Brake Checking – Dumb and Dangerous

Q: I am seeing more and more brake checking going on. People doing the brake checking feel they wont be responsible at all if they get rear ended. That’s usually the case, but when you brake check aren’t you also an aggressive driver at that point?

A: For those who are not familiar with the term “brake check”, I’ll start by explaining it. In this scenario, it’s not the regular inspection of one of the critical safety system in your car. Instead, we’re discussing a driver who tries to dissuade a tailgater by slamming on the brakes.

The Washington Department of Licensing includes the brake check as one of the behaviors symptomatic of aggressive driving and road rage. Their list also includes tailgating, the action that typically precedes the brake check. As you can imagine, combining an aggressive tailgater with an aggressive brake checker can result in disaster.

Usually, when a rear-end collision occurs, we presume that the car doing the rear-ending is at fault. That’s because the law expects drivers to follow at a distance that leaves room to react to what happens ahead. You may be familiar with the two second rule. It’s not the rule about picking up food off the floor. (That’s the five second rule.) Two seconds is the minimum (and I mean minimum) following distance that leaves time and space to react and maneuver. Three or four seconds is better. Usually a rear-end crash is caused by violating the two second rule.

However, there was a case in Washington where a driver was charged with vehicular homicide for a brake check. Actually, the brake check was the last of a series of dangerous maneuvers, likely influenced by alcohol. The drivers of two cars had engaged in a variety of aggressive and reckless driving behaviors, including speeding, erratic driving, tailgating and brake checking. The scene ended tragically when the driver in the front car slammed on his brakes; the following car had no time to maneuver and crashed into the lead car, killing a passenger in the second car.

Tailgaters are dangerous and annoying. You won’t get any argument from me on that. But responding to tailgaters with an action that increases the likelihood of a crash is not a good solution. There are already enough jerks in cars; no reason to make yourself another one with the brake check.

In the past, investigating a read-end collision depended on the statements of the involved drivers, and the car doing the rear-ending usually ended up with the ticket. But when everyone who owns a smart phone automatically owns a video camera, there is always the possibility of getting your driving behavior captured on video. For evidence of that, a quick Youtube search will bring up pages of crashes and near misses. Brake checking a tailgater seems to me like a willful disregard for the safety of another person, which fits the description of reckless driving. Drive like a camera is watching you, because it just might be. That video evidence could result in being charged with a crime, along with becoming an internet sensation for all the wrong reasons.

But how about instead of a full-on brake check, just tapping the brakes to flash the brake lights at the tailgater? Certainly it’s less dangerous than slamming on your brakes, and it might get the attention of the car behind you. But after a while it can also result in a “boy who cried wolf” scenario. Have you ever driven behind a driver that rests a left foot on the brake pedal? When the car ahead has frequent, or sometimes steady, brake lights while not actually slowing down, brake lights become almost meaningless.

Instead, take the high road (which in this case is probably the right lane or maybe the shoulder). Report dangerous drivers with a vehicle description and license plate, if possible. I know there isn’t always a cop when you need one, but if you’ve ever reported a dangerous driver, and then been witness to that driver’s apprehension a few miles down the road, you know it’s a kind of satisfaction of which few things compare.



  1. Doug, please, knock off the notion that reporting dangerous drivers to police will get a positive response.

    They don’t want to hear about it. They won’t do anything about it. I know, I’ve made the attempt, repeatedly.

    And your traffic safety bosses in Olympia won’t respond, as they promise, to email questions and points of view. I’ve tried that too.

    While your Feb. 20, 2017, piece in the Bellingham Herald is right on–arguing that avoidance of tailgaiters is good and brake checking is bad–it fails to capture the enormity of the problem in Bellingham and Whatcom Co.

    I’m guessing, perhaps just hoping, you’re sitting on some significant data about tailgaiting accidents. Report it, please.

    Here’s a real solution to tailgaiting: Slow the speed limit to 50 from 60 on I-5 through Bellingham and patrol for speed and tailgaiting.

    Slow those big rigs that come thundering down the pike, and ticket the buffoons who drive too fast and too close.

    Doug, I get it that the Herald probably requires a sweet touch to your entries, but I suggest you introduce some spice.


  2. i have a different solution to tailgaters. I do NOT hit the brakes. I just gradually slow down until they pass me. That always works, without the danger of abruptly braking.

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