Gridlock Guy: Tailgating belongs on the racetrack, not the highway

Todd Gilliland (38, center) in the Georgia Peanuts Ford and Martin Truex Jr. (19)  lead the group into turn four during the Ambetter Health 400 NASCAR race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Hampton, Ga.  (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Todd Gilliland (38, center) in the Georgia Peanuts Ford and Martin Truex Jr. (19) lead the group into turn four during the Ambetter Health 400 NASCAR race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, in Hampton, Ga. (Jason Getz /

NASCAR just made history at Atlanta Motor Speedway about a week ago, when drivers finished three-wide at the start-finish line of the Cup Series race. Daniel Suárez won by .003 seconds, the third-closest finish in series history. The race was exciting and close because cars at AMS have to draft to be able to stay together and pass each other.

Drafting, in racing parlance, is when the trailing car pulls close to the front car to make both go faster, by reducing aerodynamic drag. A draft sometimes works too well and the lead car can launch ahead and create a gap. If the trailing car gets a draft from a car behind it, they both can speed up and pass the now-solo front car.

Filling the void — tailgating — is expected and required in auto racing. Drivers on the highways should do the opposite. But I-285 often looks more like Atlanta Motor Speedway than Atlanta’s bypass.

This may seem elementary, but too many people ignore the dangers and havoc that tailgating causes.

First, a driver’s choosing not to leave a manageable gap behind other vehicles means the margin for reaction is too small. A large percentage of the wrecks we see from our WSB Skycopter and watch from our 24-Hour Traffic Center are chain reactions. The people who are several cars back from the initial bad lane change or sudden stop are usually the ones who get the worst damage. When the margin is small, the problems are more numerous.

And a margin for error is essential in a commuting system because the system is made up of humans. Humans make mistakes. Breathing room often softens those blows.

Tailgating’s pitfalls are also psychological. For example, when my wife, her mom, and I were recently in California, we routinely drove on California Highway 17 between San Jose and Monterey. On one evening drive back to San Jose, darkness was setting in, rain was falling, and I was not very familiar with the route. Traffic was moderately heavy in the 6 p.m. hour, but it was moving. And Hwy. 17 is a mountainous, curvy road.

I was driving 40 mph, the speed limit, which was technically too fast, given the wet and dark conditions. The right lane of the two lanes in that southbound direction was moving at my speed or slower and had very few spaces open. But those more familiar with that area were not having it. They would close up to my rear bumper and hang there until I would either speed up faster than my comfort zone or find a space to move to the right.

Under normal conditions, 40 mph was too slow for the fast lane. But it technically was too fast for those circumstances that night.

The objecting drivers hung within a couple of feet of our rear bumper, which inevitably caused me to keep looking back at their close headlights. That was distracting and could have caused me to misjudge a curve or even run into someone in front of me. Their breathing down my neck certainly did not make me drive more efficiently. I just felt pressure to try to speed up, move over, and shake them.

This has happened to me before with certain aggressive law enforcement officers, who operate riding lights and ride well above the speed limit in the fast lane, intimidating others out of their way. This puts the civilian driver in a tough place: Do they know if they are getting pulled over? Will they get pulled over if they speed up well above the limit to the trailing officer’s desires? Police officers should set the example of how to drive, not be the exception to those rules.

Following another vehicle too closely gets worse the bigger the front car is. The preponderance of big rigs on the Atlanta road system can test other drivers’ patience for various reasons. But everyone should remember that driving directly behind a tractor trailer puts a car right in a blind spot. And when things go wrong and someone rear ends a big rig, the trailing car always loses that battle and sometimes tragically.

All this said, slow drivers need to stay out of the faster lanes. Those are technically passing lanes, not riding lanes. Slow drivers in vehicles big and small create major issues for traffic flow and prompt aggressive drivers to juke in and out of lanes to avoid them.

But that transgression does not justify those aggressive moves, including tailgating.

There are plenty of things motorists can collectively do to make traffic move more efficiently. Using the “zipper merge” at a forthcoming lane closure is one. Slower vehicles, including large trucks, using the far right lanes is another. Drivers keeping their eyes off their phones at stop lights and going on green is one more.

Tailgating — or intimidating other people to succumb to one’s will — is not at all efficient. Filling the void makes all parties lesser drivers and puts them in worse spots when things go wrong.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at