Stopping in Traffic

Whilst learning to drive you will or perhaps already have been in many situations where you are driving on busy congested roads. Constantly stopping and starting in traffic.

Driving in busy towns and cities also constantly requires stopping and starting due to many traffic systems, notably traffic lights. Stopping in traffic may sound simple enough and on the whole, it generally is.

There is however a right and wrong way of doing it all of which the examiner will be keeping a keen eye on during your driving test. Let’s take a look at the correct way of stopping in traffic and the common mistakes made during a driving test.

The correct method for stopping in traffic starts well before you stop with anticipation and planning. This along with where you stop is a basic form of defensive driving. Defensive driving offers the driver the ability to have complete awareness of their surroundings, providing better control of their vehicle which significantly reduces the possibility of an accident. Although generally associated with advanced driving, you can call it defensive driving light if you like.

Anticipation for an example can be that you are driving along a town road and well ahead you see what appears a junction controlled by traffic lights. Upon initial acknowledgement of the light they are green and as you get closer they still have not changed. You can then anticipate them changing to green.

Another example is as you are driving, further down the road you can see a pedestrian crossing with a person waiting at them. Chances are, by the time you reach the crossing, the lights will change. Anticipation is what makes driving a whole lot easier. When you can predict a situation then it no longer becomes a surprise and surprises are not pleasant when it comes to driving.

As you have no anticipated a situation, you can now plan for it. This can be to prepare to stop for that pedestrian crossing for example. In plenty of time, take a glance into the rear view mirror, no one driving too close behind you so you can begin to ease off the accelerator in good time and gently brake to a stop.

Anticipation and planning is there for the most important aspect of stopping in traffic. Now for the actual stopping part. It’s important not to stop too close behind another vehicle. There’s little point in providing an actual numerical distance as there is no way of gauging this whilst driving, especially for a learner. So a simple rule can be applied; tyres and tarmac rule.

Tyres and tarmac rule

Very simply, as you are slowing down preparing to stop behind another vehicle, stop your car so you can still see all of the tyres of the vehicle in front, plus a bit of tarmac – roughly around 2 – 3 metres or so. Nothing technical, just that simple. Using the tyres and tarmac rule isn’t by any means accurate, but offers a learner driver a technique to gauge a safe stopping distance behind another vehicle whilst queuing in traffic.

Tyres and tarmac rule
Tyres and tarmac rule. Stop behind a vehicle so that you can see their rear tyres and a good 2 or 3 metres or so of tarmac, illustrated by the red shaded area.

This depends on a few things such as your height, height of your car, types of vehicle you are stopping behind, but generally, it will provide a safe distance.

But does it really matter? The majority of the time no, not really. Reasons of benefit can be a vehicle braking down in front of you. This will allow you enough room to manoeuvre round the vehicle to continue. Sometimes a vehicle in front may roll backwards, especially on a steep slope if they’re not too great at hill starts or on a slight unnoticeable slope they may roll backwards without realising. The tyres and tarmac rule will provide enough distance to take these situations into account.

It may however even save your life in your driving career. Rear collision impacts are all too common and are the result of a driver definitely not anticipating and planning and may have their attention elsewhere such as using a mobile phone.

If you glance into your rear view mirror and notice a vehicle travelling towards your stationary car with little or no intention of slowing or stopping, the last thing you want is to be unable to move out of the way due to being stopped too close to the vehicle in front. It’s highly unlikely you’ll have time to reverse and move off.

So stopping too close to other vehicles not only shuts off any escape routes in the event of an emergency, but is something that done consistently during a driving test could likely result in a failure.

Stopping in traffic and the driving test

During a driving test the examiner isn’t going to get out their tape measure (yes they have one) every time you stop too close to a vehicle in front. They are highly experienced and can gauge what is deemed too close or even too far.

Try to stick to the tyres and tarmac rule and if you get a little close on 1 or 2 occasions you should be fine. Just don’t make a habit of it and if you feel you are too close then make a verbal note of it to the examiner so they are aware that you realise your mistake. Similarly, don’t stop too far back either. This is dangerous as a vehicle behind you may not be expecting you to stop so soon and may force them to brake harshly.

13 thoughts on “Stopping in Traffic”

  1. liz


    when at the traffic light, and about to head on straight when light shows green, is it necessary to carry out the 6-point mirror observation before moving off? i.e. from left blind spot all through to right blind spot?

    Thanks Liz

  2. Hello Liz,
    Generally it’s not necessary. Just before moving off at the lights, a quick look into your mirrors to check if there’s any cyclists or motorcyclists coming alongside is usually sufficient. If it happens to be a particularly busy and hectic junction with cyclists and motorcyclists around, you then might want to consider checking the left and right blind spots along with your mirrors if you’re not confident what’s around you.

    Essentially you need to know what’s around as much as possible, so use your judgement based on the conditions.

  3. liz

    Thank you very much

  4. Liz Hammond

    I was pulling away from traffic lights only just in 2nd gear when suddenly the car in front stopped. I tried to swerve but couldnt so hit her, I then was hit at the rear. The lady apologised and admitted she thought she had indicated to turn right at the last minute. Am I at fault.

  5. Hello Liz,
    It is usually the the driver at the rear (in this case yourself) who is at fault in these circumstances. You simply didn’t leave enough room to stop in time. However, due to extenuating circumstances and the lady admitting she failed to indicate (providing she keeps to this), then it may be for the insurance companies to argue over – perhaps assign 50/50 blame.

  6. Mark

    My son is learning to drive and I have a difference of opinion regarding applying the hand brake and putting the car in neutral when it is likely the car will be stationary for a time, eg over 60 seconds. I personally find it more relaxing to drop into neutral after applying the brake and relaxing both legs. I also feel there is less likelyhood of the left foot slipping off of the clutch or the right leg easing on the brake. There is also alot less wear and tear on the clutch.

  7. Hello Mark,
    Yes agreed, putting the car into neutral and applying the hand brake for longer stationary periods is a good idea and is generally safer. It can sometimes be a little difficult though for learners to gauge this correctly with all that’s going on and get a little panicked and stall if they do this only to move off again quickly. There’s a little more on when to use the hand brake while stopping in traffic.

  8. Mary Anne

    I’m from the US and have passed my UK theory test. I’ve been driving an automatic for more than forty years, and I’ve never used the handbrake at a light. Once my car is in drive I keep it there till I shift to either park or reverse. At a light, I simply keep my foot on the brake and keep the car in gear. Will I be expected to use this technique that seems highly unusual for a driver of an automatic car?

  9. Hi Mary,
    It’s not something that’s mandatory in either manual or automatic, but if you think you’re going to be stationary for a while in a queue of traffic (which is probably not too likely), then securing the vehicle with the handbrake or selecting park (P) may be considered a little safer. Also irrelevant to the driving test, but when driving at night, securing the vehicle and removing your foot from the brake pedal reduces glare for the occupants in vehicle behind you.

  10. Lucy

    What is the procedure for stopping at lights or in traffic regarding breaking, gears etc. Do you go down through the gears until you finally stop and then hand break and neutral or use the breaks and clutch?

  11. Hi Lucy,
    You generally don’t go down through all the gears these days, though you might block change down one or two gears. For example, if you’re coming to a stop and you’re in 5th gear, you might go into 3rd, then into 1st gear just before stopping. If you’re in 3rd when slowing down, you can block change directly into 1st gear just before stopping. You should be a able to do this from 4th gear too. All cars are a little different, so listen to the engine as to clue whether you need to change down a gear.

    Rather than going down through all the gears, we use engine braking to slow the car. Cover the brake and clutch (engine braking) and use the brake to slow the vehicle rather than the gears.

    Just before you stop, put it into 1st gear. When stopped, keep your foot firmly on the footbrake and then apply the handbrake. You can then take your foot off the footbrake and prepare for moving off again. No need to select neutral unless you think you’ll be stopped for a long time.

  12. Martin Castleman

    Any tips for driving test requirements when taking test in an EV ?

    when stopped in traffic select Neutral and apply parking brake ect ?

    any advice relating to EV test is appreciated

  13. Hi Martin,
    An electric car is of course automatic, so other than ensuring you have sufficient charge for the driving test and to get home, you would treat everything else as an automatic driving test. In regards to using the parking brake, setting neutral / park etc, there are no specific rules, so it really comes down to specific circumstances. When stopping in traffic, for the majority of time you will simply hold the car still by using the footbrake. If you think you’re going to be in for a bit of a longer wait than normal, you can apply the parking brake (still being in drive is fine) for a little added security. A longer wait again, then you can put the car into neutral and set the parking brake. It’s really how you judge each situation that you encounter.

    Try to avoid overuse of the parking brake / neutral as it may affect your time for moving off, causing too much of a delay, so only use it in specific situations. You’ll generally only use Park (P) when you pull up at the side of the road.

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