Some drivers even leave a space when they’re at the front with no car in front of them

Drive around long enough and you’ll notice a strange phenomenon with certain cars stopped at busy intersections and stop lights.

Drivers will leave an enormous gap, of a car length or more, between them and the car in front of them.

Not only that, some drivers will leave a gap even though there’s no one in front of them. What gives?

Drivers leave a gap between them and the car in front of them for several reasons including as a general defensive technique to “give themselves an out,” to prevent them ramming into the car in front of them, and, in some rare cases, to prevent a future car jacking.

Let’s break it down a little more.

What does your drivers handbook say on the matter?

First of all, leaving a car length’s gap or more from the car in front of you isn’t illegal. Drivers aren’t breaking any laws.

Furthermore, the DMV doesn’t even address this “leave a gap” issue or specifically offer it as a best practice.

However, your driver’s handbook does offer a “give space” or “keep a good following distance” philosophy to driving.

In California’s drivers handbook under vehicle positioning, it does caution drivers to “increase your following distance and allow bigger space cushion for drivers who may be potentially dangerous.”

Examples of dangerous drivers include confused people, like tourists at complicated intersections, and drivers who slow down for no apparent reason.

A driver’s license doesn’t mean everyone on the road is as aware as you and I. Giving a space is just good practice to give yourself a buffer zone to react to clueless drivers.

Leaving a gap as good defensive driving

Leaving a gap is arguably just a good defensive driving technique, especially if you live in a sketchy area.

A mixture of tactical driving and overall situational awareness teaches you, you always need to “give yourself an out.”

If there’s no space in front of you, you can’t driver forward or swerve to avoid drivers or individuals coming at you. Boxing yourself in gives you little options in a potentially dangerous situation.

Leaving a gap to avoid crashing into the car in front of you

Generally, if you crash into the rear of a car in front of you of no fault of your own (car crashes into you from behind forcing you into the other,) insurance will find you at fault.

Leaving a gap means you’re less likely to damage the other car in the aforementioned case.

This may be a good tip if you drive something expensive like a limited edition classic or supercar. A damaged bumper is a lot cheaper to fix compared to a complicated front end.

A gap gives you an out if you’re in a carjacking

On average, there are 34,000 carjackings a year, a good chunk turning violent.

Going back to giving yourself an out, with a space in front of you, this gives you enough room to potentially drive off if a carjacker makes demands.

That extra forward momentum might give you the potential energy to forcibly damage and squeeze through cars to escape.

Sucks for those other cars but, at least you survive.

Leaving a gap with no one in front of you

This one’s a bit of a mystery. Check out this example I saw three years ago.

My best guess is this might be an extra buffer for potential pedestrians.

Also, starting from a gap gives you a cushion of time to avoid potentially slamming into a red light runner, a frequent occurrence in California (and anywhere, really.

Best practices

There’s nothing inherently wrong with leaving such sizeable gaps stopped at a light, but two or more car lengths is excessive.

Leaving gaps with no one in front of you is unnecessary.

Best practices from experts and traffic police say you should be able to see the rear tires of the car in front of you.

That gives you a large enough gap to maneuver around said car and is ample enough room for your “out.”

Install a cheapo dash cam with front and rear recording capabilities and that should cover all your bases for good stoplight stopping technique.

Do you have any other reasons why leaving a gap is a good idea? Let me know in the comments below.

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  1. I would agree with the defensive driving elements for a gap between you and the car in front; such as a carjacking or other situation where your awareness and ability to react can separate you from others not paying attention. But I feel that, based on my own dialog with people who do this, more often than not it is because they have no idea how to judge where the corners of their car. Front or rear. This lack of spatial awareness is what causes 17 point turns in parking lots, and panic because they think they are going to hit someone that’s still 10′ away.

    Wide angle camera lenses just compound this fact, because they didn’t have enough awareness for normal views and perception, so now adding one that gives you a fishbowl view just confuses them that much more.

  2. What I’ve seen more often than not, drivers who are stopping 2 car lengths and more are stopping that early to get on their phones.

  3. There was a rule…over 10 years ago now, that made you leave a gap at lights. Just in case a bicycle came up. It gave them a spot to wait but checking the latest road rule, it is not mentioned any more . Leaving too big a gap may not set off the sensors in the road. This means the lights may not change in your favour. Confusing habit. (Australia)


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