STREET SMARTS - Simple strategies help allay risk from tailgaters

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A while back I was driving on the Last Chance Road, and as I approached Highway 12, I noticed a truck headed eastbound toward Walla Walla. This truck was similar to those 24-foot moving trucks with the big box on the back.

Behind the truck, not much more than one car length away, was a mid-size car. It almost looked like those motor homes that pull a car behind them. All I could imagine was what would happen if an animal ran across the highway, and the truck driver slammed on his brakes.

Does anyone really believe that the car in front of them will never slam on their brakes for any reason, especially this driver, who was so close to the truck that vision was totally obstructed to any potential danger ahead.

This is putting a lot of faith in the truck driver, a total stranger! I followed the two vehicles into Walla Walla, and we were all traveling at the speed limit. As we were the only three vehicles in the area, I could see no clear reason for the car to be crowding the truck to this extent.

Not a lot of research has been done on why drivers tailgate, but it does seem as if there are lots of opinions. Many contend that it stems from drivers wanting to arrive at their destination quickly, and they are trying to "push" the car in front of them along, even though many times that car is doing the speed limit.

Maybe they believe that by driving so close to a bumper in a threatening manner, it will cause the person in front of them to speed up? Some maintain that tailgating is just a poor driving habit, as drivers have done it for years without any consequences, and now they are complacent and do not appreciate how quickly a severe collision can change their lives.

Tailgating has a social component as well. Depending on how we were raised or what culture we were raised in, we react differently to what we consider our "personal space".

Like many others, when I look in my rear view mirror and see nothing but grille, I first get an adrenaline rush, and then I get upset. I take it as a personal threat when someone puts me in danger, and this is not an uncommon reaction.

There is a significant difference between driving in a big city compared to driving in Walla Walla that greatly benefits us. Since we can so quickly get where we are going in town, you would think that we would have fewer rear-end collisions.

However, this is one of our most common types of collisions in Walla Walla. With more distractions, (think cell phones, radios, eating fast foods in the car) proper following distances aren't addressed, and there is an increase in the potential for rear-ending the car in front. This is a major traffic safety problem here.

Walla Walla is a wonderful community to retire to for many reasons. Senior citizens can continue to drive longer than they would in larger cities, but this requires others to give them the respect they are due and not drive up onto their bumpers if they are going slower than you would like.

If we feel someone is slowing us down, but get the impression they are driving as fast as they feel comfortable, why not just take a deep breath, relax, and just enjoy the drive along with them? If we always feel like other drivers are in our way, we are most likely not giving ourselves enough time to get to our destination and need to plan ahead.

If someone is tailgating you, allow more space between your car and the one in front of you. This allows time to slow gradually, thus keeping the tailgater behind to have time to slow also.

Train yourself on proper following distances by staying three or even four seconds behind that car ahead. You can check your distance by noting a telephone pole or other stationary object that the car in front of you passes. As they pass it, start counting, "One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three ... "

If you pass that same object three or four counts later, you will know that you are the proper distance behind them. It will also allow someone who insists on tailgating you the opportunity to go around and safely pull in ahead of you.

Also, try to drive the posted speed limit. This should help discourage drivers who tailgate when they want to get somewhere and want to at least do the speed limit.

Once we practice maintaining proper following distances, it becomes second nature. We will feel uncomfortable driving too close to the car in front of us, and it may keep us from causing a rear-end collision, which is nearly always the fault of the driver who was following.

Capt. Gary Bainter is Patrol Division commander for the Walla Walla Police Department. He can be reached at gbainter@ci.walla-walla.wa.us or 524-4372.

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