafetycouncil.ca/road-smarts.