Autoweek Asks: How much space do you keep between the car ahead at red lights?

Do you make an effort to make sure everyone fits into the line, or do you give the car ahead a wide berth?

Most drivers remember the two-second rule as being the safe following distance; some drivers actually observe it. While that rule of thumb is generally a good idea (and remember that it’s three seconds for vehicles with dozens of crazy bumper stickers on them), one thing we’ve started noticing lately that some drivers observe a two-vehicle distance from the car in front of them at traffic lights.

First of all, this is a topic that’s kind of overlooked in most driving courses — all attention is paid to keeping a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of you while you’re in motion. But the question of distance at red lights has become something of an interesting pattern to observe in different cities, especially in urban areas where every extra inch counts. The only thing worse than “a close talker” at traffic lights is a phone talker who leaves two car spaces in front of them, preventing others from getting into the line behind them.

A recent study by Virginia Tech College of Engineering suggests that packing in closer is offset by the space required to accelerate from the light.

“The study, published this month in the New Journal of Physics, used video cameras attached to drone helicopters to capture footage of cars accelerating through a traffic light on the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road,” Science Daily writes. “By systematically controlling the packing density of the cars, the researchers discovered that any decrease in distance to the light was completely offset by the time it took for cars to regain a comfortable spacing before drivers could accelerate.”

Some people say, “Well, leaving a huge distance ahead of you gives you time to honk your horn if the car ahead puts it into reverse.” That can be true if that car overshot the light and had to back up and you’re the second car in line. But one other argument we’ve heard for keeping a very minimal distance from the car ahead of you is to discourage pedestrians and bikers to fit through that gap while you’re stationary at a red light, which is a tactic some drivers use in cities to prevent jaywalkers from creating dangerous situations.

If you think that state laws regulate this sort of thing, the answer is that in most states the statute simply penalizes “Following too closely,” which is usually backed up by lazy and subjective language regarding keeping a “prudent” following distance. Those statutes are written wide enough to give police a pretextual excuse to pull someone over, but they’re not frequently enforced at intersections while cars are stationary unless an officer really wants to pull someone over. For one thing, a police officer has to be able to see the distance in the first place, and that’s hard to do unless they’re to the left or the right on a multilane road, and they’re actually interested in making a traffic stop just based on that.

Still, this is something that DMV test-takers can lose points for on a driving exam because the rule of thumb that testers often use is the ability to see the rear tires of the car in front of you. Whether anyone would be able to get to work on time in an urban area like New York or Boston if everyone actually observed the rear-tire rule of thumb is another matter entirely.

How much space do you usually leave between your front bumper and the car ahead of you at traffic lights?

Let us know in the comments below.

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