The Virginia law that governs “following too closely” is actually surprisingly simple and easy to understand:
“The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle, trailer, or semitrailer more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard to the speed of both vehicles and the traffic on, and conditions of, the highway at the time.”Virginia Code § 46.2-816
Under this law, following too closely is a traffic infraction.
This means that the penalty for such an offense is (usually) limited to a small fine of between $81, as outlined in Virginia’s Uniform Fine Schedule (pg. 4), and $250, the maximum allowable fine for this offense.
A conviction will also result in the DMV adding four demerit points to your driver’s license.
Further, this offense will stay on your record for three years.
In this article, we’ll outline the basics of following too closely in Virginia. We’ll also answer a few questions about this surprisingly common infraction.
Following Too Closely: The Basics
Following too closely, sometimes referred to as “tailgating,” occurs when the driver of one vehicle follows another vehicle “more closely than is reasonable or prudent.”
In Virginia, roughly 32,000 accidents occur every year as a result of following too closely, accounting for 13.3% of all accidents in the Commonwealth.
Your following distance affects how safely you can brake when the car in front of your stops or slows, so it’s important to maintain a reasonable distance between the cars at all times.
Put another way, if you’re too close to the car in front of you, it’s unlikely that you will be able to stop in time to prevent a collision should the other car unexpectedly brake.
The Importance of Stopping Distances: How Close is Too Close?
Several factors can come into play when deciding whether you’re following too closely, such as:
- The speed of both vehicles (and the differences between each car’s speed);
- Traffic levels;
- The type of vehicle and it’s relative stopping distance;
- Weather and road conditions; and,
- The time of day.
The Virginia DMV further focuses on three additional variables that can affect your stopping distance:
- Perception Time — The time it takes for you to recognize a hazard.
- Reaction Distance — The distance your vehicle travels between the time your recognize the problem and the time you apply the brakes.
- Braking Distance — The distance your vehicle travels after you apply the brakes.
All three of these variables are affected by the factors noted above.
Virginia’s “Three-Second Rule”
Taken together, these factors and variables often result in the “three second rule” that most organizations (including the DMV) recommend.
Basically, you should always stay around three seconds behind the vehicle in front of you (though this obviously varies at very low and very high speeds).
This rule is based on a number of factors, including the stopping distances of average cars, the relative conditions on the road and in the area (such as fog), and the reaction times for drivers in different conditions.
In addition to the resources provided by the DMV, the Virginia Code also includes a rather helpful table that estimates the average stopping distances for cars and trucks based on a combination of speed and driver perception-reaction time:
As you can see, an automobile moving at 50 mph can stop in 229 feet, or approximately 15 car lengths (for context, a football field is around 300 feet long, excluding the end-zones).
If both vehicles are moving at approximately the same speed, and taking into account driver perception-reaction time, a three-second following distance should be sufficient to brake in the event of an emergency.
However, it’s important to note that this is very much a guideline and not a hard-set rule.
In fact, the Virginia DMV often recommends that you leave between a four and a five-second buffer between yourself and the car in front of you at all times.
Tailgating Yourself into a Traffic Accident
The most common way to end up with a ticket for following too closely is to tailgate yourself into a traffic accident.
Often, an officer will arrive at the scene of an accident and make a judgement on whether one driver was following too closely, as based on physical evidence, witness testimony, and driver statements.
In such an event, that officer will issue a Uniform Summons (“traffic ticket”) that charges the individual with following too closely.
For this reason, the “best” way to avoid a ticket for following too closely isn’t to specifically measure the distance between yourself and the driver in front of you.
Rather, you should simply drive in a “reasonable and prudent” manner by maintaining a safe following distance and taking other steps to prevent accidents.
I’m following the three-second rule, but are there situations where I could increase my distance?
Yes. As noted above, the three-second rule is actually more of a guideline.
In most cases, driving safely is better than trying to calculate the distance between yourself and the vehicle in front of you.
To name a few examples of situations where you should most certainly increase your distance:
- Unsafe Driving Conditions — Certain driving conditions, such as bad weather, heavy traffic, or poor lighting, necessitate a larger following distance.
- Driving a Larger (or Heavier) Vehicle — Heavier vehicles take longer to stop than lighter vehicles. The same is true if you’re carrying or pulling additional weight, such as if you’re hauling bricks or pulling a boat behind your truck.
- Other Tailgaters — Tailgating is never a safe option. Further it’s especially dangerous to follow too closely when you’re also being tailgated.
What are the Penalties for Tailgating in Virginia?
Despite only being a traffic infraction, tailgating is still a crime that can have a significant impact on your life.
Upon a conviction, you could face several penalties, including fines, DMV demerit points, and civil liability (provided the offense resulted in an accident).
Immediately upon being issued your ticket, you’ll be issued a pre-pay fine of $30 (as well as a $51 processing fee, for a total pre-pay fine of $81).
However, you should note that paying this fine is also an admission of guilt.
For this reason, you should think carefully before you pay this fine. What’s your “end-game” is for resolving the matter?
If you decide to contest the ticket, for example, you could face a higher fine of up to $250 (or, if the incident occurred in a highway safety corridor, of up to $500).
On the other hand, you might be able to simply pay the fine online without even going to court and be done with the matter.
The final decision ultimately falls to you.
However, you should always consider the full effects of your choice before you decide one way or the other.
This is especially true for individuals who were charged at the scene of an accident, who may face further civil liability, as detailed below.
DMV Demerit Points
In addition to the fines noted above, a conviction for following too closely will also result in the DMV adding four demerit points to your driving record.
If you receive twelve points within a single year, you’ll have to take a driving improvement course.
Eighteen points in a single year will usually result in the suspension of your license.
Finally, note that the points from the conviction of following too closely will remain on your record for three years.
You should also take note that a conviction of following too closely can have additional, tangential consequences on your life.
- Civil Liability – If you received the ticket as part of a traffic accident, a conviction could be used to prove fault in the event of a personal injury case. (For more information, see Maroulis v. Elliott (1966).)
- Additional Costs – Going to court by itself can result in additional costs, such as having to take off work or arrange childcare.
- Insurance Premiums – Having a traffic-related conviction on your record will usually result in significantly higher insurance premiums.
- The Possible Suspension of Your License – As noted above, a conviction will add DMV demerit points to your driving record. If you receive too many points in a short span of time, the DMV may suspend your license or require that you take classes.
Under Virginia law, following too closely is a traffic infraction, punishable by both fines and DMV demerit points.
You’ll also (usually) have to deal with other related consequences, such as liability in the event of a traffic accident or an increase in your insurance premiums.
While many organizations promote the “three-second rule” as a way to avoid tailgating, it’s more important to act “reasonably and prudently” by simply using common sense to keep yourself safe on the road.
If you have any doubt about whether or not you’re following too closely, simply add an addition 1-2 seconds of wiggle room between yourself and the vehicle in front of you.
This is especially important in poor weather or lighting conditions, or if you are driving a heavy vehicle with an increased stopping distance.
Finally, keep in mind that paying the $30 pre-pay is equivalent to an admission of guilt.
While you can resolve most cases by simply paying the fine, it’s important for individuals with prior offenses and those who were involved in accidents to speak with an attorney first before they choose to pay.