The Magic Bubble: Maintaining A Safety Cushion Around Your Vehicle (2023)

I’ve written a lot recently about the importance of maintaining a safe following distance; I’m sure I will continue to harp on this very important point in later entries as well. So, I’d like to take a moment to clarify the concept of a “space cushion” and explain in greater detail how to maintain one around your car.

I visualize a “space cushion” as a giant airbag surrounding my car, or perhaps a magic bubble like the one Glinda the Good Witch uses for transportation in The Wizard of Oz. Basically, a space cushion is the empty space that separates your car from any potential hazards: other moving cars, parked cars, trees, road barriers, etc. This empty space gives you time to see, react to, and avoid any problem that may arise on the road around you. You need to maintain a space cushion in front of, behind, and on both sides of your car; I’ll cover each of areas in turn.


You can use the “three second rule” to make sure that you are maintaining a safe following distance, especially on the highway. Note when the car ahead of you passes a certain marker, perhaps a particular tree or shadow on the road. Then, begin to count: “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three.” You should finish saying this before your car passes the marker. If not, then you need to slow down a bit to increase your following distance.

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In general, most of us are probably used to driving too close to the vehicle ahead of us. As a result, this three-second space may seem abnormally large. However, imagine the car in front of you were to stop suddenly; how much space would you need to stop safely?

Say you are traveling at 60 mph, on a dry road, and are alert. In the time it takes you to react to the car stopping, you will cover 132 feet; you will need another 160 feet to come to a full stop. If you are traveling at 80 mph, you will need almost 500 feet to react and come to a stop. As you can see, the three-second space is definitely necessary!

Remember that when you are tired or otherwise distracted, you’ll need more time to react. If the conditions are less than ideal, it will take longer for your vehicle to come to a stop (particularly if it icy.) In these situations, you’ll want to add time to your following distance. For information on specific conditions (ice, snow, rain, fog, etc.), check out some of my earlier blog entries on these topics.

In heavy traffic, it can be tempting to reduce your following distance. However, this is the most important time to maintain an appropriate front cushion, as heavy traffic can slow down or stop suddenly for no apparent reason.

It’s also important to maintain a large following distance behind trucks, which can limit your field of vision, and motorcycles, which may be able to stop more quickly than you can. Also, try to be aware of other driver’s blind spots and avoid staying in this position for too long. Not everyone knows this handy trick for eliminating your blind spot.

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Should someone cut you off on a road, don’t react in anger. Instead, take your foot off the accelerator in order to regain a safe following distance. Letting go of minor annoyances like this one will not only keep you safe, but will also reduce the stress of driving and help you to have a happier and more peaceful trip.

You also need to maintain a front safety cushion when you are stopped at a light or stop sign, or in traffic. First, remember that the car in front of you may have manual, rather than automatic transmission; as a result, the car may roll slightly (or a lot, depending on the skill of the driver) when starting to move, especially if you are an incline. Second, you need to give yourself enough space to pull out from behind the vehicle in front of you should the car in front of you stall or otherwise fail to start. Basically, make sure that you always leave yourself enough room for an “escape route,” if this becomes necessary.


While this part of your safety cushion may seem a bit out of your control, there are a few steps you can take to diffuse potential tailgating hazards.

First of all, don’t get angry. While tailgaters can be annoying and frustrating, keep in mind that you never know why someone is tailgating you. Always extend the benefit of the doubt—maybe he or she is rushing to the hospital with a medical emergency. Acting on this assumption will help you to stay calm and respectful, instead of trying to “teach them a lesson” by braking suddenly or something along those lines. Be the bigger person!

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Next, if someone is tailgating you, increase your following distance by one or two seconds. Basically, you want enough space for both you and the tailgater to be able to react to a sudden stop or other hazard ahead. When it is safe to do so, either move to a right-hand lane (if possible) to allow the tailgater to pass, or slow down a bit more that he or she can pass you safely.

Remember that traffic tends to move in packs or waves on the highway. If possible, try to stay in one of the gaps between packs, so that you are in a fairly open space on the road. Also, remember to stay in the right hand lane if you are traveling slower than the speed of traffic. People often become annoyed with, and then tailgate, cars that are moving a bit too slowly for the lane they are in.


Always make sure there is free space on both sides of your car as well. First, drive in the center of the lane at all times. Make sure to check periodically to make sure that you are still in the center of the lane and haven’t drifted to one side or the other.

When approaching a narrow gap, say, a one-way street lined with parked cars, slow down until you’ve made sure that there’s enough space for you to pass. Then, proceed slowly.

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Also, be aware of those you share the road with, particularly cyclists and pedestrians. Give cyclists a wide berth when passing them. Imagine the amount of space that would be taken up by bicycle and rider if lying horizontal on the street; then, use this space to calculate your passing distance—around two yards. Remember that bicyclists do wobble sometimes!

Finally, try to keep clear space on both of sides of you when driving on a multi-lane road. As I mentioned above, finding “gaps” in the traffic flow is often a good way to do so.

With your magic bubble in place, you’ll be far less likely to end up in a minor fender bender or a major collision! You’ll also reduce the likelihood that other people’s bad driving will have a negative impact on you and your car.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.

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