Doper Defensive Drivers: What could I have done differently?

I had an experience last night that honestly still has me a little rattled. I have had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Kitty’s take on it, now I turn to you to see if anyone has any other suggestions. I apologize for the length.

First the setup:

I have an almost 40-mile (each way) commute to work. Approximately half of that is on a two-lane (one lane in each direction) rural road. Speed limit is 55MPH, although folks tend to go a little faster. There are houses dotted along the road, but you have to know where they are (and who they are, really- one does not typically pull into a stranger’s driveway around here)- there are no streetlights. There are four spots along the road to pass- one near the beginning, one near the end, and two small ones in the middle. If you miss any of those, you’re pretty much screwed… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten stuck behind a logging truck peddling along at 40MPH.

I was at work longer than anticipated yesterday- ten hours total- and I was eager to get home. I turned onto the road, and found myself behind another car (the slightly bigger version of my own) doing about 50MPH. I thought about passing at the first point, but it was dark (2.5 hours after sunset) and I didn’t feel comfortable (there’s also a good bit of wildlife on the road, especially at night, and I don’t like taking chances), so I settled in for a leisurely ride home. At first I was about 1.5-2 carlengths behind the person in front, but I increased the distance when I saw the car weaving a little (drifting to the right side of the road, almost going off onto the shoulder- they would do this every few minutes, and they did it for the duration of the time I was behind them). About 5 miles into the commute, a car came up behind me, riding my bumper- I shifted to the side enough for them to see I couldn’t go any faster, although they stayed on my bumper anyway. About 12 miles into the commute, the guy behind me passed both me and the guy I was behind (legally, although I wouldn’t have tried it- it was at the bottom of a hill and people crest that hill going fairly fast). This was where things got weird.

The guy in front of me drifted to the right, almost going off the road, and then sharply into the left (oncoming) lane, driving along for a few seconds. I thought he was swerving to avoid something, so I slowed down and looked for whatever it was- nothing there. They swung back into the right lane, back into the left lane, and back to the right. This went on for several passes- it almost looked like two people fighting over the steering wheel. At this point I left the distance between us at about 3.5 carlengths and pulled out my cell to call 911. But, of course, I had no service, so I planned on stopping at the gas station about four miles up the road. That plan didn’t work out, though, because first we had to go through a partially-lit intersection (there’s a stoplight, a restaurant with one orange streetlight in front of it on the left hand side, and a house on the right hand side with an orange streetlight in front of it). As we came up on the intersection, our side was red. The person in front of me stopped abruptly (something about the way the car stopped alerted me to what was about to happen, and I had stopped about five feet back), the driver got out and came at my car with his fists up. He got about halfway between our cars, and I pulled off into the yard of the house on the right, passed his car, and went through the (now thankfully green) light. At that point I didn’t want to stop at all- the gas station was empty of cars, and no other businesses were open- so I went directly home and called the police to file a report (I had the tag number, a description of the vehicle, and a description of the guy).

So, summary for those who (understandably) don’t want to slog through that whole thing:

  1. I will be the first to admit that I’m a speeder, and I really, really wanted to get home, but once I missed that first opportunity to pass him I had settled in for the long haul- I was actually sitting back and singing along to the radio when everything went to hell.

  2. At no time was I closer than 1.5-2 carlengths, so I wasn’t “riding his bumper” and at 50MPH I feel that’s a perfectly safe distance.

  3. At no time did I turn on my highbeams. In fact, I’ve recently replaced the headlights in my car (they’re regular lights, not the super-obnoxious blue/white ones) and I know they’re aligned correctly- IOW, my lights were not shining into either his rearview or driver’s side mirrors.

  4. There was no place for me to pull over on the road and let him get further in front of me.

  5. I wasn’t leaning out the window, yelling and flipping him off. In fact, I would have thought he’d be angrier at the guy who passed both of us in a legal but slightly unsafe manner.

  6. Our cars were nearly equal in size- in fact, his was slightly bigger- so it’s not like I was in a Hummer intimitated a guy in a VW Bug.

I admit I’m a little afraid that I’ll run into this guy again- Mr. Kitty pointed out that he was probably drunk and won’t remember enough details to put the information together, but I still double-checked every similar-looking car on the way to work, and I’m going to try to get out early today.

So- thoughts? Criticisms? Ideas on what the hell was going through this guy’s head? What could I have done differently to avoid this situation?

Ny only comment is that we were taught to leave about a car length for every 10 mph, so he may have seen you as much closer than needed. The difference in when you get home driving 40 feet further back won’t matter.

I personally think 1.5 to 2 car lengths is way too close at that speed, but that’s me.

I would have passed him as soon as I noticed the erratic driving- he was probably drunk or under the influence of something to be swerving all over like that. I think it’s safer to get the hell around them as quickly as possible then be behind them when they cause a huge accident and get caught in the middle.

If it was impossible to pass really, I would have slowed WAY down and let them get a good distance ahead, only because that driving usually does end in some sort of accident- also call 911 when you get in range to report the driving, as you did.

It can be tough to judge car lengths, particularly at night.* A easier and safer way is to judge time.
When the car in front of you passes an object, any object will do, start counting. Leave 2 seconds for a good safe following distance. If you suspect things are going to get weird, or you are tired, drop back to 3 seconds. This leaves you gobs of time to react.

Other than that, you did good.

*They never say what kind of cars either. SMART cars or stretch Hummer Limos?

In the UK, the “two second” rule applies when travelling behind a vehicle. At 50 mph, that’s 70 feet. The chart in my cite there gives 365 feet as the “safe following distance”, with a “stopping distance” of 175 feet, at a constant 50 mph. These figures are overly cautious, but 1.5 to 2 vehicle lengths, to me, would feel very much like tailgating.

Correction: 175 feet is the motorcycle stopping distance, not the car stopping distance, which is necessarily longer, at 220 feet.

The only other thing I can think of is maybe your headlights are out of alignment and were aimed at his front seat in such a way as to be distracting.

When we were teens, one of my boy friends put some fancy bright headlights on his car & they about blinded the people in front of us, I could tell they were freaking out. But it was easy to see the glare of our headlights off their rear-view mirror.

My first thought, though, is that this guy was a lunatic and you weren’t doing anything wrong.

Also, if you’re driving in Chicagoland and try to leave more than 2 car lengths, you’ll be run off the road by hordes of people cutting in front of you (and then slowing down).

Ditto. Someone driving that close, on a clear road, for that amount of time would feel intimidating to me. I know that wasn’t the intention, but to an irrational drunk, it could be enough to provoke him (“whaddya looking at…”)

175 ft. Although aren’t those measurements ridiculously outdated?

This would have been my first choice, absolutely, had not the guy behind me been driving so… I hesitate to use the word aggressively, but he was less than a carlength from me (at times I couldn’t see his lights, he was so close), and he didn’t increase distance any when I increased distance from the guy in front of me.

I also agree about his possible perception of the distance- I grew up in MA, where “standard” distances apply and don’t cause a problem (I used to use the 2 second rule) but since moving here I’ve found being that far from the person in front of you… upsets people for some reason. Plus it has the nasty side effect of people pulling in front of you at odd times. Folks here drive much closer than I like, and I’ve adjusted a little to compensate for that, but perhaps he was of the opposite preference.

I was also concerned that if I was much further behind him I would have to resort to using my own highbeams, and I had an incident about six months ago where I was a good 3/4 of a mile behind someone (their taillights were literally specks down the road), turned my highbeams on just long enough to get around a particularly tight corner, and had the person pull over until I passed him, get behind me right up on my bumper, turn his own highbeams on, and follow me for several miles.* So I’m a little paranoid about distance and highbeams.

Perhaps I just attract these dumbass drivers? :wink: I drive about 80-100 miles every day, typically down roads that people who want to avoid getting caught by state troopers would take, so I may just have the pleasure of coming across more impaired/inept drivers.

Thanks for the input so far- keep those suggestions coming, please!
[sub]* I called 911 on that one too- I think I musty be a permanent fixture in their database- and when the police pulled him over it turned out the guy was very, very, very drunk.[/sub]

This is something that I am super-observant about (and addressed in point 3 of the OP)- I drive a Jeep now, but for a long time I drove a Taurus (in a land dominated by huge-ass pickup trucks and SUVs) and I was regularly blinded by other folks. I swore when I got the Jeep that I would always make sure I didn’t do that to someone else, so Mr. Kitty and I spent forever adjusting the lights (using his car) so they lit where I needed them to but didn’t affect other drivers.

Don’t even get me started on the huge-ass pickups with the three rows of grill-level super-bright-white lights and the rack of supernova-level lights on top of the cab… :mad:

Hmm yes, they are, aren’t they? That said, I did an advanced driving course the other day, and the instructor told me that even the figures in the current Highway Code haven’t in fact changed since the 1940s. This is to introduce extra idiot time in to the equation - e.g. I once slammed into a vehicle that stopped suddenly in front of me because my shoe got stuck under the brake pedal - and because despite the better brakes of cars these days, the “thinking time” remains the same. So, overly cautious, but sensible regardless.

I don’t think you did anything wrong. 1.5 to 2 car lengths isn’t a huge amount of space, but it’s about normal for the way people follow around here.

Was your road bumpy? Some people don’t realize that lights can look like they’re flashing when the car behind you goes over bumps and the angles change. My mom’s that way. She insists the car behind her is flashing their lights at her when all they’re doing is going over bumps in the road. I have no idea how she’s driven 50 years without figuring that out.

I think the guy was being an ass. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he was sick. Maybe he was lost and getting really frustrated. But he was an ass.

Sounds like you have nearly identical driving conditions that I do. The guy that passed both of you was an idiot. You, however, may have been following too close.

In that circumstance, If I can’t pass, or don’t think it’s safe to, I will usually fall back far enough so that the car behind me has to pass in two maneuvers. One to pass me, and one to pass the slower car in front.

This gives me more time to react, and doesn’t “force” the car behind to pass both cars at once.

Your location field doesn’t give away much, but if you’re in the US there’s a good chance that the third guy passed both of you illegally, since some states allow you to overtake only one vehicle at a time.

Not that it’s particularly relevant.

I will add that 2 carlengths is too close except at very low speeds, particularly at night, but not enough that I’d have acted like that guy did.

1.5-2 car lengths behind a sleepy or drunk driver? Have you got a death wish? With respect to the car behind you, just gradually ease off the accellerator.

Better go back and re read that chart for detail. at 50 mph you are traveling 73.5 feet per second two seconds gives you 147 feet between you and the guy in front of you.
Now off the top of my head, I don’t know the stopping distance for a car from 50 mph, so let’s go to 60 cause I know those numbers.
2 seconds at 60 mph = 88’/second = 176 feet. Subtract from that reaction time (0.3 seconds for an alert driver)= 26’ leaving 150 feet to get stopped. My Volvo will go 60-0 in 120 feet. Now unless the car in front of you suddenly grows roots and stops on a dime, you actual distance you have to stop is much greater than 176 feet.
Two seconds is plenty of time unless you are asleep, and you will note I said if you are tired to leave 3 seconds. Also the OP was driving a car, not a motorcycle.

I wouldn’t be closer than one car length to the car in front of me if we were at a dead stop.

You were tailgating to be certain.

You should be able to pick a point on the road and count “one one thousand, two two thousand” between when the car in front of you and your car pass it. And that’s not a random number. Given all the random things in the world, like talking on a cellphone, accidentally pressing the wrong pedal, looking at your sideview mirror instead of ahead, etc. even when you’re that far behind, if you hit your breaks as soon as you can you’re still probably going to rear end the car in front of you. The only difference being whether you’re going to survive it.

RNATB, I am indeed in the US. I didn’t know about that rule-I see folks here pass up to three cars at a time almost on a daily basis (never mind the ones that pass the huge logging trucks, sometimes two trucks at a time- scares the crap out of me!). I’ll have to look into that one…

Re-check the OP: it was 1.5-2 when I first got behind him, because at first I saw no reason to worry, then increased to about 2.5/3 when I first noticed the drifting, then increased again to 3.5 (probably closer to 4) when he did the switching-to-the-oncoming-lane dance, because I could safely slow down (the other guy had passed us just before that happened). I’m measuring a car length as 10 feet, in case anyone was wondering. Not the ideal of 147 feet, true, but 40 feet isn’t, IMHO, unreasonable.

However, I’m really interested in the responses regarding distance- as I said, I used to go by the 2-second rule (when I first learned to drive they told me it was five seconds, and it took forever to break out of that habit), but the rule proved downright dangerous when I moved here. The majority of the drivers around here are practically in the driver in front’s back seat, so I thought that leaving about two car lengths was a nice compromise between me completely freaking out about being too close and them thinking I was impeding traffic. I really think that if I tried putting 147 feet between me and the person in front, I’d have folks pulling out in front of me/passing unsafely all the darn time- any space is enough space, y’know?

Lots to think about…

Gotta add a few things.

I think you need to evaluate this the next time you drive the road. I suspect, and hope that you where really farther away.

1.5-2 car lengths at 50mph on a two lane rural highway with limited visibility because or curves or hills and houses dotted along the road is way, way too close.

I sometimes follow to close. I admit it. There are times when I have to remind myself to back off and not drive the driver in front, but the road.

I try to limit it to when I’m about to pass someone. I prefer to hang back at least 5-6 car lengths and then close the distance as a passing area comes up. That way, I have a little bit of speed advantage built up.

Two lane rural highways at night with driveways and limited visibility are (IMHO) some of the most dangerous roads out there. I drive them every day. You just never know what you might run into. Literally.

Almost a similpost. Read your response bobkitty

Yeah, there is a lot to think about.

A for instance. Two years ago I had an idiot pass me in ice conditions on a corner. I was already pretty far back from cars in front of me that where driving a bit too slow. Fine. Tourists.

This dude passed me, and I dropped back farther. He then tried to pass three cars on another icy corner. He could not see traffic coming. It did. He and another car ended up in the ditch. Luckily that was as bad as it got. Because I droped back, I was able to control my own situation.

And 4 car lengths for an erratic driver is still not enough (again IMHO). At 50mph, 10 would be ok.

And, of course, I really don’t know the road you are on. It sounds a lot like what I drive every day, but everything, every situation is different. All in all, I would say you probably handled it pretty well.

5280 feet in a mile. 50 miles an hour. 73 feet per second.
Two seconds for a safe following distance is about 150 feet.

Even assuming you’re using a 70s era Lincoln Land Yacht for reference, 2 car lengths is way too close at that speed… especially on an undivided two lane.

That said, it could be he just didn’t like the fact that you were following him.
Maybe he was on something that made him paranoid.

Unless you were more concerned about him swerving and hitting you while you were trying to pass (I’ve followed some of those people a couple of times… once got to watch her, in this case, subsequently drive up onto an embankment and crash into a utility pole), you should have passed him and left him behind.