At stoplights or stop signs, you see some drivers leaving huge gaps between them and the car in front. Others are almost sitting on the car’s  bumper. What’s going on?

It’s not an issue addressed in the state Vehicle Code, Petaluma Police Sgt. Ken Savano notes.

Some drivers like to creep up close to the car in front so as to provide as much room as possible for cars behind them, he says. Others leave plenty of room to be able to maneuver if they need to.

Roileen Miller of Miller Driving School in Cotati teaches her students to leave room.

“Leave yourself enough room to escape if you need to,” she advises. “In case the guy in front of you breaks down or hits the person in front of him. You can get away” and not be stuck.

Miller says you want to leave room ahead because the car behind you might be so close that you might not be able to back up to gain space to pull around.

By leaving a gap in front, she says, you build in a margin of safety in case the car behind you doesn’t stop in time and hits you. The gap should be large enough that you’re not then pushed into the car in front.

How much room to use? She tells her students they should be able to see the bottom of the back tires of the car in front plus a foot or so of road.

Savano says officers are trained to leave enough room in front at stops to ensure they can pull out to pursue a passing suspect or to respond to an emergency.


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  1. sam

    what about the people who leave a whole car length or more so they can creep ahead the entire time?

    April 3rd, 2012 8:35 pm

  2. Marengo

    I was stopped at a light, with a few feet between me and the van in front. I was rearended by a SSU student going 40MPH, she was sick and distracted and did not even slow down. I was pushed forward into the van, then bounced back…my car was totalled, I was injured and kept a chiropractor busy for months. I now leave at least 12 feet between me and the car in front, in case another SSU idiot or anyone else wallops me out of carelessness and stupidity.

    April 3rd, 2012 8:40 pm

  3. Kathy

    Yeah but … what’s up with drivers who are first in their lane at a red light but they stop 2 car lengths behind the line? I always assume they are road hazards lacking in any depth perception. A little room is fine but c’mon.

    April 3rd, 2012 9:17 pm

  4. jessica

    LOL @ Marengo.
    You are referring to this SSU student as an idiot, clearly she isn’t she’s getting an education, and its a bit ridiculous. You mentioned she was sick…its like seriously?? She TOTALLY meant to rear end you and cost loads of money (I’m sure you got a nice insurance payment).
    Accidents happen. Have a heart.

    April 3rd, 2012 9:29 pm

  5. paul

    The problem with trying to make cookbook answers without seeing all the variables. Sometimes serious self-centered, mean and petty driving doesn’t slow traffic too much. And there is the late and bad neighborhood driving which also doesn’t belong in the same cookbook directions as making a left turn in a left turn lane. Does one take all the space one needs to turn out of the lane without any maneuvering, and or does one dawdle, waiting for the gap to get past safe before even starting to move. If the signal hasn’t been shortened so that it’s a lottery to get thru, and the line is so long that your use of extra space makes you just one of many ——–, then go ahead be selfish, you won’t be sending the earth into a tailspin. JUst doing what you are supposed to, drive when it’s your right-of-way, merge without trying to get that extra 20 feet, help with the flow, don’t dawdle. If some one makes a mistake and shows a hand palm-up and open, it means they are sorry, so let it go. Stopping a line of traffic so one car can go ahead is not energy efficient, nor considerate of the other people behind you.

    Go ahead, make cookbook answers without saying anything meaningful. I know you are capable but it takes too much thinking, and risking not being MR. Cup-Cake smiling CHP officer. Humbug.

    April 3rd, 2012 9:46 pm

  6. Bobby

    Sometimes in dense traffic, crowding in lets more cars move efficiently through intersections. Sometimes drivers who leave a car-length or more simply block turning lanes and actually create hazards associated with traffic congestion.
    The answer is to nose on up to the car in front of you as a courtesy to other drivers in our growing city.

    April 3rd, 2012 10:01 pm

  7. Jon

    There is definitely a large percentage of drivers (I use that terms loosely) on our roads who suffer a combination of poor depth perception and a poorly developed sense of spatial awareness. This, along with a habitually non-chalant lack of conscientiousness about their own driving as well as that of those around them frequently translates into near catatonic positioning at stoplights with a minimum of 30 feet between themselves and the car before them. This is especially compromising in left-turn lanes designed for six car lengths only being able to accommodate 3 or 4 cars, with the other drivers suddenly stuck in an adjoining lane, holding up through traffic – and causing subsequent traffic jams.

    At the same time, the advice in this article is borderline irresponsible. Looking for the bottom of the rear tire of the car ahead plus a couple of feet of road leaves way too much gray area. (I’m I’m not just talking about the pavement.) Frame clearance differs greatly model to model, and such a measurement offers a very poor point of reference. Being able to see the brake lights and leave enough room to maneuver around the preceding car is a much more reliable standard. Especially for the “spatial awareness challenged” who have know clue what “a couple of feet” might look like. Believe me…they’re out there….in droves.

    Of course that advice was not quite as irresponsible as suggesting you leave enough room to “get away” if you witness an accident in front of you. I’m sure that is not what they meant. I’m guessing they intended to suggest you stay long enough to provide a witness statement before you “get away”, but that would have been outside the context of this article.

    All in all, though I guess it’s mostly a moot point. This topic is addressing a symptom of a deeper issue. Folks just don’t know how to drive in general, and aren’t paying attention enough to realize it. It boils down to this: If you’re driving habits are so poor and your vehicular catatonia is so pervasive that you haven’t got CLUE ONE about the estimated proximity of drivers around you and your relative positioning to them, EVEN WHILE NOT IN MOTION…you really need to just get out of your car now*, and walk home.

    *First, safely park the car in a duly designated parking area.

    April 3rd, 2012 10:22 pm

  8. cate

    Apparently with all the undocumented, unlicensed drivers on the road we need articles like this to teach everyone how to drive. Why else would this article be necessary? Otherwise it is a waste of good internet space.

    April 3rd, 2012 10:46 pm

  9. ti

    Hi RW, Tonight at 9:30, driving up 101, in light rain, coming into Cotati, there was a car stopped, with no lights at all on, only about eight feet off the freeway, and cars in front of me saw it late I guess, because they swerved and slowed and acted sort of unpredictably. I am leading up to the fact that the blacked out car was a police car!
    It seems of late that police cars have been sitting without any lights on pretty near the highway, and it is dangerous. Tonight the people weren’t speeding, (it’s 55 there) but they just plain didn’t see the blacked out car until it alarmed them and they swerved.
    Can a police car sit with no lights right off the freeway?
    If so, it is dangerous to all of us. What do you think?

    April 4th, 2012 12:16 am

  10. W

    What makes me crazy is when the straight-ahead lane people are so far apart that I cannot access the turn lane. I can see my light turn green, but I’m stuck behind a bunch of inconsiderate drivers who can’t be bothered to think about how they’re blocking the turn lane.

    April 4th, 2012 7:34 am

  11. Tom tom

    If you leave to much of a gap at a light The light will turn red becuse it will think no one else is in line to go through, so if your at a light please keep it tight, the rest of the drivers will thank you for it!

    April 4th, 2012 8:19 am

  12. anna

    It’s irritating when short turn lanes are taken up with cars that are not pulled up close to the car in front of them. It is much more dangerous to have your car’s rear end sticking out into ongoing traffic. And why is it that the very car that leaves such a large space is usually slow to move when the light changes, leaving those behind to wait for another interminable light cycle?

    April 4th, 2012 8:19 am

  13. Marengo

    Hey, Jessica, you think I am kidding? This ditzy girl gets out of the car moaning, “Oh, I am so sick, I was not paying attention, I am so sick, I don’t feel good”, etc….so she was distracted, feeling sick, and should not have been driving a car…and she TOTALLED MY CAR AND NEARLY ME. You may think its funny, but see how forgiving you are when you spend 6 months at the chiropractor, internist, neurologist and physical therapist with injuries and head aches. You try being scared to drive after that, afraid that some other idiot will kill you. Its not fun, and it happened to me because that careless and thoughtless driver from SSU, driving daddy’s car when she should have been home sick in bed, wrecked my car!!! Anyway, leave at least a car length in front when you are stopped, so when someone runs into you, you do not then bounce off the car in front and get whiplash.

    April 4th, 2012 8:30 am

  14. Jon


    You stated ” Anyway, leave at least a car length in front when you are stopped, so when someone runs into you, you do not then bounce off the car in front and get whiplash.”

    A far more practical approach would be to exercise common sense with regards to relative proximity to other motorists around you. Safely position yourself accordingly.

    Habitually leaving a minimum of a full car length between yourself and the preceding car while at a stop light as a blanket policy may dramatically increase the likelihood of your being rear-ended.

    While such positioning may serve to mitigate being pushed into the preceding car in such an instance, the dramatic escalation of statistical likelihood of a resulting collision in the first place demonstrates that such a policy is inherently risky, and such a practice is ill-considered.

    April 4th, 2012 11:45 am

  15. Darren

    Ha. This is my MAJOR pet peeve about drivers. Good to see I’m not the only one noticing this happening. Jon has hit the nail on the head with his comments.

    I don’t like the recommendations of the article but love the comments. :)

    Wake up drivers!!

    April 4th, 2012 3:56 pm

  16. Robert C

    Being a professional driver, I was taught the “Smith Driving System”…
    You are trained to stop 10′ before a crosswalk, or behind a car to prevent being pushed into the car ahead of us or into a pedestrian in the crosswalk… But we are also trained to creep forward 5′ after we have a cushion of two stopped cars behind us :)

    April 4th, 2012 4:24 pm

  17. Kathy

    Yes, I agree with leaving room between you and the car in front of you…too many idiotic people are out there who either make a lane change or either come up from behind, flying like the wind and use their brakes at the last minute! Who gave them their drivers’ license? Driving is a privilege, not a right.

    April 4th, 2012 4:37 pm

  18. ER

    Long ago, my driver’s ed teacher told me to stop so that I “cover up the tires” of the car in front of me. I’m not sure how far that is from the car in front of me but that is what I do. In regards to being at a signal light, I definitely try to be that close because there are sensors at many intersections that measure how many cars are in line. If you stop way back, the sensor won’t know you are there and may turn the light red again.

    April 4th, 2012 6:05 pm

  19. V

    As a general rule, leave enough room to see the ground in between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you. You can escape, plus it leaves a cushion so you don’t hit the car in front of you if you’re rear-ended.

    April 4th, 2012 7:52 pm

  20. paul

    Your foot is supposed to be planted on the brake when stopped at signals and THAT is what will stop you from impacting the cr in front of you. You only need to be hit once to get whiplash, not bounce off two cars. If you are the last car, it doesn’t matter. If you are the next to last car, it’s the distance from that car to you, not you to the car in front of you. Someone needed something to say and they all made up stuff. A line of traffic is not going to be impacted very far, and 5′ on each side is plenty to both be safe and also for any/every one to escape. At rush hour in a tight intersection, I pack it in and begin to creep as the first car starts. If we all did that itwould flow better.

    April 5th, 2012 2:36 pm

  21. Jon

    If you drive in constant fear of being rear-ended, or being rammed into the car in front of you, and your driving habits reflect this, just stay home.

    April 6th, 2012 3:33 pm

  22. Safedriver

    A great majority of drivers leave a reasonable space between vehicles stopped at traffic lights although there are enough that don’t for it to be noticeable. The irritation stated in these comments is a symptom of our congested county and not any particular violation, because there are many thoughtless driving habits displayed in abundance.
    Instead of being irritated by a few feet of empty space left by the car in front of you, direct your energies at the local officials responsible for poor traffic signal timings and very poor road planning in Santa Rosa. They are the ones that share the greater responsibility for our traffic problems.

    April 7th, 2012 12:13 pm

  23. V

    It’s not constant fear. It’s common sense and an easy habit that may help a situation in the future.

    April 7th, 2012 3:23 pm

  24. Tony Martin

    The basic question not answered here is how are the LIGHTS programmed to pickup sensor information, and what happens if you:
    Are WAY back from Stop line
    Are WAY back from car in front

    If the sensor thinks there are either no cars, or only a few cars, because car spacing does not match up with expected spacing, the lights will either never change, or timing will be very short.

    April 9th, 2012 11:49 am

  25. Safe Driver

    Kinda shocked by most of the comments here.
    The article’s advice is sound.

    I notice so many drivers come to a stop right on top of each other.
    Leave a little room in case there is a rear ending.
    If something happens ahead in the line, you have some room to get out.

    I’m irritated too when I can’t get to the left turn lane in time.
    But I’d rather wait for the next light than be involved in any accidents.

    Some years ago while stopped at a light on Hearn (Kenton/Dowd I think), I had a car come zooming up behind me, come to a tire skidding stop, where 2 men jumped out and came running at me.
    It was dead obvious they weren’t coming to ask for directions or help. It was frightening.
    Even now, the only conclusion we can think of is carjacking.
    I’ll never know the actual motive, but having room in front of me is what allowed me to get out of that situation.
    The bumper on bumper drivers would never have been able to escape like that before the bad guys were on them.

    April 13th, 2012 5:21 pm

  26. Morgan

    Self centered people need not be on the road, if you’re in the front of a traffic queue, waiting for the light to change, stopped vehicles piling up behind you, you look like a……..

    I understand a safe ‘buffer’ zone between consecutive vehicles, but close the gap once you’ve all come to a complete stop!!!!

    Most importantly, quit tailing the truck drivers!! They’re the only exception to this rule, they cannot see you if you can’t see their mirrors. And their vehicles are the only ones big enough ( and with a lower turning radius) that require extra space in the lane.

    It used to be if you stopped to far from the line you got a ticket for OBSTRUCTING THE FLOW OF TRAFFIC.

    While never made truly into law, this should still be heavily enforced, as many of Sonoma county’s drivers are appearing less and less competent to be in command of a motor vehicle.
    -Morgan H.
    Cotati, CA

    April 13th, 2012 8:51 pm

  27. Yani

    I absolutely HATE it when drivers practically sit on the bumper of my car. I have been rear ended twice already waiting at a red light!! It’s ridiculous! I ALWAYS leave a whole car length space in FRONT of me anywhere that I am and I never tailgate either. It’s very dangerous to do these type of things. My boyfriend was also rear ended at a red light not too long ago and it was three cars behind my that began the accident. Luckily, he also leaves enough space in front of him so that he did NOT rear end the driver in front of him. Whenever someone gets too close to me I try to move up a bit because now I have experience about getting rear ended, but most of the time the driver just keeps creeping up even closer when I move up. I HATE it!!!!

    November 28th, 2012 3:10 pm

  28. Todd Beam

    Roileen Miller that is very bad advice & only encourages bottlenecks & massive delays. There is a reason vehicles are equipped with reverse & don’t give me this crap about not being able to backup because in situations like that leaving a space won’t help you either as there will be no place to go. We have a real bad problem in this country with too many so-called experts giving the exact opposite advice. It’s high time people wake up & realize their officials are wrong. It also wouldn’t kill some of you to loosen up a bit & fan out. My God you’re behaving like disoriented packets attempting to function in an organized fashion over a hub. Get your crap together & behave like packets on a switch. Why do you think switches run a lot faster & smoother than hubs with less errors!? Wisconsin especially talk about dumb drivers my God. Don’t be so obsessed with speeding you lose site of the fact there are times when you need to speed to avoid chaos. Wisconsin you have much bigger problems than speeding. To name a few: Driving too slow, stopping on off-ramps, bunching up single file, excessive use of one lane, braking too much when no one close or allowing too much space in front of you.

    May 30th, 2013 7:38 am

  29. John

    Read all the comments with interest. Sorry, buy I agree with leaving a bit of room. I stop so that I can see the entire vehicle plus a bit of pavement, for all the reasons stated. Impatient people that get on my ass annoy the piss out of me.

    Why stop back from the light when you’re the first in line? I stop so that I can see the light comfortably. If I need to lean forward and peer up at the light when stopped at the line then the line is too close to the light.

    Who is at fault if you stop close behind someone on a hill and that person is driving a car with a manual transmission and he rolls back into you? You are, at least in the state I live in.

    The only excuse I read for not leaving room in the comments is lack of patients. You may not make it through the light… you can’t squeak into that turning lane… Is another 30 seconds gonna make that big a difference in your life? Really? If so then you should have left sooner.

    It has nothing at all to do with being inconsiderate. It has to do with defensive driving. The defensive driver expects other drivers to do stupid things. Why? Because they generally do.

    June 17th, 2013 2:01 pm


    I enjoy when people get up my ass at a light, especially on steep hills, no roll room? Don’t worry, your POS fiberglass won’t do much to my 6 in. tubular steel bumper.

    #standardprobs #sorrynotsorry

    March 5th, 2014 8:55 am

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