A Modern Mystery: Why Hang Back at Stoplights?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 14, 2015

Dear Car Talk:

I seem to be missing something lately that I can't figure out! There appears to be an epidemic of drivers who, when stopped at stoplights, insist on leaving one, two and sometimes even three car lengths between themselves and the car in front of them! It is not just old folks like myself, either. Is there some benefit to their cars that people believe in, that I have never heard of? I don't know of any!

-- Jim

Since you're an old guy, I'll fill you in on what these people are doing, Jim: They're texting.

Most people under 60 years of age these days, given a fraction of a second of free time, will reach for their phones. And if they discover that no one has tried to reach them, they'll try to reach someone else. If that fails, they'll start checking Facebook. Or Tinder.

It's like in the old days, when you used to walk out to your mailbox during the day to see if the postman had come yet. But it's like doing that 500 times a day.

So when they find themselves with 20 or 30 seconds (i.e., an eternity) at a red light, people can't resist the urge to engage with other humans on their smartphones. And while they're engrossed in answering a probing question like "Where r u?" ("I'm two blocks from the last place I texted you"), they don't notice that the car ahead of them moves up a few car lengths.

Interestingly, I recently drove a Subaru Outback that lets you know when the car in front of you starts moving. It's part of Subaru's Eye-Sight system, which actually is designed for crash detection, but they've cleverly added a "Hey, knucklehead ... it's time to go!" warning. When you're stopped in traffic, and it detects that the car in front of you has moved more than a few feet, it beeps to wake you up from your Candy Crush trance and remind you to get moving.

It's a sensible use of a new technology. I mean, how many times have you been waiting for a left-turn arrow to turn green, only to have the person in front of you be lost in an iPhone trance? Then you honk, and they take off just in time to make it through the light themselves, leaving you to wait through another light cycle.

Which is OK, actually, because then you have 30 more seconds to check your phone.


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