Fault for a Car Accident: What is a Safe Following Distance?

The "safe following distance rule" often comes up in rear-end accident cases.

In an insurance claim or personal injury lawsuit after a car accident, whether or not the tailing driver kept a safe following distance may be a crucial factor in establishing fault, especially in cases involving rear-end collisions. In a typical rear-end collision case, the driver of the vehicle that was struck from behind must show that the tailing driver:

  • did not use proper care and caution under the circumstances (considering road conditions, etc.) while driving, and
  • this failure to use proper care caused the collision and resulting damages.

If the person filing an insurance claim or lawsuit can establish these things in a rear-end collision case, then the tailing driver will be deemed liable for the accident, and financially responsible (probably through a car insurance policy) for any injuries and property damage caused by the crash. Therefore, it is paramount that drivers learn what a safe following distance constitutes under different road conditions.

The Three Second Rule

Tailgating, or following the car in front of you too closely, is the cause of most rear-end collisions. This typically means that the tailing driver failed to maintain a safe following distance in the seconds leading up to the crash. To prevent people from tailgating, many states have issued driver's manuals informing people to follow the “three second rule.” This rule can be considered the gold standard when it comes to figuring out whether a following distance is “safe” under the circumstances.

The three-second rule states that when you drive, you should select a stationary object on the road, such as a tree or a signpost. When the vehicle ahead of you passes this stationary object, you should count, “one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three.” You should not reach the object yourself before you reach the number “one-thousand-three.” If you do, you are following the car ahead too closely. Even the three second rule isn’t set in stone. You should allow for an extra second or two during rainy and icy conditions, or when visibility is limited because of fog.

Additional Factors Affecting Safe Following Distance

Road conditions are unpredictable, and daily driving can be filled with distractions. Depending on the circumstances, your reaction time to the red brake light in front of you may vary from less than one second to several seconds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a vehicle traveling at 55 miles per hour will cover about 60 feet before the average driver can react to a hazard or other situation, and an average-size car traveling at that speed will need about 160 feet to come to a stop. That’s a total stopping distance of 220 feet at 55 miles per hour, under normal conditions. And keep in mind that a number of factors may delay either your stopping time or your reaction time (or both), including:

  • obscured vision (e.g., fog or darkness)
  • drowsiness or illness
  • older brakes
  • an unfamiliar or larger vehicle
  • the speed at which your vehicle is traveling
  • driving while distracted (talking on the phone or texting)
  • medications you may be taking

Should any of these issues affect your driving ability, you should factor in one to two additional seconds to the “three second rule” to maintain a safe following distance. Remember that doing so can assure that you have adequate stopping time should someone in front of you slam on his brakes –- no matter what the driving conditions are like.

Getting Legal Help

Rear-end collisions are some of the most common car accidents, but liability issues can become complex, and the back-and-forth negotiations among drivers, insurers, and lawyers can be challenging. For help navigating each step of an insurance claim or lawsuit after a car accident, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo). You may also want to consult an experienced personal injury attorney to make sure your legal rights are protected.

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