Tailgating is defined as “following a vehicle too closely,” but what does that actually mean?
Depending on which locality you speak with, the interpretations range from being able to break within seconds of a vehicle stopping short and the officer on duty who pulls you over.
In other words, it’s a judgment call and the consequences are a traffic summons of $30 or more, not including court and other processing fees.
“Vehicles need to maintain a space cushion between each other,” said John Heilman, school resource officer and spokesman for the Williamsburg Police Department.
In Williamsburg, officers use and recommend DMV’s rule for tailgating: under 35 mph is three seconds, 35-45 mph is four seconds and 45-70 mph is five seconds.
Heilman recommends fixating on an object and once the car in front of you has passed it, count the number of seconds it takes for your vehicle to pass it.
So besides following state code, why do officers pull people over?
In Newport News, MPO Brandon Maynard, spokesman for the police department, said a majority of rear-ended car crashes are caused by vehicles following too closely. And when it comes to issuing a formal warning or writing a traffic summons for tailgating, it’s up to the officer’s judgment.
“You don’t want to see one car ride up on the bumper,” Maynard said.
When an officer arrives at the crash scene to assess the situation, the responsible person can also be charged, he said.
Maynard said the department does not have a specific measurement when it comes to determining how close is “too close”, noting at a speed of 55 mph an appropriate distance between vehicles is a couple car-lengths.
The police departments of James City County and Hampton and the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office operate similarly to Newport News and Williamsburg.
“Distance is subjective,” Stephanie Williams-Ortery, spokeswoman for James City County Police Department, wrote in an email. “Officers have discretion in traffic enforcement.”
Williams-Ortery said following too closely is a pre-payable offense and the fine is determined by the courts.
Cpl. Ashley Jenrette, spokeswoman for the Hampton Police Department and Capt. Troy Lyons, spokesman for the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, echoed Williams-Ortery’s statement.
“We don’t specifically define the code––– the code is what the code is,” Lyons said.
Typically the ideal distance between vehicles on a dry, sunny day is three car-lengths, something taught in driver’s ed, Lyons said.
Lyons noted the traffic summons can be administered prior to a rear-end-type crash, but it is rare deputies do so.
Last year, the sheriff’s office issued one traffic summons related to tailgating, Lyons said.
It’s unclear why the state does not have a clear measurement for tailgating or why it is ultimately up to the localities to determine is someone is “following too closely.”