blog home Car Accidents Does tailgating really get you there faster?

Does tailgating really get you there faster?

By Ken Gibson on October 2, 2022

When there’s a traffic jam on a highway, sometimes the reason is obvious. Maybe it’s an accident ahead, or road work is causing some lanes to be shut down. But a lot of times, traffic jams just happen for no apparent reason. Traffic engineers call these incidents “phantom traffic jams.”

Most people assume these phantom traffic jams are caused by too many cars being on a road, and traffic jams do happen more often during heavy commute times.

However, the cause could be something more basic:  tailgating.

Why tailgating slows traffic

New research suggests that driver behavior may be a major factor causing phantom traffic jams, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

It turns out that tailgating actually slows the traffic flow.

Tailgating is drivers driving too closely to the rear bumper of the car in front of them. It’s a dangerous, annoying habit that many of us complain about, but complaining doesn’t stop other drivers from doing it.

In reality, it seems that the best way to improve traffic flow would be for more drivers to concentrate on increasing the distance both in front of their vehicles and behind them, according to scientist Berthold Horn of MIT’s CSAIL.

Horn says that traffic would go twice as fast if everyone simply maintained equal spacing in front of and behind their cars.

It seems counterintuitive that tailgating slows the overall rate of traffic. We might think that tailgaters force other drivers to go faster, but that’s not how traffic works.

When drivers travel too closely to the vehicle in front of them, they tailgater is forced to hit the  brakes if there’s just a small reduction in traffic speed. This causes a chain reaction in braking. Traffic flow efficiency is lost as each driver takes time to get back up to the speed of traffic, and  you get a phantom traffic jam.

People naturally focus on what’s ahead of them

Human beings are designed to concentrate mainly on what’s going on directly in front of them, according to Horn and his colleagues. This is what motivates many people to tailgate.

Interestingly, the MIT research was inspired by studies of starling birds, which are able to fly in unison with remarkable precision.  These birds have bilateral control, meaning they can manage distance in front and back of them at the same time. This produces greater efficiency and speed for the birds.

New technology may help reduce tailgating

It’s unlikely that traffic scientists will be able to eliminate tailgating by changing human nature. But emerging technology offers hope for improving traffic flow. According to Horn, if even a small percentage of drivers start practicing bilateral control, the number of phantom traffic jams will be significantly reduced.

Technology may help. As cars become more automated with Artificial Intelligence (AI), it may become possible to include adaptive cruise control systems, which have sensors in the front and back. This could help create the necessary spacing between cars to increase overall traffic flow.

In the future, with more automated cars on the highway, traffic flow could be further enhanced by electronically connecting vehicles together in networks called platoons, similar to how the starlings fly.  This would create more room for drivers to travel at a steadier pace. By encouraging bigger gaps between cars, everyone will get where they’re going a lot faster.

Were you harmed by a careless driver?

It’s always encouraging to learn about how new technologies may make driving safer and more efficient in the future. However, with human nature, some people will always drive carelessly and recklessly.

At GibsonSingleton Virginia Injury Attorneys, we consider it a calling to help people who have been harmed by the careless actions of others. We work wisely to help those individuals get the money they need to get back on their feet after a wreck.

Call (804) 413-6777 to schedule a free consultation with us today. We will listen to your wreck experience and give you our best advice about how you should move forward. We will also tell you about our no fee guarantee, meaning that if we take you case, we only get paid when you get paid.  We look forward to talking with you!

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Prevention, empathy, and diligence are hallmarks of everything we do at GibsonSingleton Virginia Injury Attorneys. Our community can see these ideals lived out in our work to prevent personal injuries from happening.

  • Safety Education
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