Standing on a freeway overpass with a camera in hand, AAA driving instructor Mike Torkelson videotaped a few minutes of traffic to see how many motorists allowed proper following distance. Not surprisingly, the video showed that few drivers did.
State law says that motorists must stay a minimum of three seconds behind the vehicle in front of them. Yet in our fast-paced society and increasingly clogged roads, driving too close is a frequent transgression and likely the most unenforced law on the roads.
“It’s terrible,” Torkelson said as he gave the Drive a behind-the-wheel refresher lesson recently. “I don’t see people pulled over for following distance because so many people do it. It’s like speeding: You can’t pull everybody over, but it’s excessive.”
Noting that rear-end collisions are the most common type of crash, Torkelson said the new best practices for driving say motorists should allow three seconds in areas where the speed limit is 50 miles per hour or lower. That should be increased to four seconds on highways and freeways with an additional second allowed for each adverse condition such as rain, snow or darkness.
That is precious time needed when a motorist has to take evasive action to avoid a crash and a date with the insurance company.
“Odds are that if you leave that much distance, somebody will swoop in and take it,” he said. “I tell my students that it’s like dance. If somebody takes it, you create a little more. But do it in the context that you are not putzing along and hindering traffic. No brakes, just do it gradually.”
Other unenforced rules
As we drove through St. Louis Park, we touched on a number of driving rules that most of us used to know but might be fuzzy about now. Who has the right of way at an uncontrolled intersection? It’s the driver who gets there first. If it’s a tie, the one on the right gets to go first.
“With right-of-ways, there are many aspects, and it’s complex,” Torkelson said.
Turn signals are always advised, even in “exit only” lanes and the like. Using them in parking lots is a good idea, too, he said.
What do you do if the traffic light turns yellow? It depends. While it’s against the law to gun it to make it through the intersection before the light turns red, proceeding through on a yellow light might be the safest thing to do.
“If there is somebody behind me, the lower risk might be to go through,” Torkelson said. “You don’t want somebody slamming into the back of you.”
Drivers who disregard the rules can get one’s blood pressure boiling. As tempting as it is, Torkelson says lay off the horn. While it’s OK to give a gentle toot to a driver who does not go when the light turns green, blasting the horn sends a whole different message.
“A lot of time we use it to communicate anger,” Torkelson said. “If we put a sheriff’s badge on our chest and say we are going to teach these people lessons, that leads to aggressive driving and to a worse situation that we don’t want to have.”
Driving comes down to making decisions that will reduce the chances of a collision. That’s something we all have to take responsibility for as the next generation of drivers is watching us.
“The No. 1 influence on a teen driver is how their parents drive,” he said. “What they see with their parents, they model that.”