Abundant Optimism

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A Little Distance Can Mean Big Bucks

by Tamara Martfeld

As I drive down the major roads and freeways in my area I see a lot of red lights on the back of the cars in front of me. The drivers of these cars have their foot on the brakes about 80% of the time. This amount of breaking puts a lot of wear and tear on the brakes.

A few years ago I took a class required to drive my company’s vehicles. Within the class the instructor spoke about the “3-second-rule” and how “the experts” have discovered that it is not valid for most drivers. These experts are now recommending a “4-5-second-rule” for safety. For those who are not familiar with the terms, the “3-second-rule” meant to leave at least 3 seconds between the back of the car in front of you and the front of your vehicle. The new recommendation is to leave 4 or 5 seconds instead of 3 seconds. This rule is for a standard passenger car. Heavier vehicles will need more time.

How do the above paragraphs relate? By using any of the rules mentioned in the second paragraph the amount of breaking mentioned in the first paragraph would not occur. The cars in the first paragraph are typically 1 second or less behind the car in front of them. This is not a safe distance. The driver needs to break almost every time the person in front makes any move, taps on the breaks, or slows down in the hope of not hitting the car in front.

Since taking the class I have been doing my best to make sure there is at least 4 seconds between me and the car in front of me. I have found that when the car in front of me breaks I can usually just lift my foot from the gas pedal for a few seconds and not have to use my break. Since most the cars on the road are too close to the car in front, most of the breaking is cautionary instead of stopping, and the little bit of slowing is easily handled by drivers with sufficient distance in front of them.

By leaving more distance between you and the car in front of you, the brakes are used less. Less usage of the brakes means that they last for more miles, need replacement less frequently, and the fewer brake replacements means more money in your pocket. For those not familiar with the concept of how a brake wears down, think of an eraser. Every time it is used it gets a little smaller until it is no longer usable. The same concept applies to brake pads.

I will be up-front with you. When you are used to following closer it is strange to leave so much space between you and the car in front. It is also a bit frustrating at times – as you increase the space in front of you others use that space to merge into your lane in front of you. When this happens, just let off the gas pedal for a few seconds until space is re-established. There is no significant difference in my commute time since I started leaving the space. More specifically, I have noticed no time change. However, I find my drive less stressful since I can relax a little and not be super-alert to what the person in front of me is doing and I have enough time to react appropriately to the traffic in front of me. I also know that I am less likely to be in an accident due to my running into the person in front of me with all the inconvenience and pain associated with the accident.

I want to expand on the 3-5-second-rules for those who are not familiar with them. A few decades ago drivers were told to calculate car lengths between you and the person in front of you. I was not yet driving at that time, so I don’t know the guideline. I understand that the number of car lengths changed according to one’s speed. Not everyone is good at judging this type of distance. Someone along the way figured out that if you leave a given time frame between your car and the car in front that the distance would always be correct. At that time it was determined that 3 seconds was enough time for a driver to react and not hit the car in front. Over time it was discovered that this was true only when the driver is very alert at the time the car in front needs to stop. Glancing away from the front car at the critical time could result in an accident, thus the new recommendation for leaving 4 or 5 seconds instead of 3.

To determine how close you are to the car in front of you, pick a landmark (sign post, bush, etc.) and start counting seconds as the back of the car in front passes the landmark and stop when the front of your car reaches the landmark. Ideally this time should be at least 4 seconds, more if you have a heavy vehicle. It might be a good idea to find an empty road and find out how long it takes your car to stop at different speeds. Use this speed plus a second or two to react as the ideal distance between you and the car in front of you. Allow even more time if it is rainy, foggy, or any other condition which makes the road wet or otherwise imperfect. Another way to think about it – if the car in front of you stops on a dime, where will you be? The answer you want is “safely stopped behind that car”.

As you may have figured out by now, leaving that extra distance may also save your life in addition to those extra bucks. So leave that extra space and enjoy the ride!