The “problem”: On our Johannesburg roads, there is a grand tradition of tailgating. Big cars sit on the tails of little cars. Little cars sit on the tails of big cars. Huge hulking trucks sit on the tails of anyone they can catch up with. Taxis sit on the tails of those who go too slowly, and hoot cheerfully, as they hurtle along well above the speed limit together. Everyone is in on it. I think they are one happy family — the Van Sitterts — want hulle hou van sittert op het stert van het motor voor hulle.
At 80 km/h to 120 km/h, a typical tailgater keeps a following distance of 2 to 3 metres. This is a following distance of 0.090 seconds (90 milliseconds). This is a little less than the recommended 3 seconds, but do not fear — the people who drive like this all have razor sharp reaction times, so this seldom causes accidents. However, on the rare occasion that the driver in front needs to brake or swerve, the man behind has no chance at all. Ditto the man behind him. If anything at all happens to which they need to react, they don’t have time. However, this seldom happens, except when there are accidents. I wonder if this could lead to a multi-car pile-up?
The “motive”: I have worked out the motivation of tailgaters, and along with it the secret to removing tailgaters. It doesn’t work for everyone — just the “habit” tailgaters. The “angry” tailgaters are just upset with you, and anything you do, short of driving over the car in front of you, or leaving the road in dust and flames, is an inadequate response.
Why does the habitual tailgater drive so close? Are they just mindless people who insist on doing as stupid does, and insist on courting injury and death? Are they angry with entire classes of people that are not themselves? Are they unaware of the danger? Probably.
The tailgater wants to get there faster. If he is on someone’s tail, he is doing as much as he can get to get to the next stop as fast as he can. The closer he is, the more he is doing to get there. For some reason, you are more likely to get tail-gated when you are exceeding the speed limit than when you are driving at or under the speed limit ….
The “solution”: If you keep a constant speed, your response to his driving is neutral. If you speed up, you affirm him, and he gets a reward — he is going to get to that important traffic jam faster. If you touch the brakes, you are threatening him, and you’ve got a fight on your hands. If you slow down ever so slightly — by just 2km/h per 15 seconds or so — you are telling him (very subtly) that he’s not going to get there faster. You are telling him that the longer he sits on your stupid and slow and decelerating tail the longer it is going to take him to get to the tail of the person in front of you. You are telling him that you are a slow and stupid person. This is not really a change — Mr van Sitterert thought this already when the came to sit on your tail. I get the impression that most tail gators don’t realise when the car in front of them decellerates — since they are in the habit of getting as close as they think is “safe”. They suspect, I suspect, that they have subtly varied the pressure on their lead foot.
So now you’re slowing down, and at this point, Mr van Sittert has a choice. He can slow down and continue to sit on your tail and hope that you repent of your evil slowness, and be less of a octogenarian driver, or he can make a plan. He can get closer, but since your speed is suddenly variable, this increases the chances that he will have to put his foot on the dreaded brake pedal, and your habitual tail gater doesn’t like this. The exertion of varying the petrol supply to his fine vehicle is more than enough exercise. If you time slowing down with a gap for Van Sittert, he will go around.
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