When I’m being tailgated, sometimes I will tap on the brakes to tell the driver behind me to back off. I don’t slam on the brakes, but slow down enough to show them how close they are (and hopefully scare them a little). Could I get into trouble if that driver hits me? What else can I do to get them off my tail? – Neil, Toronto
If someone is following you too closely, don’t tap the brakes unnecessarily, safety experts say.
Doing so could cause a crash – and you could face charges.
“Even tapping the brakes without slowing can cause the driver behind to overreact or panic, which can and does lead to loss of control,” said Ian Law, president and chief instructor of Brampton, Ont.-based ILR Car Control School. “Because we can’t predict how the tailgater will react, it is not a good idea. If that vehicle contains innocent occupants like kids, then they shouldn’t end up in a crash because the driver was following too closely.” And of course, if the tailgater hits your vehicle, you could be injured too.
While every province, including Ontario, has rules against following too closely, some also have rules against braking suddenly for no reason – which is also known as brake checking.
For instance, Section 436 of Quebec’s Highway Safety Code says you should only hit the brakes if “compelled to do so for safety reasons.”
Some other provinces, including Ontario, don’t explicitly ban braking when you don’t need to – but if it leads to a crash, and police can show that you deliberately braked for no reason, you could potentially be charged with careless driving or stunt driving.
In Ontario, careless driving could bring penalties including a licence suspension, fines up to $2,000 (or up to $50,000 if someone is hurt or killed) and jail time. Stunt driving penalties include an immediate 30-day licence suspension, 14-day vehicle impoundment, fines from $2,000 to $10,000 and jail time.
Normally, if a driver rear-ends you, insurance companies consider them 100-per-cent at fault because they should have been leaving enough space between their car and the one in front to stop in time.
But if it was proved that you deliberately braked for no reason, you may also be considered at fault, experts say.
Get them in front of you
So how do you get the car behind you to give you more space?
If you’re on a single-lane highway, Law suggests waiting for the next available passing zone and then slowing down gently without hitting your brakes by easing up on the accelerator.
“In most cases, that will encourage the tailgater to pass,” Law said.
If the driver doesn’t take the hint after you slow down, Law said he puts on his right turn signal to make them think he will be turning off or pulling off the road so they pass him.
“The last resort is to actually pull off in a safe area and simply resume your trip once they have gone by,” Law said.
Angelo DiCicco, general manager with the Ontario Safety League, a Mississauga-based non-profit focusing on driver education, suggests putting on your four-way flashers before slowing down.
“It’s a better way to get their attention,” DiCicco said.
But if you’re being tailgated in the centre or left lane, consider moving to the right to let them pass, DiCicco said.
“Find the lane that gives you enough space and visibility,” DiCicco said. “If you’re in the far left lane and you’re doing the speed limit or slightly above, maybe you’re in the wrong lane.”
It’s always a good idea to allow the tailgater to get in front of you, even if that means changing lanes or pulling off the road, DiCicco said.
“Over one-third of all crashes are rear-enders,” DiCicco said. “If someone is following you closely, encourage them to go away.”
How close is too close?
Most provinces, including Ontario, don’t give a specific distance that cars have to leave in front of them.
It’s up to police to decide whether you’re following too closely. So you may be charged if a police officer sees you tailgating – or if you rear-end the car in front of you.
Some provincial driving manuals recommend a specific following distance, but they measure it in seconds instead of metres.
For instance, in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, manuals say to keep at least a two-second distance in good weather – longer when roads are slippery or icy.
“We recommend three to four seconds of following time,” Law said. “Traffic studies show the average driver follows 0.8 seconds behind the driver in front … and it takes 1 to 1.5 seconds to figure out something is wrong, figure out the correct response and then react.”
To gauge your following time, pick an object up ahead, either on or next to the road – a line on the pavement or a post, for instance. Watch when the car in front of you passes it, and then count how many seconds it takes for you to pass it.
The more space you can leave, the better, Law said. If another car pulls into that space, they will probably pull out of it soon, so they can get ahead of the car in front of them.
“You will get emails saying that [to maintain three seconds’ distance] is impossible in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area],” Law said. “I have hours and hours of dashcam video of me driving on [Highways] 404 and 401 with three or more seconds of following time without someone stealing my space.”
If your car has adaptive cruise control – which keeps a set following distance from the car in front of you – it’s a good idea to use it, DiCicco said.
“If all of us had adaptive cruise control and had it turned on, this would not be a problem,” DiCicco said.
Have a driving question? Send it to email@example.com and put ‘Driving Concerns’ in your subject line. Emails without the correct subject line may not be answered. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated that if a driver deliberately hits the brakes for no reason and it leads to a crash, the driver could be charged with careless driving. In fact, the driver could be charged with careless driving or stunt driving. This version has been corrected.