‘7-Second Following Distance? Really?!’ — A Truck Driver’s Perspective

By Henry Frautschy Apr 18, 2017
Tractor-trailer in car mirror

I distinctly recall my reaction to the instructor's sentence, "We expect you to keep at least a seven-second gap between you and the traffic in front of you."

"Yeah, sure," I thought. "The other cars and trucks will fill that in so fast I'll be going backwards half the time."

I'll bet you had a similar thought the first time the seven-second following distance was explained to you. But if you really want to learn something, being a rookie means talking less and listening more, so I let him explain it further.

With seven seconds, 616 feet at 60 mph, I would have just enough time to see, react, decide on a course of action and then put it into motion. About two of those seconds were eaten up just in a normal attentive person's reaction time and starting to act. That left five seconds to apply the brakes or maneuver out of harm's way. All of a sudden seven seconds didn't seem like much time at all, and it seemed like a perfectly reasonable safe following distance!

When you think about it, how many of those accidents would have been avoided had there been just a bit more space between vehicles?

The next time you see a car junkyard, look at the ones involved in collisions. Most seem to be wrecked due to a front or rear end collision. Seems natural, after all, they're moving forward most of the time, but still, I'm struck by how many there are. Even more so are the bashed-up trucks I see with front end damage. When you think about it, how many of those accidents would have been avoided had there been just a bit more space between vehicles?

Being a patient professional truck driver means being situationally aware of your local environment. Not only the gap between you and the cars in front of you, but to your sides. What if something happens in front that will require you to maneuver? Do you know the lane to your left or right is clear? Will you have time to check your mirror in those few seconds left as you eat up 600 feet at an alarming rate?

When maintaining a safe following distance is especially important is when it's really difficult, namely, in traffic. There's not a professional driver around who isn't challenged to keep as much gap as possible when the traffic swarms all around. Traffic seems to bring out the worst in many drivers; four wheelers darting in and out of lanes without turn signals, braking suddenly, often doing all manner of things that can be quite vexing to a professional. But that's exactly when it's really time to put on your professional's hat, and drive to protect them as well as you.

Give them the space. Yeah, I know, it will fill in. It seems unfair, the way they take advantage of you. In the grand scheme of things, the time you'll lose in giving yourself the "out" that extra space provides is so minuscule you'd hardly notice it. As patient professional Schneider drivers, let’s not be one of "those" drivers. Be the semi driver the automobile drivers often wave to or nod with a "Thank you!" It feels way better than the alternative.

As patient professional Schneider drivers, let’s not be one of "those" drivers. Be the semi driver the automobile drivers often wave to or nod at with a "Thank you!"

In looser traffic environments, give yourself a 10-second safe following distance — or more. And as your driver leader is always saying, those suggestions are for fair weather driving. In any adverse weather conditions, or at night, give yourself plenty of extra room — 14 seconds is not unreasonable. At night, I often use that time frame. It takes extra time at night to figure out what's going on when an unusual occurrence happens in front of us.

After driving for a while, I came to realize one additional benefit to having a safe following distance between me and the traffic in front. An easy way to have the gap occur is choosing a speed lower than the limit, say 60-62 mph in a 65-70 zone. When I make that choice, I'm not feeling edgy all the time. I rarely have to worry about passing someone, and the vehicles in front of me just naturally open up the gap in front.

I hesitate to use the word "relaxing" in this context, but driving in that way is less stressful than pounding along at the top speed allowed. I don't let the "cost" of the speed to my pocketbook drive the thought process. I'd rather get there safely, while working to keep everyone else safe, than to speed along to the scene of the accident. Think how much an accident will cost you in road time, etc.

I cringe when I see other semi drivers running close to the rear of another truck or car; even if they were to react in record time, the one or two seconds of gap they have is not a safe following distance and will leave them no time for their response to be effective.

As they ride the bumper of the car or truck in front of them, they're already at the scene of the accident.

It just hasn't happened yet.

Has your perspective changed about maintaining a safe following distance of at least seven seconds?

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About the Author

Henry Frautschy IMG

Henry "H.G." Frautschy of Oshkosh, Wis., is completing his first year as a Schneider driver. Previously he served as the editor of EAA's Vintage Airplane magazine, and the Executive Director of the Vintage Aircraft Association. A longtime private pilot and FAA-rated mechanic, he enjoys writing about ground and air-based transportation issues.

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