I've just pulled away from the E-Z Pass "go" sign at the Thruway toll barrier, and I'm beginning to hum down the highway toward New Hampshire. I'm delighted to be heading off to my favorite summer retreat, but I'm not too happy about the nine-hour drive ahead of me.
As I adjust my speed and check the car in front of me, I consciously follow the two-second rule. Oops. Just as I've settled into my long drive, a car pulls right in front of me, too close for comfort. The driver of that car probably didn't know that he shouldn't pull over until the pavement in front of the car he is passing is visible in his rear-view mirror.
OK, I slow down a little to leave more room and cruise along. Before I know it, there's a car so close on my tail that it's making me very nervous. If I had to stop suddenly, that car would have no choice but to plow into me. Ugh. This is becoming a nerve-wracking trip already.
About 10 years ago, I went to my first defensive-driving class because I wanted to lower my auto insurance premium. That's where I first learned about the two-second rule. It tells me how to judge a safe distance between my car and the car ahead of me. I watch that car as its rear bumper passes a post or landmark. Then I count two seconds (one thousand and one, one thousand and two). My car shouldn't pass that post or landmark until the two seconds are up.
That way, I'll have two seconds to react to unexpected behavior by the car ahead of me (not very long if there's a real crisis). If there are any adverse conditions -- darkness, rain, ice, fog -- or if I can't stop as fast as the car ahead of me, the rule converts to three or more seconds.
In the driver education course I took more than 40 years ago, I learned something about car lengths for judging a safe distance, but I never could remember how many applied to which speed. When I recently asked a young friend who had just bought a spiffy new car whether he follows the two-second rule, he said, "Oh, I just keep back two car lengths. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
I told him to stop and think about it. The faster he is going, the longer it will take him to stop. Two car lengths would be appropriate at one speed, but not at others. I did some quick calculations. At 65 miles per hour, a car travels about 191 feet in two seconds. An average car length is about 16.5 feet, so that's more than 11 car lengths he should keep between him and the car in front of him at that speed. At 30 mph, he needs to keep about five car lengths back. It's much easier to remember the two-second rule. It applies no matter what the speed.
As I continued on my journey, I imagined how much safer the roads would be if everyone were aware of this rule. I think those who violate it are not consciously disregarding it. They simply don't know about it.
Information about the two-second rule could be given special emphasis in the Department of Motor Vehicles Driver's Manual (it's already in there on page 37), and a question about it could appear on every exam. There is even a state law that could be enforced -- following too closely. If drivers were stopped for violating this law even when no accident ensued, they would be more likely to follow the two-second rule, thus avoiding collisions. And my long drive to New Hampshire would be a lot more pleasant.
ANNE HUBERMAN, a reference librarian at Canisius College, lives in Buffalo.
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