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I have a friend who often gets way too close, way too fast, to cars in front of him. We were driving in stop-and-go freeway traffic when the Volkswagen in front of us slammed on the brakes. My friend somehow managed to veer onto the shoulder and very narrowly avoided a crash. If he had hit that car, would he be at fault because he was following too close? My friend thinks the other car should be at fault for stopping so suddenly. – Derek, Vancouver

There’s definitely an I in tailgating.

If you hit the car in front of you, it’s your fault, not theirs.

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“If you rear-end the vehicle ahead of you, you will be considered to be at fault,” said Anne Marie Thomas, spokeswoman for Insurance Hotline, a rate comparison site. “The thinking is that you should always keep a safe enough distance between your car and the vehicle ahead.”

The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC), B.C.’s government-run insurer, states on its website that if you hit the car in front of you while it’s stopped or slowing down, you’re 100 per cent at fault.

Why does it matter who’s at fault? If you’re not at fault in a crash in B.C., your repairs will be covered even if you didn’t buy optional collision insurance. But if you are at fault and don’t have collision insurance, your repairs won’t be covered.

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Plus, if you’re at fault in a crash and you don’t have crash forgiveness, your insurance rates will go up.

In B.C., there are exceptions to the fault rule. If somebody rear-ends you and pushes you into the car in front of you while you’re stopped, then the driver who rear-ended you would be at fault.

The rules vary by province, but they’re all similar.

Safe space?

So, how far should you stay from the car in front of you?

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Across Canada, the laws don’t list a specific distance.

In B.C. for instance, the law states that you can’t follow more closely “than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of the vehicles and the amount and nature of traffic on and the condition of the highway.”

In B.C., that’s a $109 fine and three demerits points.

It’s up to police to decide if you’re following too close. So, you may get charged if a cop sees you tailgating – or if you rear-end the car in front of you.

You could also be charged with careless driving. That comes with a $368 fine and six demerits.

Some provincial driving manuals recommend a specific following distance, but they measure it in seconds instead of metres.

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For instance, in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, manuals say to keep at least a two-second distance in good weather.

Angelo DiCicco, special project manager at the Ontario Safety League, recommends three seconds in good weather.

“We don’t say the number of car lengths or metres,” DiCicco said. “One day you may be driving a Honda Civic and the next day a Lincoln Navigator, so seconds are easy to count.”

To figure out the following distance, pick a point on or along the road – say, a lamppost or a line on the road – and start counting after the car in front of you passes it.

It should take you three seconds to reach the same point.

At highway speeds and in lousy weather, keep even more room.

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Tailgating won’t help you get anywhere faster, DiCicco said.

“When you’re anxious because you’re late for work or you’re late for your vaccine appointment, you equate being closer to the vehicle in front of you with driving faster,” DiCicco said. “Those are two totally different things.”

Tailgating doesn’t work as a signal to make the driver in front of you speed up or get out of your way, he said.

“It’s actually ludicrous to think that you could communicate anything other than a sense of panic and aggression,” DiCicco said. “It’s narcissistic.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.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.

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