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Driving You Crazy: Why do some drivers stop way behind the person in front of them at a traffic light?

They're so far back they don't allow enough people to get through the light
Intersection space
Posted at 4:56 AM, May 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-30 09:09:18-04

Brian in Denver writes, “What’s driving you crazy? Why when I'm at a traffic light, do some drivers stop way behind the person in front of them on a short cycling light so that when the light changes, very few people ever get through? They're so far back that they don't allow enough people to queue behind the light and you can’t get through in a timely fashion.”

There are as many reasons why some drivers leave these large spaces at traffic lights as there are drivers on the roads. Some call this move a “reactionary gap”. That term is used mostly by emergency responders and law enforcement. According to the website, EMS1, the reactionary gap is “the distance between you and any person you and your crew encounter on an emergency call. Ideally, this 'buffer zone' is at least six feet between you and any potentially violent attacker. This distance allows for sufficient reaction time to a sudden attack.”

I decided to go to the people and let them answer your question Brian. I asked my Twitter and Facebook followers your question and here are some of their responses.

First from Twitter:

@joshua_bly, So if I get re-ended I won't nail the car in front of me. I only do it when roads are slick, though.

@realdaveshilk, I’m guessing because they’re basically self-oriented, myopic people with no concern or consideration for others.

@duck_go_fast, Older drivers may leave more room because older manual cars did roll back with a clutch. I hate when someone gets right on my rear when I drive my Jeep with the manual. Living rural and living urban is a different way of driving. Rural drivers leave more room. What’s the hurry.

@curtsdar, When I’ve seen it happen, more often than not, it’s distracted driving. People don’t pay attention.

@sklenar_jessica, When learning to drive we are taught to stop a car’s length back from the person in front of us so if we get rear ended we don’t hit the person in front of us too. Part of the reason there are so many accidents here is because people do not leave enough room to react

@luiscerezo, I give space so that if I get rear ended I don't hit the car in front. I also make sure I can drive around if the car in front becomes immobile. It's a safety thing for me. Always be aware of an escape route.

@RedBear04749384, I worked in Newark NJ. You left space Infront of you so you could deviate out of the lane and book it during a car jacking.

@lcarterdesign, Ever lived on the east coast? You stop that far back so if someone tries to squeegee your windshield for cash you can just keep rolling.

@Kellmarie0284, My dad was a policeman and ALWAYS told me to never pull up close behind anyone especially at a light so you have remove to maneuver your car out of there if someone tries to rob you or get into my car.

@DanWillis1966, Because people are stupid. They are trained to remain 2 car lengths behind the car in front of them but are too ignorant to figure out that only means while moving on open highway.

@spedadvmom, Reasons why I stop far behind. 1. The car or truck in front of me has clouds of black exhaust coming out and I don’t want to breath it. 2. The car in front of me has a driver dangling a cigarette out of the window and I don’t want to breath it. 3. Also unsecured crap on car.

These responses from my Facebook posting:

Jeremy Wolff
Usually because it’s a manual. The car in front of them moved up but they already stopped and don’t want to deal with shifting and stopping again.

Dee Dubbs
I do 1.5 to 2 car lengths. If there's something crazy going down where I have to get out, I have room. If somebody is about to rear end me and I see it, I have room to move forward a bit to allow more stopping distance or, I have room to get out of the lane.

Mindy Daniels Allen
not sure why some do this, but it is very annoying! They limit the cars able to turn on a green light. I'd imagine this is why there are so many runs on red!

Bruce Cox
Because that is the way you are supposed to be. If the vehicle behind you rear ended you and pushed you into the car in front of you then you have some liability in the accident. This is especially important if you are the first one at the intersection because that can save your life if someone runs a red light as you are entering the intersection on green.

Darren R. Johnston
Driver training states I should see the rear tires in front of me so that if for any incident such as a stalled car in front of me, I can change lanes without needing to reverse. There is also the possibility that I think the person in front of me is a bad driver (potentially intoxicated) and I'm giving them a large area. Loud music, drugs, or cigarettes will also have me doing this. I shouldn't have to smoke your cigarette also, so roll up your window.

Erin Mikkelson
Every time I look at one of these people they are looking down at their phones

Kristina Kricket Jolliff
A friend of mine does this. She was rear ended (at 40 MPH!) at a stop light and she was crushed between the car behind her and the car in front of her.

Theodore Armstrong
It's called the smith system. Always leave an out, if you have a gap on either side you can potentially move out of the way of trouble. (More on the Smith System from the Southern Illinois University)

Michael Melici
It would not be necessary if people would pay attention. If you get hit from behind and hit the person in front of you your liable for the damage to the car in front of you in New Jersey.

Jim Elson Jr.
some drivers who have tactical driving experience knows to never pull behind another vehicle without leaving 20-25 feet. This is so if you are getting jacked from either the front or behind it leaves you enough room to maneuver an escape route.

Tod Shoda
I drive for a living. Most of the time when I see this, other drivers moved up at the light. The car that didn't move up has a driver that is texting.

Mark Pothier
Up here in BC there are sensors that will trigger the turn signal. Usually it takes 3 vehicles to set it off so stopping a car length behind the first vehicle does the trick

Carson Blume
Much of this behavior concerns drivers using their phones; they pay attention to their phones rather than the lights and others drivers. They pick their phones up as they are coming to a stop and are stopping short because they do not want to hit the car in front of them. They also tend to avoid scooting up when the vehicle in front of them moves up and leaves the gap. Then to make matters worse, they do not notice when the light turns green, reducing the number of cars that get through each light cycle.

Christie Cline
I do it but not that far. I was taught to pull up so the back tires of the car in front of you are seen/line up on your hood. But now a days I would stay back a little further due to people not paying attention and hitting at a higher speed.

Vikki Seela
Call me crazy, during Covid I found myself leaving more space between me and the car in front. Now, not so much! Seriously, I see this all the time. Person came to a stop, picked up the phone and has not moved up!

Cheryl Langevine
They have no consideration or common sense that's why.

Roberto Antonio Falk
Robberies is the main reason .. it sounds strange but think about it..

Connie Bush
If someone behind you hits you, and you hit the car in front of you, the insurance companies don't wanna cover it. I got hit by a drunk driver when I was stopped at a traffic light and I hit the car in front of me. Had to fight with the drunk drivers insurance company over being too close to the car in front of me. They didn't want to pay for both vehicles.

Cheryl D. Hawkins
Not paying attention or need new glasses

Mary Rosie Galindo Haught
My husband was in a really bad rear end collision and got caught between two vehicles. The people in the front car were hurt and ever since then he stops way behind the person in front of him. I know it drives people behind him crazy and I always ask him to inch forward and sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t. Sorry.

Al Wagner
so the person next to you isn't staring at you

Mike Fisher
In a high semi traffic area the driver in front can backup to allow the truck more turning room.

Tommy Holmes
Seriously could we show some respect for others and get closer so we can get more people lined up and through the light to keep tragic flowing?

Jay Burkey
I do it from riding a motorcycle I give myself plenty of space in the case the idiot behind me doesn’t stop

Brian Vee
Depth perception is one. Cell phone use is another.

Liz Pearce
To make the cars behind it miss the light

Gary Vanover
I do it just to aggravate the person behind me!

Denver7 Traffic Expert Jayson Luber says he has been covering Denver-metro traffic since Ben-Hur was driving a chariot. (We believe the actual number is over 25 years.) He's obsessed with letting viewers know what's happening on their drive and the best way to avoid the problems that spring up. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or listen to his Driving You Crazy podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Spotify or Podbean.