Is Tailgating Illegal?

How states define “following too closely” (tailgating) and what a citation can entail.

Tailgating is pretty common in everyday traffic. And, although police don't issue many tailgating tickets, following another vehicle too closely is illegal and can result in a citation. A tailgating ticket can sometimes carry hefty fines and even license-related penalties.

This article will explain what constitutes tailgating so you can avoid a citation. And for those who have already been cited for a violation, we explain some of the possible outcomes and options for reducing the penalties.

What Is Tailgating (Following Too Closely)?

Basically, tailgating is just following another car so closely that it's unsafe. Tailgating laws aim to increase highway safety by requiring drivers to maintain a safe distance from the car they're following.

Unfortunately, the specific statutes of each state vary greatly. In other words, states aren't consistent in how they define tailgating (which is often called "following too closely"). Some states specify exactly how many feet of space is required, while other states simply require a reasonable and safe distance. It's also common for states to have different rules for different types of roadways and different types of vehicles.

Reasonable and Prudent Following Distance

Most states have tailgating laws that prohibit drivers from following a vehicle more closely than is "reasonable and prudent" given the existing traffic and weather conditions.

This type of standard gives officers a lot of discretion in deciding what is safe and when to ticket someone for tailgating. However, it's common for officers to use two rules of thumb to gauge safe distances:

  • Car length. Some officers use the car-length rule to determine a safe following distance. This rule is based on the premise that one car length of space for every ten miles per hour of speed is the minimum safe following speed.
  • Two-second rule. Many officers also use the two-second rule (different from the one that applies to dropping food on the ground) for assessing tailgating violations. With this rule, the minimum following interval is two seconds instead of a specific distance. For perspective, a driver going 75 miles per hour is traveling 110 feet per second.

Both of these rules of thumb are pretty rough. However, if an officer is able to provide an explanation that makes sense, traffic court judges are likely to accept these types of measurements as reasonable methods for assessing safety.

Leaving Enough Space for Passing Vehicles to Merge

Many states have laws that require drivers to leave enough space for an overtaking vehicle to safely merge in front. So, if you are driving behind a slow-moving vehicle, you must leave enough room for another car to merge in between you and the vehicle you are following.

In many states, these merging-space rules apply only outside of residential and business areas.

Tailgating Defined by Minimum Following Distances

Some states have precise rules about how much distance drivers must stay back from the vehicle they're following. Generally, these more specific rules are in addition to the reasonable-and-prudent and merging-space distance requirements.

For example, in Alabama, the law requires drivers to maintain a safe and prudent following distance but specifies a minimum of 20 feet of space for every ten miles per hour of speed. So a driver going 50 miles per hour must leave at least 100 feet of space unless actively passing the other vehicle.

Following Distance for Commercial and Towing Vehicles

The following rules are often different for semi-trucks and vehicles that are towing. For example, in Oklahoma, all vehicles are subject to reasonable-and-prudent standards. But vehicles that have at least six tires in contact with the road (like a semi-truck) must additionally leave at least 300 feet of space.

Exceptions to Tailgating Laws

Generally, vehicles driving in a funeral procession or in a similar motorcade aren't subject to tailgating restrictions and are permitted to drive closer than would normally be allowed.

Tailgating Tickets and Penalties

In most states, tailgating is generally a traffic infraction (though it's a misdemeanor in a few states) and considered a moving violation. If you're convicted of tailgating, you will generally just face fines and traffic violation demerit points.

However, in many states, eligible drivers can avoid at least some of the penalties of a tailgating ticket by completing traffic school. There are also situations where it makes sense to fight a tailgating ticket in traffic court. If you beat a ticket in court, you won't have to pay a fine or worry about demerit points.