It’s a familiar scenario – a driver is following too closely to the vehicle in front of them, and the leading car’s driver pumps their brakes as a sign to back off. This is commonly known as brake checking, and it happens fairly often on California roads. While this practice is most often done as a response to aggressive tailgating and in an effort to prevent accidents, brake checking can often cause accidents. It is dangerous to step on the brakes suddenly and without cause, but is this aggressive driving tactic illegal in California?

Aggressive Driving

There are many driving behaviors that can be classified as aggressive, such as speeding, changing lanes erratically, and passing illegally. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), aggressive driving is when motorists commit traffic offenses in ways that endanger others. Some of the most common types of aggressive driving include the following:

  • Speeding
  • Driving on the shoulder, sidewalk, or median
  • Failing to yield the right of way
  • Failing to obey traffic signs
  • Following too closely
  • Making improper turns

Aggressive driving behavior is not easily quantified, but data suggests that at least 6,300 people died in accidents involving careless, erratic, or reckless driving in 2020. The number of accidents involving aggressive driving has been getting higher year after year. Theories about the cause of this include the increasing speed limits around the country and worsening traffic congestion. Higher speeds lead to deadlier crashes, and traffic congestion is the most common factor leading to aggressive driving behavior.

Advice on dealing with reckless or aggressive drivers usually involves tips like staying calm, not engaging with the upset motorist, and letting them pass as safely as possible. However, sometimes avoidance is difficult, if not impossible, especially when the other driver becomes increasingly angry. Road rage is an extreme form of aggressive driving that is a punishable act in California, but are other driving behaviors deemed aggressive also illegal? They can be.

California Law and Brake Checking

Brake checking may seem like an innocent thing to do when someone is following too closely, but it can have severe consequences. California Vehicle Code states that reducing your speed is only acceptable if it’s necessary for the safe operation of your vehicle or in order to comply with the law. Specifically, the Code says that “no person shall drive upon a highway at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic unless” it is for safety or compliance purposes.

Brake checking can qualify as violating this law because the car is slowing for reasons that are not listed as acceptable. It may be illegal to brake check in some circumstances, and it could lead to traffic tickets, car accidents, and civil liability. Brake checking is illegal in California if the police or California Highway Patrol determine that one of the drivers involved in an accident tapped, pumped, or slammed the brakes simply to warn the driver behind them to back up.

This does not mean that tailgating is an acceptable behavior. In fact, following too closely to the vehicle in front of you can also result in tickets, accidents, and liability. California Vehicle Code prohibits motorists from following other vehicles more closely than is reasonable and prudent. The difficulty with both the tailgating and brake checking rules is that they can be applied somewhat subjectively. How close is too close? Was tapping the brakes necessary at that time? These questions are challenging to prove.

Tailgating, Brake Checking, and Accidents

Aside from the traffic tickets that could result from aggressive driving behaviors like brake checking and tailgating, car accidents can easily occur on California streets, which means drivers should take extra precautions to drive safely. Los Angeles and San Francisco were both included on the list of the ten U.S. cities with the worst traffic in 2022. High speed limits and heavy traffic contribute to accidents in California, especially involving aggressive driving behaviors.

If an accident does occur, liability for the injuries and damage will likely fall on at least one of the involved drivers. Determining whether fault will lie with the driver following too closely or the driver who brake checked is complex and difficult. In most circumstances and as a general rule, in a rear-ending accident, the driver in the second vehicle is considered responsible.

While drivers do have a duty to keep a safe distance away from the vehicle in front of them, that does not mean that the leading driver in such an accident can never be liable. Brake checking can be an exception to the rear-end accident standard if it can be proven. The court will decide which driver caused the accident and who will be held responsible for the damages.

Again, avoiding aggressive drivers is the best option. However, techniques like maintaining a safe, steady speed and allowing the other driver to pass cannot prevent every accident. If you’ve been injured in a brake checking accident in California, call the Accident Network Law Group. We offer free consultations, so reach out to one of our locations today for help.