I read about a woman who got $500 in tickets after she reported a student driver who was going too slow and made her late for work. I can totally relate to her frustration – every day, I see cars with L and N stickers holding up traffic. I don’t understand why new drivers aren’t required to learn on a track instead of getting in everyone else’s way. – Holly, Vancouver
Those cars say “Student Driver” for a reason – you’re supposed to cut them some slack.
“It’s pretty obvious from 150 metres away,” said Todd McGivern, a driving instructor with Licence to Drive in Pemberton, B.C. “It would be nice if people recognized that and applied common sense to driving – these students are nervous to begin with.”
McGivern was the instructor in that story. Last July, he was in the car with a student driver on a single-lane stretch of Hwy. 99 between Pemberton and Whistler. Although they were mostly going the speed limit, a car behind them started tailgating, honking and flashing the high beams.
“The car was within inches of our bumper – her licence and headlights disappeared out of the rear-view mirror,” McGivern said. “I didn’t report it – but in this particular case, the driver called police and complained.”
The driver, Joanna Harrington, took cellphone video of McGivern’s car. After about 10 minutes, she eventually passed on the right.
When the RCMP investigated her complaint, they discovered that McGivern had rear-camera footage.
Harrington ended up getting two tickets: $109 for crossing a solid white line and $368 for using an electronic device while driving – McGivern and his student weren’t charged.
The story hit the news in March after Harrington, who didn’t return an e-mail from Globe Drive for this story, missed her court date to fight the charge. The judge refused to adjourn the case and she was fined.
“I don’t want to talk any more about the specific case,” McGivern said. “She’s probably had a really hard time dealing with this.”
While the incident was an extreme example, students have to deal with driver frustration every day, McGivern said.
“We get people honking and waving their arms,” McGivern said. “I can certainly empathize with people who are late for work or late for the airport, but in no way does that give you the right to be a bully.”
How do drivers know they’re on the road with students? Even if you’re not in a driving school car that says “Student Driver,” in B.C., you’re supposed to put an L – for learner – sign on the back of your car.
B.C. also requires novice drivers – who’ve passed their road test but don’t have their full licence yet – to display a green letter N.
Get off the road?
McGivern said he does teach drivers the basics in parking lots.
“It might be an hour, it might be 10 minutes – but once they’re done, we don’t go back to it,” he said. “Student drivers are qualified to be on the road – they’ve passed their learner’s test and they’re entitled to be there as much as anyone else.”
One of the skills new drivers have to learn on the road is how to maintain a steady speed to avoid annoying the drivers behind them – and that can take a while, McGivern said.
“They go too slow and then they go too fast and then they hit the brakes,” he said. “But students, they have to learn – none of us was born with driving experience.”
But a lot of drivers expect student drivers – and anyone else going slower – to get out of their way. And they signal that by tailgating.
But on single-lane roads, student drivers going the speed limit – or close to it – shouldn’t be expected to pull onto the shoulder for every car that wants to pass them.
“These are 16- and 17-year-old kids. You’d never expect your son or daughter to move off the road for every driver,” McGivern said. “When you pull over, you’re putting yourself at such risk – the shoulders are three feet wide, covered in gravel and some are on the edge of cliffs. It’s pretty gnarly.”
Instead, when a driver is following too closely, McGivern teaches students to slow down slightly.
“The only safe way to react is to slightly slow down to below the posted speed – giving the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they don’t realize how close they are,” McGivern said. “It’s not aggressive – it’s a nice way to say back off.”
It might be tempting to send a stronger message by slamming on the brakes, but that could cause a crash, McGivern said.
And why not just speed up?
“If you try to outrun a tailgater, all they do is keep chasing you down,” McGivern said. “I’m always trying to embed that in my students’ thinking process: ‘you don’t need to get pushed around – you’re entitled to be here.’”
What the law says
A driver who is aggressively tailgating anyone, whether they’re a student or not, could face various charges in B.C., said Sergeant Lorne Lecker, with Deas Island traffic services, which wasn’t involved in the Pemberton case.
Section 162 of B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act covers following too closely. The penalty is $109 and three demerits.
But the law – like versions in most other provinces, including Ontario – doesn’t give a specific distance that you have to keep from the car in front of you.
“It’s subjective – it says ‘more closely than reasonable and prudent,’” Lecker said.
Following too closely is the No. 1 cause of collisions, Lecker said. And if you’re tailgating a car to punish them, you could also be charged with driving without reasonable consideration.
“That’s $196 and six points,” Lecker said, “And in B.C., we have the power to impound motor vehicles for stunting.”
Stunting covers various types of dangerous driving, including “driving as close as possible to another motor vehicle, a pedestrian, or a fixed object.” So, if you’re trying to teach someone a lesson, police could take your car on the spot.
But what about those annoyingly slow drivers?
And you could potentially be charged on a single-lane road if you’re driving so slow that you’re blocking traffic. There are no specific numbers for how slow is too slow.
“The slow driver has to have a reason – if they’re driving with an emergency spare or if the road conditions are unsafe,” Lecker said. “And if the road conditions aren’t safe, you could actually be considered to be speeding if you’re going the limit or even below it.”
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