Tailgater confesses: risk taken for money

November 05, 2007|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Unless he's pulling our legs, Patrick Gesselman of Conowingo deserves credit for candor, frugality and clear writing. He's an admitted tailgater, and he says he does it to save money.

After last week's column on tailgating, Gesselman, 28, was the only reader to come forward with an explanation of why one would want to follow another vehicle closely at a high rate of speed. His logic and economic calculations may be questionable, and he clearly undervalues his own neck, but at least he's given the practice some thought.

He writes:

Almost every day I drive to Delaware to go to school and then back down to Harford County to go to work. I do a lot of driving on [Interstate] 95. Every time I try to find a tractor-trailer who is going about 70+ mph and I tailgate him the whole way.

It seems rude and obnoxious, I know. My only reason is because I'm poor as dirt and it saves money on gas. As much as I hate NASCAR and those dumb bumper stickers that say "I'm not tailgating, I'm drafting," it is very true that drafting a big rig greatly reduces the force on your car and in turn you need less gas to move your car along at 70+ mph.

My justifications are fairly simple also. 1) I'm a young driver with a quick reaction time. 2) I can stop my little Civic a whole lot faster than the truck I'm following. 3) Whenever I'm tailgating, I make sure I'm driving, and not talking on the phone, playing with the radio or any other distraction.

Maybe once I graduate and get a high dollar job, I'll buy me a gas-burning sports car and blast down the left lane, but until then, I'll be stuck behind the big rig.

Patrick, Patrick, Patrick. You should live long enough to graduate and get that high-dollar job. But keep on drafting and we'll likely be passing a roadside memorial on I-95, with two dates about 30 years apart and the epitaph: "He Saved on Gas."

It's a matter of real estate economics. The most valuable land in the world is not in London's West End, Manhattan's East Side or in Beverly Hills. It's the space, when you're driving, between the front of your vehicle and the rear of the vehicle in front of you.

That's the margin of error between you and one of those memorials. Why squander it for a few drops of gas?

It's not just a matter of stopping distance, it's a matter of visibility and control of your own destiny. You tailgate a big rig, you can't see anything. Essentially, you turn over life-and-death decisions about your fate to a speeding and possibly fatigued truck driver who doesn't know you and is annoyed to have you riding up his tailpipe.

And you will have to ride quite close to that tail to get much in the way of fuel savings. At 100 feet, you're getting relatively minimal fuel savings. The real sweet spot is about 10 to 20 feet. But if you're going 75 mph - a reasonable inference from the truck speeds on I-95 - it would take you more than 150 feet to react to a truck driver's sudden decision to stop, swerve or fall asleep and crash.

Even with the reflexes of youth, such a scenario does not bode well for recovering your payments into the Social Security system. Surely there must be another way to economize.

Fortunately, Patrick K. Lackey of Pikesville has an excellent suggestion for longevity enhancement.

My Toyota Corolla has an anti-tailgating device. It rides in the seat next to me. Its name is Mary. If I'm in sight of the car in front of me, she urges more caution. If we're close enough to tell the car's color, she demands that I slow down.

I'm familiar with such a device. My own is in excellent working order.

Gesselman's note made me suspect he lacked such an anti-tailgating unit, but he assured me he has been happily married for six years to a woman who won't permit such "fuel economy" when she's aboard. Perhaps, when his wife can't be in the passenger seat, he could substitute an inflatable stand-in. His spouse would probably be happy to tape-record periodic warnings for the surrogate to deliver.

In general, readers were overwhelmingly supportive of my rant against tailgaters. Christi Dant of Severna Park even volunteered to pay a higher licensing fee to get traffic enforcement cameras installed at Maryland toll facilities - as suggested in that space.

"Traffic is so miserable around here, we routinely decide to pass up on attending major events, playing tourist in D.C. or Baltimore, or even mall shopping. And we're not 80-somethings. We're prime consumers so disillusioned by the quality of life decrease caused by traffic (read aggressive drivers) that we purchased a second home in rural West Virginia," Dant writes. "Legislators, factor that! Traffic is so out of control that we take our disposable income out of state."

Stephen J. Rosasco found my column long on emotion and short on logic. He had a number of objections, one of which I can clarify briefly.

"Are cameras the answer?" Rosasco writes. "What if I leave plenty of space and someone moves directly in front of me and you snap my picture?"

A snapshot would be a rinky-dink way to enforce the law, but this is the 21st century and that's not the state of the art. Sophisticated video camera and laser systems could discern drivers who momentarily come too close to another's bumper from those who plant themselves there for the length of a bridge or tunnel.

Rosasco observed that enforcement of tailgating laws depends too much on an officer's subjective judgment of what is a "reasonable and prudent" following distance.

One more good reason for cameras. Advanced technology, if we have the will to use it, can take much of the subjectivity out of these judgments while protecting our most critical infrastructure - not to mention our lives - from dangerous drivers.

It's a digital world. Enough with the "analog" law enforcement.

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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Find Mike Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/dresser

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