Road Rules: Dealing with tailgaters


Question: What is the appropriate, safe, and legal response when I am traveling in a center lane, at the speed limit, boxed in by other traffic, and a non-emergency vehicle speeds up behind me and starts flashing its high-beams?

Answer: What do you already know about the driver this person is asking about, just from this question? Besides that. Yes, they’re feeling an excessive sense of urgency. As a practice, it’s wise to separate yourself from those kinds of drivers, and it sounds like you’re looking for the best way to do that.

Legally, you’re not violating any laws by remaining in your lane. There isn’t a law called driving too close to the vehicle behind you. The law requires drivers to travel in “the right-hand lane then available for traffic,” and from your description, you can’t move any further right. It’s not your responsibility to give that driver a clear path but, even so, it’s probably appropriate (which is to say, a suitable option given the circumstances). Having someone on your tail flashing their high-beams at you can ramp up your own driving stress. You don’t want to let the anxiety or urgency of other drivers push you to feel the same.

You probably don’t need to hear this, but someone might: another driver violating traffic law in a way that affects you does not give you permission to also violate the law. Yes, the driver that’s tailgating and flashing their high beams is disregarding at least two laws (following too closely and use of multiple-beam road-lighting equipment.) That doesn’t justify a response of brake-checking the driver behind you. Tailgating is already a high-risk behavior; why would anyone want to compound it by slamming on their brakes in front of that driver? 

Wouldn’t it be great if you could say to the person behind you, “I see you, and I’ll move over as soon as there’s a gap in traffic.” Given the limited communication tools available for drivers, if your plan is to move over, activate your turn signal (even if you don’t yet have a gap to move into.) This lets the driver behind you know you see him. (It’s probably a him. Men are over three times more likely than women to be involved in a serious or fatal crash involving following too closely.)

Beyond your turn signal, how friendly do you want to get? If you can see the driver through your rearview mirror, I suppose you could also offer a wave, followed by a hand shrug (when you hold up your arm and relax your wrist with your palm facing up) to let them know you see them but there’s nothing you can do at the moment. Of course, hand signals are easily misinterpreted, so use discerningly. 

It’s difficult to be patient when someone’s on your bumper, but don’t let that driver rush you into the other lane, cutting off another driver. To make sure you’re leaving that driver enough room, wait until you can see the entire front bumper of the car you’re pulling in front of in your rearview mirror before moving into the lane.

And to the people following too closely, if you’re a chronic tailgater, it’s time to reevaluate your driving. The rest of us know it’s not helping, because we end up right behind you at the next off-ramp. There are a lot of us who aren’t doing it (I know because they email me questions like this). Join us in making our roads safer for everyone. You’ll also benefit from less stress as you’re driving and arrive happier. Win-win!

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


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