Tailgating in America means having a party at a football game with the tailgate of your pick-up truck folded down. That’s not what we’re talking about here – tailgating in Aussie parlance is the act of driving too closely to the vehicle in front of you. As in, you’re driving right on the lead vehicle’s tailgate.

  • Tailgating, or following a lead vehicle too closely, is an offence in most Australian jurisdictions
  • Fines and demerit points apply 
  • There are suggestions for keeping a safe distance – and hardly anyone seems to abide by them

And not only is the act dangerous because it limits your stopping potential and increases the risk of an accident, it’s also an illegal act across almost all states and territories in Australia, and there are sizable penalties to pay.

First, let’s consider what “tailgating” might look like in practice. Each of the Australian jurisdictions offers advice on what is broadly labelled a “safe following distance”. 

As a rule of thumb, the suggestion is that you should keep “at least 3 seconds’ distance between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you”.

How do you measure that? Keep an eye on the vehicle ahead, pick out a marker as the lead vehicle passes it, and then count out “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand”. If you reach the same marker before you finish saying that, you’re too close.

That’s the suggestion, anyway. In reality, you might find that is impossible, especially on freeways where other drivers seemingly think they should be positioned in whatever gap there is between other vehicles.

According to the NSW Government: “Reaction time is the time a driver needs to see and understand a situation, decide on a response, and then start to take action. A driver who is fit and alert and not affected by alcohol, drugs or fatigue, needs about 1.5 seconds to react to a hazard. At higher speeds it increases to about 2.5 seconds.

“Response time is the time a driver needs to take action. Most people need at least 1.5 seconds to respond, for example, to brake.”

And beyond that, different conditions affect response times, with the NSW Government stating that drivers should increase their crash avoidance space “to four or more seconds when driving in poor conditions, such as on unsealed (dirt or gravel), icy or wet roads, or at night”.

With that in mind, having a penalty for not keeping a safe distance seems a logical thing. And every state and territory in Australia has such a rule. Here’s a rundown of each:

  • New South Wales has the biggest penalty of all states and territories in Australia for tailgating. General driving offences rule 126: “Drive behind other vehicle too closely to stop safely” can result in a massive $464 fine, and three demerit points. For context, that’s a similar penalty to what you’d cop for speeding 10-20 km/h over the limit!
  • Victoria uses the wording “fail to drive sufficient distance behind a vehicle”, and it can see the offender cop one demerit point and a fine of up to $248.
  • South Australia has two “Tailgating” rules: “Fail to keep safe distance behind other vehicles” – $372 fine and one demerit, while there’s also a rule around keeping a “minimum distance behind a long vehicle”, which attracts a $270 fine and one point.
  • Queensland has a slightly different take on things, with the rules stating that drivers should keep “at least two seconds” distance between their car and the vehicle ahead in “ideal” conditions, or 4-6 seconds in adverse conditions. If you’re found to be doing the wrong thing – in other words, to be “following too closely to the vehicle in front”, you could be handed a $335 fine and one demerit point.
  • Western Australia also prescribes to the “two seconds” if the conditions permit following distance strategy, though anyone found to be “failing to follow a vehicle at a safe distance” may be fined $200 and cop two demerit points.
  • In Tasmania, the wording is “follow another vehicle too closely to stop safely”, which can attract one demerit point and a $181 fine.
  • In the ACT, if you are found to “drive behind other vehicle too closely to stop safely”, you might find yourself the recipient of a $407 fine and one demerit point.
  • Northern Territory doesn’t have a specific tailgating rule, or anything describing following too closely to the vehicle ahead, though the Northern Territory Government does recommend the “three-second rule” for following distance in fine conditions, or six seconds if the road is wet or slippery. Additionally, “the driver of a long vehicle (longer than 7.5 metres, including vehicles towing caravans) must not follow behind another long vehicle at a distance closer than 200 metres”. 

Not intended as legal advice. Check with the relevant roads authority in your state or territory.

Matt Campbell
Matt Campbell is a Senior Contributor at CarExpert.
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